Duck Bigarade or Dirk Bogarde?

If you’ve persisted this far, you may remember that I have an unfortunate addiction to The Archers on Radio 4. I’ve got all the podcasts going back to 2008 and I listen to (and shout at them) when I’m working. The programme has frequently provided inspiration dealing as it does with methods of farm and food production; sustainable and unsustainable.

A phrase has been playing around in my interior monologue.

Jack and Peggy Woolley ( a genuinely unlikeable couple who bobbed up far too often as far as I was concerned) used to share a joke about Duck Bigarade. One evening, when she told him they were having Duck Bigarade for dinner, he said ‘Dirk Bogarde’? Peggy has never known if he genuinely misheard, was making a joke, or really thought that’s what it was called. Ever since then, when they had duck, or he saw duck on the menu, he’d say ‘Dirk Bogarde tonight’. I think we were meant to think this was adorable, but personally, I found it gut wrenchingly obvious and unfunny.

Anyway, Duck Bigarade has been bothering me. So much so that I woke up from a dream of duck bothering oranges and knew I had to make a sculpture about it. And that despite the fact the only time I tried duck I found it vilely greasy and I don’t like meat combined with fruit at any time (well I don’t really like meat at all to be honest).

This is a painting called “The White Duck” by Jean Baptiste Oudry. Now I thought it worthy of inclusion because it was the original cover of “French Provincial Cookery” by Elizabeth David, and she has much to say about duck in that quintessential food bible of the !970’s. I want to add more about Miss David, and I will in a later post. There is also a fascinating mystery about the painting and I will deal with that elsewhere too.

Talking of the 70’s, I should mention that I was thinking of those ornamental centrepieces that were very popular then. There was a shop called Casa Pupo that was particularly dear to my heart, I couldn’t afford any of their stuff but I could dream. This is a typical piece.

I wanted to replicate the ducks so I found a suitable piece to take a cast from.

Once I had made the mould it was easy to produce many ducks (and oranges).

I arranged them on a ceramic tazza that I found in Tayside Recycling centre. I had a lot of help in the studio from certain furry friends.

I made a central orange with extra beaks.

I was actually quite pleased with how this piece turned out (which is frequently NOT the case) and I’m now planning a series of tazza/ ornamental food pieces.

If they are even half as good as Mrs Beeton’s I shall be well pleased!

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Ah, love. Let us be true to one another. *

You must have realised by now that I like puns. And root vegetables. I don’t think the two are incompatible.

I began working on the Vegetable Tortures just before I went to EKWC* and the turnip on the right was a small tryout piece that I made in the first week. I don’t like it very much. It was quite unsettling being in a strange, large and bare studio in a new country, wanting to make the most of the time but not yet in a working ‘groove’.

I had been tinkering with radishes and mackerels just before I left Scotland so I decided to pick up where I left off. Beetroots seemed like a possibility, being both red and (usually) globular.


And of course it does me an opportunity to post some more delicious designs from Kenny B. (Love the fact that the beetroots above have writers’ names.

And here’s another for good measure.

Well I made a few attempts at this. I have developed a way of working where I sometimes fire the base vegetable, leaving holes for the inserts and then add them later. In this case I had made the original turnip in the Netherlands but didn’t have time to finish it, so I fired it so I could ship it home in one piece.

When they are fired again the inserts are securely fixed into the original form. I don’t always use this method, the beetroot below was made more conventionally. I work on a small kiln shelf so I can move delicate pieces easily without breakages. The newspaper is to stop wet clay sticking; it burns off in the kiln.

I used a mixture of underglaze colours and oxides.

I’ve made a number of these small pieces and they mostly reside in my cabinet of curiosities.

  • From Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold
  • European Ceramic Workcentre, I did a three month residency there in 2017
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Soft Words Butter No Parsnips.

They say soft words butter no parsnips.


Nevertheless this gem from Kenny Be, whose work I have raved about before – check him out here   is ‘tender and true”.


