project statement

Following the success of her breakthrough show Concilium Plebis, where Emma examined UK street culture through the prism of Renaissance art, HEREDITY sees the artist turn the brush on herself - or rather on her heritage. While working on her 2010 book, 'From Pigfarmers and Showgirls'. she uncovered dark and sometimes violent family secrets and legends which moved her to look deeper, through dusty photo albums and forgotten family ephemera. Using these as source material she has created an evocative new body of work.


Alongside her hyper-real oil paintings which have toured all over the UK and abroad, she has developed intricate and sensitive pencil drawings, each on antique pieces of paper and card speckled and browned with age, mounted in vitrine-like frames, reminiscent of botanical specimens.

HEREDITY is Emma Tooth's attempt to understand her own origins.

Much of the new work focuses on recurring subjects such as Emma's paternal grandmother ('Queen Bee') or the extraordinarily time-ravaged features of her maternal grandfather, ('The Man With The Fish In His Eyes') whose face is a tribute to a lifetime of sun and cigarette abuse. Particularly moving are the sensitive portrayals of Emma's father both as a cheeky young lad ('Tuppence') and later as an older man. 'Howie's Hands' portrays Emma's father, inspired by the character in his talented woodworking hands and her childhood memories of "helping" him saw wood on old trestles by sitting on them to stop them wobbling.


Another, more ephemeral, figure also drifts through the series; that of Emma's great-grandfather Cyril who, unlike the other subjects of the pictures, she never got to meet because he was killed at sea by a German U-boat long before she, or even her parents were born. Very few photographs survive of Cyril and there is little information available about him. His image appears, ghostlike, on the cover of an antique book which Emma has deliberately never read; she glued the book closed and sealed it inside a box-frame. She was inspired by the idea that when a person dies it is like a book filled with the information and experiences a person gathers in their lifetime - or rather a huge library full of such books - is irrevocably destroyed and the information is lost forever.


Another impetus for the series were recurring experiences Emma has as a working portrait painter. Often, on seeing their commissioned portrait, a client will become quite emotional because not only can they see themselves in the painting Emma has created for them, but they report that they can see their own father or their grandfather in the painting, hidden in their own features. People who have passed away long ago and whom Emma has never seen or met; yet just through those features their appearance can inadvertently come through so clearly. Additionally, while she paints, Emma finds herself looking not just at her father as a boy, but in him she can see herself, her sister, her cousins - all these resemblances, and she can watch how the same person's features have altered over the 50 years or more between the old tattered black and white photographs and the modern digital ones she takes herself in her studio as her source material.


With such depth of character, these 'maps of experience' engage and challenge the artist irresistibly, providing an opportunity to push her formidable technique further and lend her licence to revel in the qualities of flesh, skin - and indeed the paint itself - as never before.