Lares et Penates II: Knick Knacks

The Oxford dictionary defines a knick knack as a “cheap ornament, trinket, trifle, bauble, bric-a-brac, bagatelle, gimcrack, gewgaw, bibelot or kickshaw.” A sample sentence in the dictionary uses the word thus – “Her flat is overflowing with knick knacks.” But what is the significance of these charming (or not so charming) trifles? Do they have the power to influence an artist’s practice?



Just one of the cluttered windowsills in Colbost House – overflowing with knick knacks!

I have already touched upon the significance of the objects we have about us to demonstrate status, sentiment and superstition. Now I want to examine the apparently eternal appeal of  of mass produced pottery. It may be that the permanent nature of a ceramic piece or the pliability of the material that allows it to take almost any shape and colour has an inherent appeal but whatever the reason there is something about pottery that is very compelling.  And I am not alone in my addiction.

Mark Twain wrote “it is the failing of the true ceramiker, or the true devotee in any department of brick-a-brackery, that once he gets his tongue or his pen started on his darling theme, he cannot well stop until he drops from exhaustion…. the very “marks” on the bottom of a piece of rare crockery are able to throw me into a gibbering ecstasy’.”* And although I’m more of a maker than a collector I know that I am not immune from the charms of a budgie shaped thermometer (yes, really) or yet another curiously shaped teapot.


I bought the budgies in a junk shop in Crouch End in 1976. I believe they originated in the Dutch Jema factory and were probably made in the 50’s.

It seems that not a few modern ceramists have been drawn down the slippery slope by looking at their auntie’s collection of china pugs or the neighbours’ Beswick Siamese cats. Incidentally, how I craved these latter as a child but was never allowed one because my mother considered them ‘nouveau riche’. Now I have both the china pieces and the living felines, as well as the unfortunate addiction to ceramics.


It was a joyful day when I found the Siamese cat hanging from the goblet. I found it (and its cousin) in the now sadly closed antique shop on perth Road. Notice also the fish gravy boat – it’s part of a whole service that came from Brick Lane Sunday market at least forty years ago.


The other Siamese goblet – (I don’t like this one so much but it must be displayed adjacent to its cousin).

The rubber bambi was left on the railings outside my flat. I haven’t liked to throw it away. The clay mannikin was stranded in the MFASSP studio and I felt it needed a home. A dear friend sent me the Little Plum postcard and because I love both her and the book I have kept it. Rachel Hurdley has argued that “the cultural norm is to display things in the home for moral reasons.” It seems that I am compelled by some moral imperative even though I am not sure what it is.

The ceramist Richard Slee remembers “I had two spinster aunties. They lived in a terraced house that was full of pottery….terrific. I was fascinated with their knick-knacks…. ;but I’d gone to art school and had been imbued with Modernism, so that one felt almost guilty looking at this stuff.”** I often wonder about this; after all I’ve been to art school too (although I don’t think I have been imbued by Modernism). So it seems I’m far from being alone in my penchant for a ‘dainty rogue in porcelain’ – just as well – my mantelpieces are littered with the evidence of my weakness. I have serially collected ceramic fish, teapots, frogs, birds and anything glazed in green.

I came upon this enchanting piece in Perth. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the shop was closed because I know I would have had to buy it if only to find out that was so rude about the reverse side.


And in the same shop – a Scottish Darby and Joan!


Apologies for the quality of the last two shots – taken on my phone in quite difficult weather conditions. I would like to know the story of these pieces; who they used to belong to and how they ended up in the shop. Similarly I always wonder about pottery in charity shops – why are there always so many china bells, miniature teapots and pottery boots?




There is an infinite pathos about these left over knick knacks. Perhaps they were once cherished and lovingly dusted by their owners or perhaps they were unwanted gifts that were kept (and displayed) to avoid giving offence. I will never know their stories but I will continue my ruminations in the next post.


*Twain, Mark, ‘A Tramp Abroad’.

** Houston, John, Richard Slee – Ceramics in Studio, Bellew Publishing 1990, p28.Richard Slee is an influential contemporary ceramist. His work has been exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum and at the Tate, St Ives.