But back to my own stuff and the never ending tortures. It’s the turn of the parsnip, a vegetable I had never tried until quite recently, even though my diet is mainly vegetarian. As a child they never featured with the Sunday roast but now I’m fond of them baked with butter (!) and rosemary, and modified with ponies.




You will recognise the ponies from Zebra Crossing – that’s the beauty of slip casting – there are so many possibilities.


I make a lot of false starts with my work. Originally I wanted centipedes on my parsnips and made a reasonable beginning.



There’s the work in progress but there was a little ‘mishap’ in the kiln. I had also been toying with scorpions and praying mantids and I still want to do something with them but in the short term I just gave in and used pound shop scorpions.





I suppose you could call it a budget torture: I was running out of time (and also out of patience) so I settled for a photo opportunity with plastic arthropods. The parsnip will endure.



I will do better. Meanwhile I will finish with another Kenny Be. I know it’s horse radish, not parsnips but the possibilities are endless.


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Zebra Crossing

 “ How far beyond zebra you go….” *


I still don’t know how far I can or will go with the Vegetable Tortures. Every time I think I’m finished with them something tickles my fancy. (Oooh Matron!) and I start to wonder how far beyond zebra I can go, to quote Dr Seuss.


The good doctor’s zebra doesn’t look much like the dazzlingly stylish animal that so bewitched Victor Vasarely.

Known as the ‘grandfather of Op Art’, the Hungarian artist Vasareli, used optical illusion decades before the short lived Optical Art movement of the 1960’s. ‘Zebras’ , one of his most famous pieces, was painted in 1937.

He was to return to the theme many times.The ceramic piece shown below was made in the 1970’s.

I have always wanted to ride a zebra but I understand they are very bad tempered and almost impossible to break to saddle. Perhaps it is best to play about with them with paint and clay.

The Ardmore Ceramic studio in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa has drawn deeply upon the rich diversity of African wildlife, including zebras. I mean to find out more about the artist behind this studio because they deserve a blog post all to themselves.

The fantastically exuberant quality of these pieces fill me with deep joy. These images are not the best but you get the idea.


Going back to my own zebras – I cast the head from a Wade Whimsy foal that I have had since childhood and grafted the slip cast multiples into yet another cabbage.

This is the piece after bisque firing and underglaze painting but not yet glaze fired.


1117F427-6652-45D5-BCE2-B235DE031621I used the horse head in a couple of other pieces which I don’t consider to be very successful.



How far beyond zebra will I go? I’m not sure yet but I keep thinking about marmosets and kinkajous, and my daughter in law tells me that sloths are the new big thing…….. oh, and cabbages are always good.


*On beyond Zebra, Dr Seuss, 1955, Random House








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Crambe Repetita (repetita): the return of the cabbage AND the flamingos.


A couple of years ago I quoted the Roman satirist Juvenal’s aphorism: occidit miseros crambe repetita magistros – literally cabbage repeated is the death of the wretched masters. Looks like I’m guilty myself.

This is a piece that I made when I was on Fine Art at Leeds Poly, more years ago than I care to remember. The original Pecking Order – apologies for the poor image quality – it’s a photograph of a photograph.


And there is this piece, Flamingo Croquet, that is part of a larger whole that is still not completed, but does have a goblin faced parrot.


Now the time seemed ripe for another Vegetable Torture and the flamingos just wouldn’t go away. I made this when I was on my Dutch residency at EKWC.



It was made (and fired) in several sections, which in part was responsible for its downfall.182D8025-B584-43BB-8D3D-A1304C6EAFFD

Because it was so delicate I bisqued the upper part so I could use it as a firm surface to work against while making the lower section. I do this quite often with delicate pieces. However, a problem cropped up when the second bisque firing accidentally went to a much higher temperature, causing the bisque ware to have a different colour and quality than the first fired pieces.


