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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Raphanidosis: the birth of the vegetable tortures.

Rhaphanidosis is the act of inserting the root of a plant of the raphanogenus (commonly known as a radish) into the anus. It is mentioned by Aristophanes as a punishment for adultery  in classical Athens in the fifth and fourth century BC.

I wonder if they used ‘desirable radishes’.


Curiously, I came upon the expression on Mustardland, the Archers message board where I spend far too much of my time and it’s not the first time my interest has been piqued by this rather contentious forum. That’s where I learnt the phrase  ‘Crambe Repetita’ which was the starting point for this piece a few years ago.


I was not unnaturally intrigued by this repellent nugget of ancient history and Googled it immediately. Among other things I learnt that there is  a Norwegian heavy metal band that have appropriated the name. Nice choice guys!

But what really interested me was the additional fact that the cuckolded husband had the additional right to ram a spiny fish such as a mackerel up the anus of the offender. This got me thinking about torture. Vegetable torture.



But I’m more interested in the idea that we may be  inflicting untold damage on ourselves by genetically modifying our food. And I remembered a horror story that was doing the rounds some years ago about a salmon gene that had been inserted into a tomato. Now that may just be one of those urban myths but it’s certainly a rather disgusting idea. A sort of scientific raphanidosis.

And it’s got me going. Oh yes.


I mean, there’s something just so wrong and yet so right about a mackerel up a sphincter. I had to make a sculpture about it. See work in progress below (with added Docs).


But oh how I’ve struggled with this piece. I wanted the radish to be spherical and it took me about three attempts to make the shape, which kept collapsing and cracking. I had to give up on the leaves and roots (for now) and just concentrated on the fish.

And then I would lose track of which fish went into which hole. As you do.


It was a relief when it finally went into the kiln. I had had to compromise so much with my initial idea.

And an even bigger relief to get to finally glazing the beastly thing.


I don’t know why these fish look so pleased with themselves – after all, they’re stuck in constricting anal sphincters.


I’m not at all satisfied with this piece but wanted to document its progress and the germination of an idea.

I will be returning to the theme of torture by and to vegetables. I think there should be an equal mix of pleasure and pain.





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SylvaC Stories: Bunny Boilers.

Once upon a time, rather more years ago than I care to remember, I found a dear little green pottery bunny in a junk shop on the Isle of Wight. As I have a predilection for green ceramic items I snapped it up.

At the time I did not realise that it was a SylvaC rabbit. It’s only since I began researching my knick knacks project that I uncovered the story of these endearing little cutesies, which is actually quite strange because the SylvaC factory produced them in enormous quantities from the 1920’s all the way through to the close of production in 1982.

The rabbits are probably  most easily recognised, even by people who have no idea of their provenance. They come in many colours, but green is the commonest, and pink the rarest, and thus the most sought after by collectors.

And collectors there are aplenty – this is a lady called Jenny Hulme with her extensive collection. I recently read an article about a man who begins every day by scanning online auction sites, seeking the elusive pink bunnies. He already has a collection of over 300 pieces, displayed in custom built shelves in carefully lit alcoves.

Despite this, he is prepared to bid on a box containing several items just to get one particular item. Personally, I think this is a form of pleionexia, but then, I think nearly everything is.

SylvaC did not stop at bunny rabbits.

They were pretty keen on doggies too. And cats, squirrels, foals, vegetable vases with faces (the crying onion anyone?), storks, swans, shells, in fact almost anything that can be made from clay, which covers a multitude of possibilities.

Well, this got me going. So  I made some plaster casts of the bunnies in my possession.

I had it my mind to play about with multiples and the idea of a positive army of bunnies. I was also intrigued by the idea of mass production and a machine that could just grunt out one rabbit after another. I ended up making lots of the beastly little things without much conclusion.

But after spending a lot of time on the project I ground to a halt. Technical problems have caused me to pause for a while. and I was sick to the damn death of casting horrid little rabbits. I much prefer modelling by hand.

One cast collapsed but I did a little surgery on it to make a mummy bunny.

I recycled another mould (remember plumbing problem?) and although it was not a finished piece I thought I saw a way forward.

I have been struggling with a way to use transparent plastic tubing to ‘carry’ the small bunnies from the ‘boiler’ but today I began to play with them.