*** “And still she may be a dainty rogue in porcelain.” – from The Egoist, George Meredith’s tragi-comical novel.



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Lares et Penates.

Henry Willet* once described the commonplace pottery ornaments on our mantelpieces as a ‘kind of unconscious survival of the Lares and Penates of the Ancients.’ The lares and penates were the household spirits of the ancient Romans. They were represented by small figurines and carefully kept in a special cupboard. The lars familias, the family spirit, was the most important. The penates were the spirits of the larder – they were often brought out at each meal and placed on the table. When the family moved house, their lares and penates moved with them.

I find myself intrigued by this idea; it seems to me to be as true today as it was a century or so ago. The Nelsons and Garibaldi’s of yesteryear have just been replaced by One Direction money boxes, Twin Towers memorial plaques or Barack Obama teapots.  I think I must agree with Henry Willett; the everyday pottery in our homes has as much to say about us as any ‘real art or grand design. It is important because it forms the surroundings of ordinary people, by which they identify themselves and mark the important moments of our lives.’

Last week I stood in front of a shop in Reform Street and counted ceramic Disney characters (by the score), dragons, various maidens and angels and a particularly nauseatingly twee collection of romantically themed pieces by Willowtree. My opinion is immaterial however, people buy this stuff because it means something special to them; these objects are latterday household gods and as such are treasured.


I find these faceless figures both mawkish and menacing, but many people not only treasure them but attribute special powers to them. A cursory glance at the Willowtree website shows many gushing endorsements attesting to the powers of these figurines. Apparently they can do anything; cure a broken heart, attest to true love, even provide some consolation for the loss of a child. I was going to include some quotes from the site but have decided not to because if people find them important and comforting, it doesn’t matter that I think they are ugly, tacky and gimcrack; cashing in on the gullibility of the tasteless.


I’m not alone in my dislike. There is a blog called “Stuff Christians Like.” (!!!!!) The author, one Jon Acuff goes rather further than I do. “when I see those “Willow Tree” figures Christians book stores sell. Those chill me to the core.
How come they don’t have features? How come they all look like they’ve had their noses smoothed away by some serial killer called “Mr. Sandpaper?” Honestly, I know I have seen horror movies where featureless people slowly hunt you. You can run, you can run as fast as you want, but they’re still coming. They’re still chasing and they always catch you even though they just walk with a slow plodding pace.
I don’t know where Willow Tree figures came from either. It almost feels like someone said, “Hey, let’s take those Precious Moments dolls, shave off their faces and carve them out of wood. That won’t be creepy, right?”

I don’t know the dolls he’s talking about but I’m with Mr Acuff all the way about the creepiness. But I’m still interested in why people collect ornaments and what they mean in their lives. The objects we have about us have greater value than strict functional utility; they are signifiers  of beauty, status, prestige and the reasons for their presence in our homes are complex. Ornaments may be acquired as gifts or to indicate social status, they may be part of a collecting habit (of which more later), bought just because they are fashionable or even be believed to have “special powers”. And sometimes they are kept purely for sentimental reasons even though their owner doesn’t actually like them.


Vide this rather noisome trio of Toby jugs which live on a shelf in my mother’s kitchen. I had never really looked at them until I started researching what people have in their houses. I asked my mother why she had kept such an ugly set of ornaments (I was quite surprised because they look quite grubby and she is a fanatically clean housekeeper). She replied “Sentimentality.”

My younger sister brought them home as a present when she had been at Brownie camp some fifty years ago. During the course of the camp parental visits were allowed. My sister asked for 3/- to buy ‘something’ – apparently it was these jugs which cost a grand total of 4/11d (about 25p), she had the 1/11d already saved.

You can still read the price on the base.


My mother doesn’t like the jugs much – indeed, she does think they look a bit grubby but she will never get rid of them. They are an important (if generally unremarked  part of her personal landscape).

Lares et penates indeed.

*Henry Willett (1823-1905) was one of those indefatigable Victorian collectors. His major passion was for pottery and porcelain, often of the cheapest and most mundane nature. Willett collected ceramics in order to tell the history of the British people. There are some 2000 pieces in his collection, most of them dating from 1600-1900. He catalogued them under 23 themes which cover all aspects of British history; royal and political, military and economic, social and cultural.