The kiln hall at the European Ceramic Workcentre (EKWC) in the Netherlands might be called a cathedral of kilns. It lays claim to the biggest kiln in western Europe and it has a team of technicians who are second to none, but ceramics is always an uncertain business and your work is literally tried by fire.


You can see parts of the cabbage and some flamingos on the bottom shelf, before the kiln (gas) was turned on. Unfortunately during the firing there was a software update which overruled the setting to a default position and the kiln over fired by 200 degrees centigrade.


If you look at the reading you will see that it went to 1200 but was set to go to 1060. All the pieces were over fired and unsuitable for the glazes I had painstakingly made.


To cut a long story short, the technicians (bless them) helped me make a new set of glaze because time was running out and I glaze fired the pieces anyway.


But I was not so content with the final result because the glaze on the bottom half of the cabbage does not match that of the top. Looks like I haven’t finished with flamingoes yet.


Or brassicas.

These marvellously bonkers seed packet designs are by Kenny B, an insanely talented graphic designer from Denver, Colorado. You can see more of his stuff here


The flamingos were made during a three month residency at Sunday Morning @EKWC in the Netherlands. The residency was funded in part by the Visual Artist and Craft Makers Award: Dundee in partnership with Creative Scotland. I am very grateful for their support

#VACMAScotland #VACMADundee #EKWC


Penelope Matheson


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We Come in Peas.


In another lifetime I used to work on the Kidz Field at Glastonbury festival. One of the many joys of the job was the magnificent quality and variety of the ambient performance artists.

I particularly remember a pair of extremely attractive young men whose act was called “We Come in Peas”. Unsurprisingly, they wore pea pod costumes and, I think, did a little light juggling with green balls. Unfortunately, I never took a photo of them and despite rigorous Googling I have failed to come up with any images.

But the memory lingers on. I do love a good pea pod.


I have already written about my fondness for vintage seed packets and I’m still meaning to make a post featuring some of my favourites, but back to the peas. It’s the actual pods that I favour, I actually can’t stomach the horrid little green cannonballs at all.

When I was an art student, I worked for Union Cold Storage in the summer holidays when the peas were being harvested. In case, you don’t know, peas must be processed very quickly after picking or they will start to ferment. A blanching process is used to stop this process and the smell is beyond anything I could have imagined. I liked the money I earned at the factory but have never willingly eaten a pea since.


But I do like the pods – the tendrils, the bulges, the splitting open, the dear little stems inside – what’s not to like? I’ve used the images more than once.

These rather vulval pea pods belong to my sculpture “Green Fuse” which is featured in an earlier post: Green fuse.

900E4FBB-CABD-4A9F-86EA-053BD0CD5345  08A59B53-7D15-4735-86FB-90BBA8025547

E3BEE2AD-1CD4-464E-9F6F-BBD662DDB1BB  F9B2FCEA-664E-45D1-910A-0939E2D9F5D9

I hadn’t finished with the peas or should I say, they hadn’t finished with me. When I was at EKWC in the Netherlands I returned to the theme.


This is “The Price of Peas in Persepolis” in progress. I was playing with alliteration at the time and looking for vegetable themed quotes as titles for my Vegetable Tortures series. Apparently “what’s that got to do with the price of?”  is an expression denoting an irrelevance or non sequitur in the current discussion. I borrowed it from Tamora Pierce’s novel The Realms of the Gods*, which I freely admit to having never read because it is the sort of dragon riding, elf surfing YA fantasy fiction that is not my cup of thick pea and ham soup.


The Price of Peas in Persepolis though – what a wonderful rollicking phrase – it fairly bubbles off the tongue.

Unfortunately these rather limited images are all I seem to have of this piece because I sold it in very short order.

But then I went on to make a whole series of pea related pieces.







See what I did there? You can knock up hundreds if you have a few slip moulds and a supply of nicely rolled out clay to hand.



Penelope Matheson



*   The Realms of the Gods. Tamora Pierce, 1996. Simon and Schuster

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The Man from Monsanto: he say no!