I’ve already realised that the tubes are too long and must be cut down. And I’m not happy with the glaze. I must develop a green matt glaze similar to the one used by the SylvaC factory.

I had been quite jaded about the project but now I feel enthusiastic about it again. It will take quite a long time but one day the bunny boiler will start production!

And when I went into the studio today I found certain liberties were being taken with my dear little bunnies!


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La Fontana delle Scimmie.*

*warning blog post contains references to Florence (again)


This is the Museo delle Porcellane di Boboli, an exquisitely faded small palazzo in the gardens of the Pitti Palace. It has a superb collection of porcelain and chinaware and delicious views from the windows looking south over a quintessential Tuscan landscape (see below).

It also has the Fontana delle Scimmie (Fountain of the Monkeys) in the garden; the Casino del Cavaliere.

Personally, I think these stiff limbed simians are gruesome but then, I find monkeys quite frightening and disturbing anyway, they are too human for my taste. I always wonder what’s going behind those worried brown eyes.

And so, apparently, does the artist Walton Ford.


His exquisite paintings frequently depict monkeys doing rather unpleasant things (often to parrots). I believe this is based upon a disturbing childhood experience that happened either to him or his mother. I’m not sure which.

I was moved to try and draw the fountain with extremely limited success.

I quickly gave up and resorted to photography; above and below are two pages from my Florence sketch book.

I’d also been looking at the monkeys in La Specola; that wonderful pavilion of taxidermy and morbid wax works.

I mean, in God’s good name, why? These are really disturbing and, if I think that, then they REALLY are. Here’s another for good measure.

Of course I had to make a sculpture about them, but I’m about as good at modelling monkeys as I am at drawing them so I had to use allusion (or illusion).

I made small elements that had some simian features. And, also, apparently some a giraffe (do not ask why).

I must have still been thinking about the southern magnolia tree with its cheeky protruding scarlet tongues.  I wrote about in November 2015 (that long ago already!).

The elements become more complex as they spiral down into an increasing frenzy of consumption.

This piece seemed to have a need to be decorated in an ornate manner – the colours reminded me in retrospect of a particular caterpillar that I loved as a child; that of the Knotgrass Moth.

I remember always finding these snazzy larvae on various bits of waste land near my grandmother’s home. It’s only now that I realise how much my entomological past informs my present practice.

I ended up working on this piece on and off for nearly eighteen months. I have only just finished it and finally assembled it at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Here it is in the big studio while still in bisque state with my slugs in the background.

And in further stages of development.

Before final completion (not a good pic but I will add better ones soon.)

I usually hate my work when it’s finished, but I’m quite fond of this one. Perhaps it’s a case of better late than never.




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We Have Lost the Taste for Acorns.

About 2000 years ago the Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote: “We have lost our taste for acorns. So  we have abandoned those couches littered with herbage and heaped with leaves. So the wearing of wild beasts’ skins has gone out of fashion -skins yesterday, purple and gold today – such are the baubles that embitter human life with resentment.”*

We Have Lost the Taste for Acorns 2016

This is sadly as true today as it when he wrote it. And Lucretius was only backing up what Aristotle had written 300 years before him “The avarice of mankind is insatiable.”**

I have always loved acorns from the days when I played with them and pretended they were fairies’ goblets. I think I might have written already about the joys of a misspent childhood making oak apple ink.

So I started playing about with acorns and our lost appetites. (See the drawing above.)

For some reason, slugs came into mind.

I’ve always had a fondness for these much maligned molluscs – I remember a conversation round the fire at Tinkers Bubble*** about the uses for slugs and the only thing that anyone could come up with was drying them out and making them into something to mend shoe soles.

I just like the look of them.

So I started making my own versions of them.

Here they after I rubbed them with iron chromate.

I know they’re not realistic, more my poetic (or pathetic) vision of a slug.

I was going to lay them on a bed of oak leaves but in the end I decided not to.

Perhaps it seemed too cluttered and the leaves will come in for something else. Waste not want not – if it worked for Rodin it will work for me!

A less cluttered approach works better – I still use aesthetics in my approach to my work.


I have not lost the taste for acorns (or slugs).

*Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe

** Aristotle: Politics

*** Tinkers Bubble is a small woodland community in Somerset which uses environmentally sound methods of working the land without fossil fuels. Well worth a visit.

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Egrets: I Have a Few.

Ever since I came back from Florence I’ve been thinking about egrets. In fact, I’ve already written about them here: The Lake of Lettuce


The one pictured above is a lesser egret – you can tell by the black beak and the snazzy yellow feet. There are lots of greater egrets too. I took this picture some distance east on the south side of the river.

These beautiful birds had disappeared from the Arno but have recently returned and are now flourishing. There is one under every bridge, seemingly unfazed by the traffic and tourists and they have made a large roost to the south east of the Ponte Grazie, which they share happily with other heron species.

White Heron Painting by John James Audubon; White Heron Art Print for sale

White Heron Painting by John James Audubon; White Heron Art Print for sale

The great wild life painter, John James Audubon painted egrets many times. He gave his name to the Audubon Society which is dedicated to bird conservation. They adopted the egret as their symbol because of the bird’s resilience and its ability to overcome the harsh predations of people who killed them just to get their crests of feathers for fashionable womens’ hats. At one time they sold for five dollars a go; the body of the bird would just be thrown away.

But the birds survived and I still have a fascination with them which I have been exploring in my sketchbook and sculpture.



It’s very easy to make fanciful drawings of these fragile, elongated beautiess; so, so much harder to make the ceramic piece I had in my mind’s eye. Every time I tried to make the damn things they drooped and dwindled. But then I hit on the idea of holding them in place until they had stiffened enough to keep their shape. I used strips of thin bin liners as a sort of ‘hammock’ and it worked really well. I’m pleased with this technique and I shall use it again.


I’ve reverted to my favourite conical structure for this piece and the ‘egrets’ have lugs that slot into the holes.


The ‘crown’ was made separately in one  piece and sits nicely in place aided by an overlapping rim which stops it rocking.


Various elements before assemblage – you can see the holes I made for the supporting wires on some pieces.


I used Alasdair Kettles’ white earthenware, transparent glaze, Scarva underglaze colours and iron chromate gave the intense black. The whole piece is hand built.


So all the elements were made separately and then slotted in – some of them have been wired in place internally to make them more secure but I have to say I’m not very happy with the finished piece and I want to remake it on a larger scale. At the moment it’s really not working for me.



Have I mentioned that I’ve been accepted for a twelve week residency at Sundaymorning@EKWC – that’s the European Ceramic Work Centre at Oisterwijk in the Netherlands? I’m so thrilled about this fantastic opportunity and I mean to get the very most out of it and that is going include making larger work than has ever been possible for me before.

Watch this space!





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Forget What Did.


‘ Forget what did. Have decided not to keep a journal anymore.’

So wrote Dorry, the younger brother, in ‘What Katy Did’ by Susan Coolidge. After a few short, sweet days he gave up the unequal struggle between recording the immediate past as opposed to living in the constantly enticing present. How I know that feeling.

Incidentally, I love the crickets on the cover and the play on words. A katydid is a common name for type of American grasshopper deriving (I think) from the sound the insect makes.

I love diaries. Nella Last is dear to my heart – more of her in a later post. I took my darling Samuel Pepys to Glastonbury (and enjoyed him more than Oasis) and Cecil Beaton’s private revelations have cheered many a darkening hour. I have often murmured to myself his thoughts on Coco Chanel: “She was a great genius, to whom all may be forgiven.” and found them strangely comforting.


I have resolved to ‘keep a journal’ so many times in my life, and like Dorry, usually given up after a day or two. I always felt that if I didn’t record the day’s events I had failed so I would give up sooner rather than later. But why? Even Samuel Pepys confessed to writing up his diary in hindsight, even though he got up at day break and rarely went  to bed before midnight. (The hyperactive bastard). Incidentally, he looks more than a little like my husband in his younger days!


But then I began to see that even before I kept this blog, my sketchbooks were a form of visual journal every bit as vital as a daily diary. And I have been making sketchbooks (although I didn’t call them that) since I was knee high to a Moleskin.