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Fiat Lux.

It looks like I still have more  to say about Florence. This time I’m thinking about chandeliers.

Like these two delicious confections from the Porcelain Museum in the Boboli Gardens.



It amuses me that they both have wonky not to say defective light bulbs despite their swanky abode! It seems appropriate to give the view from the window of this room; a veritable Tuscan paradise.


But I found a rich source of chandeliers and chandelier spare parts in the homelier environs of the Sant’Ambrogio flea market.


Not such salubrious surroundings!



Indeed, this fellow in the red shirt looks positively shocked by the juxtaposition of chandelier and rusty old garden table.



Perhaps this one doesn’t strictly count as a chandelier, but I like the fish scale effect.


And this one reminds me of the collected hooves of some glass herd of deer.



There was an infinite variety; how I wish I could have  brought one (or two) home with me. And there was no shortage of spare parts!


Some of them look almost like a  type of delicate armour or ice sculpture.


And others resemble delicious sweets or even parts of a bouquet.



Glacier mints?



Coffee and peppermint.


Actually the above look a bit like something I was once given as a laxative when I was about to give birth.



Are those frozen peas in the background?



Good enough (mostly) to eat!


I’ve been wanting to work in glass for ages; and  a ceramic chandelier would be possible if the frame were sturdy enough, I think.

Let there be light indeed!








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Plant on Plant Parasitic Action.

This is probably the last (or nearly the last) post about my time in Florence. I think I’ve just about squeezed it till the pips squeak!

But I thought I couldn’t let it go without writing about yet another interesting plant that I found in huge quantities growing by the Arno (which seems to be a veritable hotbed of vegetable parasitism.)


This is the European dodder or cuscuta europaea; a rather attractive plant that wreathes it way through others with delicately spiralling tendrils. It looks quite inoffensive at first sight. What possible harm could it do?


Well it’s dodder by name but not by nature. There is nothing weak or failing about this particular marvel of nature. Those dainty tendrils twirl around the stem of their host plants and probe into their vascular systems, stealing their water and nutrients. The dodder is a very clever and successful plant. After germination it has very limited resources and unlike other plants it cannot photosynthesize, so it must very quickly find and attach itself to a suitable host. It’s not surprising therefore that the dodder has an amazingly efficient host – location mechanism.


Dodder uses airborne volatile organic compound cues to find their host plants; it could be said that they literally sniff out their favourite food. In  an experiment, dodder seedlings were observed to exhibit ‘positive growth responses to volatiles released by tomatoes and other favoured species – the tiny plantings send out tendrils in that direction. Apparently  they particularly fancy a nice tomato although they’ll put up with others plants if they have too. In the picture above they are infesting a wild geranium plant.



There were great swathes of dodder all along the Arno. Many plants wore it like a toxic feather boa. I’ve seen it growing in the UK, but it was always much smaller and insignificant.

In Italy it seems the Day of the Triffid is not just a nightmare fantasy.

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It has suddenly occurred to me that although I bang on about pleionexia (and have already made several posts about it) I have never yet defined what I mean by it nor posted any finished pictures of the piece. It’s still a work in progress, but here goes.

My artistic research led me to Harry Berger’s Caterpillage. In this elegant and witty book Berger deconstructs the traditional interpretation of insects and other small creatures in seventeenth century paintings that until recently ‘have traditionally been interpreted as agents of decay, underscoring an abiding sense of transience, slow yet unavoidable.’* Instead Berger argues that vanitas iconography is the ‘McGuffin of still life’ and that is a distraction from rather darker meanings in the paintings; below the exotic food, flowers and valuable gewgaws ‘lurk untold narratives about the production and distribution of foodstuffs, about corruption, oppression, and slavery’**

Berger prefers the term rapacitas – he considers the caterpillar a signifier for greed, rapacious appetite and ‘the shadow of pleionexia that falls across the embarrassment of riches in the time of tulip mania.’*  This neatly coined sentence happily brings together the titles of two very successful books on the Dutch seventeenth century which both deal (albeit slightly differently) with the flourishing economy and accompanying desires of the Netherlands during that period.