I don’t much like eating pineapples – they make my mouth hurt, but I do admire their stylish form. In a previous post I briefly mentioned Wedgwood pineapple and cauliflower ware and how  much I have been influenced by them.


I do think this coffee pot is most succulent with that perfect match of iron oxide honey and copper carbonate (with a hint of chrome oxide) green glaze. Thinking about pineapples and what I might do with them reminded me of this advert from the 1980’s  featuring the “Man From Del Monte”. In the (admittedly slightly racist) ad the man would visit villages to sample their fruit to see if they were good enough to be included in his company’s drinks. The tagline shouted jubilantly by a grateful peon was, “The man from Del Monte, he say ‘Yes!'”‘ it became somewhat of a catchphrase at the time.



I know it’s a bit crap but it makes  me snigger and, if you spend too much time thinking about genetically modified crops, it isn’t too big a mental leap to change Del Monte to Monsanto. And that started me thinking about what I could do to an unsuspecting pineapple.


I mean, it’s just asking to be tampered with, and then I found a dolly stuck in a bush behind a block of flats.


And here she is after I’ve done a little ‘surgery’ on her. Normally I never use doll imagery in my work, I see it too often in students’ work and frankly my dear, what can one do that Bellmer hasn’t done already?

But I thought I might allow myself a little fun. So I made some casts.



From there it was a simple matter to insert them into various vegetable forms.


I like the image above because it clearly shows the process, you can even see my finger marks where I have pressed the clay into place and the scored surface waiting for the next ‘scale’.


I used a very similar glaze technique to Wedgwood, with the addition of a flesh toned underglaze. I was quite pleased with the results.


And talking of pineapple influenced art work, what about these delicious looking pineapple creams? I might be tempted to break my no pineapple rule for them.


Or these divinely bonkers pineapple towers? I wish I lived in one.


Just like Spongebob Squarepants.


In the pineapple ocean no one can hear you scream.


Incidentally, the pineapple was eaten after I finished with it.


But not by me.


Penelope Matheson



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The Vegetable Tortures: Myxomatosis. (Trigger warning: contains distressing image)

IMG_0084Cauliflowers have proved a very fruitful design source for ceramics; the delicious texture of their creamy, curdy centre that contrasts so well with the emerald leaves has been an absolute gift to anyone who works with white earthenware and copper oxide. Who am to say otherwise?

I wanted to use a cauliflower in my Tortures partly because they are one of my absolute favourite vegetables (especially in curries) but also to follow in the proud tradition of Cauliflower ware.

Josiah Wedgwood was not too proud to include the humble cauliflower in his ceramic repertoire. You might know the name of Wedgwood for his famous Jasper ware – pale gods and goddesses gambolling on a matt blue background, like this mighty vase.

In his early years Wedgwood experimented with new coloured glazes, and one of his first achievements was the vivid green used on this coffee pot.

A very small part of early Wedgwood production are these naturalistic earthenware fruit and vegetable forms made around 1760. Cauliflower ware  had the lower part modelled to resemble the leaves, and was covered with a brilliant green glaze, derived from copper oxide.  The cauliflower head was either cream or yellow, using the natural colour of the clay.

Wedgwood wasn’t averse to a few pineapples either (neither am I but more of than to follow)! I think these two ginger jars are absolutely delicious.


Cauliflower seems an obvious choice to be tortured. My interest in how we produce our food and control pests that interfere with its production made me remember myxomatosis, a ghastly rabbit disease which was deliberately introduced into the UK in 1953 in an attempt to control wild rabbit populations. Affected rabbits develop skin tumours, and in some cases blindness, followed by fatigue and fever; they usually die within 14 days of contracting the disease. Unfortunately I’ve had the misfortune to see a few affected rabbits on Skye and they were not a pretty sight.


