Posts

December, happy outcomes

wintry

Strange things have been happening at the studio lately. Unexplained disappearances of ceramics, unfamiliar sounds coming from the ceiling, doors being left wide open at night and the kiln not firing on all cylinders. I decided to go for a walk up the hill to Frith Wood to blow away the cobwebs.

Storm Arwen

It was the usual steep climb up to Bradlow Knoll. The view was bathed in a wintry half-light but there was no wind as there had been these last few days with Storms Arwen and Barra which managed to blow a few trees down along the path deep in the wood. Barra (fair-headed) is named by Irish weather forecaster Met Éireann. Arwen is Welsh Celtic for “good”. The next one will be named Corrie, then Dudley, Eunice, Franklin, Gladys, and so on, according to a “name a storm’ project open to the public. What they all have in common is an ability to blow down trees and embarrass the big energy companies.

Fatball Slim

The only noticeable activity in the woods were the squirrels chasing each other up and down trees. One of their cousins lives in our garden and has been caught eating the fatball left out for the bluetits, but here in the Frith they seem to feed mainly on chestnuts. But I was too concerned with the studio to take in the flora and fauna.

I believe that I was so burdened by these thoughts that I went to bed that night and muttered the magical words that all potters do when they seek help; “hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates.” I fell into a deep sleep but awoke when I felt the presence of someone else in the room. It was, of course, St Spyridon, patron saint of potters, former shepherd and Bishop of Trymithous (c. 270 – 348), responsible for marketing at Peter Arscott Ceramics, who you may remember from a previous blog (passim December 2020).

Marketing strategy meeting

I knew it was him from the strange shepherd’s woven straw hat and the smell of sheep.

“This better be good”, he said, “you do realize I’m only for emergencies, don’t you?’

I nodded and told him about my worries. He rolled his eyes in a “seen it all before” way and took a cigarette out of a pouch and lit it, inhaling deeply.

“You don’t mind, do you? I really needed one after what I’ve just been through – a game of poker with Freud, Mohamed Ali and Mother Teresa, and they were fleecing me. Lucky you summoned me.”

Cecilia Colman, London

He blew the smoke up towards the ceiling, and continued:

“All your problems will be sorted by tomorrow. They are of little consequence compared with your pathetic marketing strategy however, which, despite my best advice, I see you have ignored.”

“The blog is still a little text-heavy,” I admitted.

“The more images, the lighter the blog. Vision trumps all senses; the human brain can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds.”

Taken aback as ever by the modern approach of this two thousand year-old holy man, I could only shrug and ask:

“So, how are things up in… Heaven, or wherever it you dead go to?”

“Fine, thank you. I’ve joined a club since I last saw you. It’s one for patron saints only, quite exclusive. We meet and swap stories. Why, last time St Blaise was telling us how he became patron saint of those with throat troubles after he cured a child who was choking on a fish bone.”

“Interesting. Anyway, you say the kiln will fire OK tomorrow?”

“Well, you might have to get an electrician for that.”

“Oh, I hoped you’d just snap your fingers and fix it.”

“I’m not a magician, you know, I’m a patron saint.”

“I’m disappointed.”

“I can get St Eligius to recommend one.”

“Who’s he then?”

“St Eligius? He’s the patron saint of electricians.’

“OK. Thank you. By the way, are you coming to the company Christmas party?”

“Er, no, I can’t. I’d be breaking the rules.”

“Covid?”

“No. We can only appear directly to one earthling at a time.’

“Ah,” I said, “but the other two guests will be Thelonious, who is the pottery pugmill, and Ziggy, who is the studio spider in charge of security, so strictly speaking …”

“Sorry, a spider is still an earthling.’

“OK.”

“I must go now. We’re putting on a Christmas panto and there’s a rehearsal.  Socrates will be surprisingly good as Aladdin, you know, and James Dean is playing Wishee Washee and John Wayne is Widow Twankey.”

Before I could ask him what part he was playing, he disappeared.

In the morning I had to face the inevitable accusations from my wife of smoking in bed and allowing sheep into the house, but as I entered the studio, I saw that the squirrel was running along its roof, which explained the unfamiliar sounds coming from the ceiling, and when I turned the handle of the door, I saw the latch was stuck, which explained the door always being open.

lost but now found vase

I went to the shed to get a screwdriver and saw in the shadowy depths along the bottom shelf all the “missing” ceramics that I had stored away and then forgotten during the Covid stockpiling. And when I opened the kiln to see the result of a glaze firing, I saw that everything was back to normal, the clock on my digital radio flashing away telling me that there had been a power cut which had gone unnoticed by me, which is why that previous firing had been a disaster. Good old Spyro – always right, in the end.

Happily just out of the kiln

One of the vases that came out of the kiln has some cheery colours that chime with the seasonal good wishes. By now in a celebratory mood, and in honour of St Spyro, I decided to do some serious research into a cocktail that might do the same.

a St Spyros – save the olive till last

To start with you need a bottle of Mastic Tears, a liqueur made from mastiha trees near Olympoi village, one of the mastic villages, on the island of Chios. It was given to me by my niece’s Greek partner, and I accept that not everyone has a bottle in their cellar. A generous slug in a tumbler, a smaller slug of sugar syrup, ice, some soda, a dash of orange bitters, a sprig of thyme and a black olive. I’m calling it a St Spyros. It’s quite interesting. The olive is particularly good at the end.

 

Peter Arscott Ceramics wish you all a happy Christmas. And If you live in or near Worcester, London, Chichester, Hove, Lymington or Cambridge and you are looking for that original gift, then why not drop in at the galleries whose names caption the ceramic images scattered throughout this blog?