P1020244Pleionexia (the spelling may be incorrect but no one exactly knows how Ancient Greek translates into English) : the desire to consume or have ‘more’; also the need to be bigger, better, superior than others. It means never being satisfied because one aspires to complete and immortal self-sufficiency, even if that means draining the world of power, wealth, pleasure and being. Pleionexia also has a defensive aspect in a society whose members are aware of competing with each other and taking from another before someone takes from them. It might be described as a model for capitalism. Nowadays we would probably use the word ‘greed’ as a simple definition for this complex concept; but the idea of pleionexia was known in the Ancient world. Plato argued in the Republic (359c) that it is natural for every creature to pursue self-advantage, ‘strive to have more’ (Georgias, 483c) and to ‘overreach others’. (R, 344a).P1020242

My sculpture examines this compulsion which has been known throughout history. I confess (unwillingly) to an unpleasant fascination with this repellent fact of life. The sculpture uses organic/natural imagery arranged in hierarchical structures to examine themes of greed, desire and consumption.


The metaphorical use of hierarchy echoes my fascination with taxonomy – I seek to make flesh the tiered and logical progression of an evolving idea.

* Berger Jr, Harry. Caterpillage, Reflections on Dutch Seventeenth Century Painting. (Fordham University Press 2011) p22. Berger’s critique of Dutch vanitas paintings interprets the image of a caterpillar as one of rapacity, destruction and ‘disordered desire’

**In ‘Still Life and Trade.’ Julie Hochstrasser argues that the paintings leave untold the ‘disturbing truths about the acquisition of the various objects they picture’. These ‘troubling complexities’ (which include Dutch colonialism and slave trade) are described as ‘absent presences’ which are ‘glossed over in these elegant renderings’.

***Berger, Ibid.

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An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles.


J.B.S. Haldane (a British geneticist and evolutionary biologist) was  asked by a group of theologians what he had learnt  about the Creator from the study of creation. Haldane, an atheist, is alleged to have replied “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.”

He actually wrote “The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, and perhaps more, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are actually more numerous than the species of any other insect order.” *

Well whatever Haldane said or wrote, I definitely have a massive fondness for beetles – I have worn a silver scarab round my neck for over thirty years and one of my earliest memories has to do with a delicious glass case full of metallic sheened beetles that stood on the mantelpiece in the assembly hall of the Froebelian School that I attended as a very small child. I would take any opportunity I could snatch to have a good look at them. If I could I would have stolen the case; I suffered from pleionexia even then.

I remember someone told me that the great big green monster that held pride of place was called a “Green Buzzard” and for years I believed that was its real name. I now know that it was probably a Rose Chafer, a relatively common beetle that can be found in the UK.


The beetles in the first picture are from la Specola – that treasure house of delight in Florence. The one pictured above is from the D’Arcy Thompson Museum in the University of Dundee. I spent a merry month on a placement with the University Museum Service and the best thing was the run of the museum storehouse – how I loved it!


The D’Arcy Thompson museum is a shining jewel in the dark heart of the Carnelly building, which used to house the medical school but now is an annex to Life Sciences. I love the anarchic way some of the exhibits are displayed – this Cadette beetle is not the only creature housed in an old cigar box. Note the use of Elastoplast and pins to hold the test tube in place!


In the storehouse many of the specimens are the worse for wear. Bent pins litter the stained base of the display boxes. Beetles have lost their antennae or (in some extreme cases) their whole body.


Little does it profit this stag beetle to have huge mandibles when it has nothing to use them for.


And this bizarre melee of beetle body parts reminds me of Dr Seuss and his ‘Tweetle Beetle Bottle Battle’.



Let’s have a little talk
about tweetle beetles….

What do you know
about tweetle beetles?

When tweetle beetles fight,
it’s called
a tweetle beetle battle.

And when they
battle in a puddle,
it’s a tweetle
beetle puddle battle.

AND when tweetle beetles
battle with paddles in a puddle,
they call it a tweetle
beetle puddle paddle battle.