If I say that this is one of the least revolting pictures I found (and I’ve seen far worse in real life) you will understand what a vile disease this is. The worst part of it is that it doesn’t work, wild rabbits quickly developed an immunity to it and if the bunnies on my croft are anything to go by, they are even more rampant than ever.

So I set about making my own diseased cauliflower. And why the hell not? after all, I already have the bunnies.


I made a press mould from a real cauliflower. It was a simple matter to add the bunnies (as they were slip cast I had to allow for a different shrinkage rate so I slotted them in to precut holes rather than joining them. The glaze will hold them in place after the second firing.


The piece was painted with underglaze colours and oxides.




And for once, I’m quite pleased with the finished piece! I just wanted to add that a lot of my inspiration comes from seed packets. I’ve always loved them and I am not alone. This is what Betty MacDonald had to say about them in The Egg and I.*  I could have written it myself, only I’m not as witty and clever as Betty.

“I think seed catalogues are the most exciting things there are…… On gray soggy November days I pored over last year’s catalogues, and after an hour or two I could look out at the squishy landscape without shivering, for I could almost hear the hum of bees, feel the summer heat and see the yard wallowing in tropical glory.

When the new catalogues came in the spring I devoured them and with pencil and paper made lists, which usually totaled around $279 and had to be slashed and slashed. At last I ordered my seeds and spent days rigid with expectancy. I always bought against my better judgment some of the flame-fire-veldt type of plants from a little known semitropical seed company, which invariably substituted Nasturtiums for Belgian Congo Moon Glow Blooms (“often attaining a size of two feet in diameter”)—California Poppies for East Indian Pompoms and never put in more than three seeds to a package. They were not very honest, but I could warm my hands over the pictures in their catalogues.”

Since the arrival of the internet I often warm my virtual fingers over vintage seed packets and I mean to have at least one post devoted to them but for now I will leave you with this absolute gem, designed more recently.


This fabulously bonkers seed packet was designed by Kenny Be, a graphic artist based in Denver, Colorado. I stumbled on his work by mistake and I have been totally blown away by his almost psychodelic, brilliantly inventive designs.

You can see more of them here


*The Egg and I, Betty Macdonald, J. B. Lippincott, March 1945



Penelope Matheson

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A Melon for Ecstacy.

A woman for duty,
A boy for pleasure,
But a melon for ecstasy.
– Old Turkish proverb

09DAC9E9-1652-44A9-A556-42EA290D67CCFor some months I’ve been playing about with the idea of the Vegetable Tortures. I would like to be able to say that this was a project wholly motivated by the noble desire to examine the ethics of genetically modified food and sustainable farming methods. And, indeed, in part it was.

But in truth it began by me remembering a sketch from Monty Python: Self Defence against  Soft Fruits.

It features such gems as “Try  that with a pineapple rammed down your windpipe.” and “Come at me with that raspberry. Come on. Be as vicious as you like with it.”

There’s something about this sketch that has me sniggeringly helplessly even after all these years. And it made me think about torture both by and towards vegetable matter and to search for suitable titles for my pieces. I began with  this orgiastic melon.


And it developed into this.

But a melon for ecstasy?  Where did that idea come from? Well obviously it’s a quote from the Turkish proverb quoted at the top of this post but I only learnt it from reading the eponymous novel by John Fortune and John Wells, better known for their acerbic satire.

This stylish and hilarious book tells the story of a man who likes trees. really, really likes trees. His unfortunate proclivity leads hims astray – to sin with tender young saplings and the sterner charms of mature oaks.

