Clare Twomey's new exhibition at the Harley Gallery in Nottinghamshire blurs the lines in a fascinating manner: where does the art stop and the gallery begin? Lilias Wigan paid a visit.

Clare Twomey’s exhibition Half in Shadow: Half in Light, at the Harley Gallery in Welbeck forms part of The Grand Tour, a multi-venue partnership that highlights the art and cultural treasures of the Midlands. The artist has revived the tradition of the lithopane – a slither of porcelain, the decoration of which is seen when held to light, which became popular in 16th-century France – and has created an intimate series of monochrome photographic portraits of Welbeck Estate employees.

Taken by the history of this great estate, Twomey unpicks the importance of Welbeck’s legacy. Over a year ago, she began probing the inner workings of estate life to understand the dynamics of the businesses today and to create artworks that respond to its environment.

Twomey met local residents and encouraged some of them to have their portraits taken. She was moved by the strong generational identity within the community; many were born on the estate and remain working there, while others have lived and worked there for over a decade.

The photographs are transferred onto the reverse of wafer-thin porcelain tiles in a challenging process that pushes the medium to extremes.  ‘It’s like holding a crisp,’ Twomey remarks; she is still perfecting the advanced ceramic technology.

The Harley Gallery – Clare Twomey's lithophanes, part of The Grand Tour

She began with 40 lithopanes and finished with just 10. The key to the display is that they appear blank until illuminated, at which point the image emerges through the porcelain with an ethereal glow.

The subjects are presented in their working environments. Claire and James are shown in the brewery, a business that began at Welbeck in the 16th century, when water was not safe for consumption. The original brewery closed in the 19th century, but they have brought back a forgotten process, re-integrated it and are now producing award winning local beers.

In another photograph, Robin, the Managing Director, is pictured in front of the late Victorian golf course, which became a tank training ground during the Second World War. He has devoted 35 years of his working life to the complicated management of Welbeck.

Different layers of the community are brought together, showing how each works with the other to regenerate lost processes in a sustainable way. Descriptions are projected onto the floor, encouraging viewers to familiarise themselves with the stories.

The Harley Gallery – Clare Twomey's lithophanes, part of The Grand Tour

The arrangement of the portraits directly opposite one another – each nestled in an alcove and revealed by spotlight – provides a space for dialogue with their counterparts. The portraits of these people lessen the distance between history and the estate today. Twomey relishes the idea that in order to progress into the future, you must shed light on the past.

Although deeply rooted in the history of the estate, the pictures have a timeless quality and are vigorously about the now. They shed light on the often overlooked past, but also express profoundly the artist’s concerns about the people of Welbeck and their role in its future.