When beetles battle beetles
in a puddle paddle battle
and the beetle battle puddle
is a puddle in a bottle…

…they call this
a tweetle beetle
bottle puddle
paddle battle muddle.
When beetles
fight these battles
in a bottle
with their paddles
and the bottle’s
on a poodle
and the poodle’s
eating noodles…

…they call this
a muddle puddle
tweetle poodle
beetle noodle
bottle paddle battle.

from “Fox in Socks” by Dr Seuss.


I had already done my own take on Dr Seuss and his beetles, but it seems that I have not done with Coleoptera yet. I cannot blame la Specola (I’d like to but it’s too deeply entrenched a habit).

When I took part in #ArbroathTemplate,  a residency by Bob and RobertaSmith hosted by Hospitalfield, beetles crept in.


And I’m still drawing them in preparation for a series of ceramic pieces.


Apparently you can take the girl out of the beetle, but you can’t take the beetle out of the girl.

What is Life? The Layman’s View of Nature, p. 248: JBS Haldane 1948

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Voices from the Kiln Room

I use ceramic materials because they can have a uniquely lustrous and satiny appearance, and they are often the most appropriate medium to serve a particular concept. I love the way clay can be bent into any (almost) shape I desire.

I am, in fact, totally infatuated with the medium – I even like the ‘chink’ that it makes when it clinks against itself.

And then there is the curious alchemy of putting an object covered with powder like a sugar bonbon into the kiln and twenty four hours later finding it has turned into a magical object with a glaze as smooth and cold as a pumpkin rind.

Some days I literally run to the kiln room.

But there is more to the mysterious process than physics and chemistry. The kiln room itself has its own music and stories. I started collecting the messages that students left for the technician*.

I stuck them in my sketchbook.


I was fascinated by the different ways that students used these tiny scraps to leave a message and, unwittingly, said something about themselves.

Scan 3

And I keep remembering chance conversations in the kiln room with people I had never met before (or since) that seemed very important. It seems that there is a dialogue there that deserves a second thought.

There is something about a kiln room that has a magical quality not unlike a stable tack room. When I was in love with horses (as if I’m still not) there was more to it than velvet noses and controlling a strong body with my skinny thighs. I liked the nuts  and bolts of it; saddles on metal racks, bridles hanging to be cleaned, bits and stirrups arranged in stricttaxonomic order, lead ropes woven into bullion knots and hung like bunches of technicolour sausages.

So it be with the doings of firing ceramics.


In the same way that I liked the organisation of tack and harness (and its smell) I love the daily processes and appurtenances of ceramics.


So I find something very sculptural about things as simple as kiln furniture – the lovely oatmeal shelves and stilts, apparently dipped in creamy milk; and there is something truly delicious about toasty home made props with charcoal wires.

I always said that ceramics is an awful lot like pastry making.




Stillage from DJCAD kiln room (most of this is not my own work). there is poetry in the piled up or carefully arranged pieces waiting to be transmogrified (there really is no other word)!


But looking at the work waiting to be fired makes me ponder about the stages in my own work after all. I make my larger sculptures in modules – this has become a practical issue, I do not want to waste time on a sculpture that may ultimately fail so I make them in stages with replaceable units.

I think the Sevres factory sometimes used the same principle.



This is “Mother Goose’ at an early stage – you can see the holes which will later receive the other goose necks.


I made vertebra shaped rings to attach the tubes to the funnels.


At a later stage I assembled part of it and then decided these funnels were not working so I thought again.


I reworked the funnels (slip cast in white earthenware) – I could do this because the sculpture was being made in modular form so it was really easy to make changes to it without wasting too much time.


Ceramics is a cruel mistress – you are literally put to a trial by fire. That is its magic and its agony.


A new regime has come into play at DJCAD.

We have to use these little wooden plaques. Neater but not so personal – those little bits shown are part of an (as yet) unfinished piece Fontana delle Scimmi – that is part of my Boboli Personality project.

I’m not sure if I like the new regime (or my sculpture for that matter)!

Talking of notes – sometimes I write them to myself and later wonder what they mean. Like this one.


think it must be something to do with my inquiline sculpture; the clue is in the rose hip.


*Sean Kingsley is the wonderful ceramics technician at DJCAD. None of the work shown here would be accomplished without his support.






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