The opening lines of  a Melon for Ecstasy :
‘I am just back from the garden. The moonlight is bright enough to write by, and casts the shadow of my tree – sleeper’s head across a pillow – over the page. My thighs are still cold from the bark, and that instrument of my pleasure is tenderly vibrating.’*

 ‘Written in the form of letters, journals, newspaper articles and the like, it covers an extraordinary cast of characters, whilst reserving its finest flights of poetic imagination for Mackevoy himself. His ruminations on the particular appeal of various species of tree are amongst the most elegant pieces of prose you can imagine. And the accounts of the sex are enough to make you wonder whether it mightn’t be worth experimenting:

Lasciviously I turned my face, brushing the cold bark with my lips, and began to explore its texture with my tongue. And you couldn’t stop me, my laburnum, you with your branches pinioned in the air, leaving your trunk so bare, so bare, so unprotected, so vulnerable… (p.30)

Is it just me, or does that not make the sap rise?’ **

Well it makes me laugh anyway. The review above is from, a most excellent website that I commend to your attention, dear reader. I had to make my melon suitably ecstatic after revisiting the novel, and I wanted there to be a contrast between the rough bark and the oozing, pullulating insides of the luscious fruit.

I made this sculpture during my three month residency at the European Ceramic Work Centre (of which much more in a later post). Unusually for me I’m quite pleased with this piece.

Perhaps it was all the sniggering.

*A Melon for Ecstacy by John Wells and John Fortune, first published by  Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1971.


My melon was made during a three month residency at Sunday Morning @EKWC in the Netherlands. The residency was funded in part by the Visual Artist and Craft Makers Award: Dundee in partnership with Creative Scotland. I am very grateful for their support

#VACMAScotland #VACMADundee #EKWC



Penelope Matheson






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Predatory Snails: the dark underbelly of Tyrian purple.

If you’re interested in greed, luxuria and over consumption (other wise known as pleionexia) you can’t help being fascinated by the idea of sea snails being literally milked to death to produce a few drops of a precious dye.

I had only the haziest notions of how Tyrian purple was produced but I like snails and purple is my favourite colour. Being as how it was the sole preserve of the rich and aristocratic I began to think I must do some research 0n the subject.

But if (like me) you thought snails were gentle little beasts that are never happier than when grazing on a wilted lettuce leaf you had better buck your ideas up.

This is the Murex snail, it lives in warmer seas than we ever know in the UK, but I’ve often found the empty shells in Kefalonia. Despising the health giving benefits of sea kelp or spirulina it has a nasty little habit of drilling into other shellfish and sucking out the contents. Not the only marine mollusc to do this – I thought I’d just drop this intriguing image in here.

The biter bit, so to speak.


But back to the Murex. It enjoys the privilege of being one of the oldest classical seashell names still in use by the scientific community, because it was described by Aristotle, the philosopher and naturalist. It is best known as the source of the costly and labor-intensive dye Tyrian purple, made by the ancient Phoenicians, in the city of Tyre.

W_PurpuraPurple pigment was incredibly expensive; snails had to be harvested from the sea, and each yielded only a drop or two of liquid. Thousands of  snails were sacrificed to make the royal purple . Owning a cloth handwoven and colored with this natural dye was a symbol of high status — the power and wealth of royalty and the church.

I wanted to make a sculpture expressing something of the rarefied nature of this process but technical difficulties (let’s be honest here – my limited capabilities in making casts) forced me to compromise with my choice of snail. The Murex was too complicated so I chose another sea snail, the giant Tonna (tonne galea); apart from anything else I just adore its delightfully freckled mantle.



Incidentally, the tonne has a few nasty little habits of its own. It likes to swallow sea cucumbers – whole.


I cast a shell and then added hand modelled parts to form a whole snail. excuse the clutter in my studio – I am not a tidy worker.


The snails were glazed with underglaze colours. I wanted them to support a glass cylinder that I found in a Shelter charity shop on the Perth Road.


I used purple cable (recycled from the time when DJCAD renewed its internet wiring) and connected it to the snails.


Just now I’m not certain that I’ve resolved all the problems in this piece but because I have been out of the country for a long time (of which more later) I haven’t been blogging recently and I left quite a few bits of work in limbo so to speak. I’m now looking at them again and writing about them helps me decide if I want to go back to them or even rework them. I have a number of different elements and I haven’t quite decided how to place them.


The jury’s still out on this one.


Penelope Matheson




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