I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realise that a sketchbook kept over a year or so is as least as valid a diary as one written with a quill pen lit by candle light. Or that my blog has become a very accurate record of my position as an artist –  if I feel qualified to call myself one. And I have decided that a) I am an artist and b) I’m the only person who can make that decision. The sketchbook pictured above was part of my life from 2013-14.  I used to feel twitchy if it wasn’t adjacent to my thigh. Now I have moved on and it can happily stay on the shelf (unless I decide I need  it for reference).

This is a strange thing. Starting a sketchbook and being committed to it is (at least) as hard as commencing a new relationship. Right now I have a a cheeky new Pink Pig sketchbook and although I’m fairly confident I will grow to love it there is a problem about becoming comfortable with the yet to be broached blank pages. I’ve made a few tentative forays but I’m not at home yet.

I don’t use sketchbooks just for drawing. A vital part of my practice is about making the connections between what I feel / see and what I know /read. I started trying to express this by making actual networks in my studio.


I used sheep wire from my home on a remote croft in north west Skye as a framework to underpin my thought processes. I pinned ideas, statements and books on the wire netting and laced them together with orange ribbon. There was a reason for using orange (possibly  my least favourite colour). When the Studio Jamming Symposium took place at the Cooper Gallery in 2014 I was lucky enough to be invited to take part. the show was curated by Marcus Miessen and he used certain key colours to identify  the main artists. Orange was not one of those colours so I used it as a connective strand in the sketchbook I was working on at that time.

Incidentally, it also brings back the gut wrenching stage fright just before I had to give my performance. I had not realised that the audience would be that big.


I also use arrows to demonstrate how my thought processes flicker back and forwards. Sometimes this only becomes clear to me as I start the mapping process.


And when you are thinking about Jean Francois Lyotard and his thoughts on sublimity it can be quite vexing to have Para Handy’s phrase ‘it’s chust sublime’ continually edging its way into your head. It helps to put it down in front of you and try to tease out the connections.


I’ve recently been rereading Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther. Originally published as a series of weekly columns in The Times, the book has a journal like quality because it follows the course of a year or so in the life of the eponymous heroine. (I do like an opportunity to to use that word legitimately)!

This book would appeal to me anyway without the crystal clear prose and its engaging central character because of the diary element. And Mrs Miniver herself knew how important a diary was and took pains to choose the right one. She considered it to be ‘apparently trivial, but momentous by reason of their terrible intimacy’ and remembered once having bought a cheap and nasty engagement book that ‘annoyed her for twelve months; everything she put down in it looked squalid’. How I know that feeling – a sketchbook does not have to be expensive but it does have to feel right.

Mrs Miniver thought of the book as a ‘skeleton map of the year……glancing through it help months hence, would be  able to fill in many, though not all, of the details.’ And so it is  with my sketchbooks.



The page above includes a receipt for the ‘goblits’ – my adorable, long coveted Siamese cats which I have already written about. I bought them from a now defunct antique shop on the Perth Road and I can still taste the triumph of finding them and later bringing them home.

Here are are two pages documenting some of my pronkstilleven research.



I notice it includes some rather weedy notes about using Publisher – I can also remember the frustration I encountered when I had to use this programme. I ended up paying someone to do it for me!

More pleasant memories come from the sketchbooks I made in Florence.


A halcyon day in late September climbing up to the Piazza de Michelangelo where I took a fortuitous picture of the bridges and noticed later that there was an egret fishing under the Ponte Vecchio. I have already written about egrets and there is more to come so I will refrain from banging on about the birds of the Arno just now.

Another page documents my experiments with poke weed ink, already faded since I tried it a year ago. If you look at the small photographs you can see the richness of the colour at the time.


I don’t think the American Declaration of Independence can really have been written with it.


Like Mrs Miniver, these sketch books were my intimate friends and form a sort of road map charting my artistic and personal experience. Below is a later one.


Looking at it makes me want to go back and revisit some of those ideas which I don’t think I have finished with as yet. It also recalls the stress of the Masters Show install.


still haven’t made that Quey Calves sculpture!


What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge, 1872

Mrs Miniver, Jan Struther, 1939

Tales of Para Handy, Neil Munro

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Jean-Francois Lyotard, 1994

Nella Last’s War:the Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife, 49.’

The Unexpurgated Beaton: the Cecil Beaton Diariess.




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