Thelonious the Pugmill

Ziggy, Head of Security

Cheers. Here’s looking forward to 2022, and hoping it surprises us by bringing pleasure, gladness and delight. After all, the number 22 indicates that your angels have your back and are ready to help you in whatever way they can (apparently it is an “Angel Number”).

kalá Christoúgenna

 

Welsh jaunt

the glass-like mouth of the Ogwen

I believe fish are craftier than their glass-eyed gaze seems to indicate. Fly fishing is the art of luring a fish onto the hook by making it believe it is a true fly dancing on the surface of the water when in fact you, the fisherman, are the puppet master in control. But this never happened during our week-long stay in Penrhyn on the Menai Strait near the mouth of the Ogwen River. Even during the optimum time when the sea trout fed as the tide rose and entered the river, not one bite was had.

hope over experience

Fish are cleverer than they appear. Fish hold records for the relative brain weights of vertebrates, and most vertebrates have similar brain-to-body mass ratios – except for the bony-eared assfish which has the smallest ratio of all known vertebrates (I’m not kidding, this is its true name and it has endured eons of Piscean teasing as a result). Yes, fish know all about deception, distraction display, false courtship behaviour, death feigning, numeracy (look up the mosquitofish), play, food stocking and fisherman taunting.

the unfortunate assfish

We could see them jumping down river, or if we went down river, we’d see them upriver. At one point a large sea trout jumped right out in front of us, ignoring the lure, checked us out and decided we were harmless enough. We had better luck at the Bangor Seafood Co.

the cool Ogwen

fowl mocking

All unsuccessful fishing activity was witnessed by the many swans which live in the tidal sea by the mouth of the Ogwen. They are joined in the evenings by gulls and other sea birds and together create a chorus of plaintive sounds which are very melancholic but could be interpreted as the local wildlife jeering.

Ceramically, the whole experience is well summed up by the wavy green vase: lots of water but no fish, and the colours reflect those in the landscape, as in the image below.

But back to the Penrhyn area – it had been owned by the Pennant family until death duties forced them to hand over the 40,000 acre estate to the National Trust in the 1950s. The family had owned Jamaican sugar plantations since the middle of the seventeenth century, becoming established as merchants in Liverpool and London, while benefitting from the hundreds of enslaved African people working for them.

bust of Richard Pennant

Richard Pennant (1737–1808), MP for Liverpool, invested the Jamaican profits in his agricultural estates and set up the Penrhyn Slate Quarry and built Port Penrhyn. He also built roads, railways, schools, hotels, workers’ houses, churches and farms, but still campaigned against the abolition of slavery. When slavery was finally abolished, the family received £14,683 compensation for 764 enslaved people on their Jamaican estates.

The real Pennant with his dog Crab, by Henry Thomson

The Penrhyn quarry was the world’s largest slate quarry in the nineteenth century, its main pit being 1 mile long and worked by 300 quarrymen, who went on strike over pay in 1900. There was a massive gap between the wealth of Lord Penrhyn, living in his splendid castle, and the poverty of his workers, who lived in local quarrying communities. The strike lasted 3 years, the biggest in union history, until many returned to work out of hunger; but production was soon overtaken by foreign quarries and the decline set in.

the beach

Nowadays it is home to the fastest zip line in the world, Velocity 2, where you can fly 500m above the bright blue quarry lake, blue because of the dissolved natural minerals – copper sulphate. Other activities undertaken included a visit to a butterfly house on Anglesey where we met a chameleon.

Kevin

And slate lies everywhere in Penrhyn – great slabs on the shore of the straits when the tide is out or washed over by the cool river water of the Ogwen, or used as fencing in fields, or just highlighting the green of the landscape with its dark presence.

groyne

On the tidal beach at Penrhyn the remains of old timber palisades or groynes still stick out of the sand. These groynes were constructed more or less perpendicular to the shoreline to restrict the movement of sediment along the shore but have long ago rotted away and now look like the ribs of some monster.

the path down from Bradlow Knoll

The familiar landscape back in Ledbury was a contrast, with all the varieties of green on display, and trees and meadows at their summer’s peak. Climbing up to CJ’s bench was a slog after the excesses of our Welsh break, but the view was rewarding, as ever, and a remider of how varied the landscapes of this island are.

the eight bells

Another view that required a hard slog up hundreds of steps was a visit to the top of St Michael’s tower in Ledbury, only recently opened to the public after a successful fundraising campaign to repair the eight bells and reinforce the structure.

looking up at the tip of the spire from the bells platform

looking up at the tip of the spire from the bells platform

Ledburians who read this blog, I climbed those steps so that you do not have to, but if you still feel compelled to do so yourselves, then I recommend it, not least for the view you get of the town from the parapet around the base of the spire.

Ledbury from the tower of St Michael’s

Lastly, if you fancy reading another short story of mine, this one was published by Fairlight  Books. Fairlight make all of the stories on their website freely available to readers, their aim is to fight the corner for the short story as a form of literature which is often hidden behind paywalls, and to promote and support the writing of these authors. Just click here.

Hwyl fawr

Rutile

St John’s Wort in rutile vase

Last July I was going on about the names of all the different plants that grow wild in Frith Wood, as well as discussing the benefits of geophagia for some reason (the eating of mud or clay). I also think worms came into it, somehow. Click here if you want to revisit.

 

meadowsweet

This July, however, I would like to introduce you to Filipendula ulmaria, or meadowsweet. It could be because it was used in the Middle Ages as a sweetener for mead that it gets its name, but take a whiff and it might remind you of something familiar. Its chemical constituents include salicin, which was synthetically altered because it causes less digestive upset than pure salicylic acid used in drugs, and thus aspirin was created. It was Bayer that named it aspirin after meadowsweet’s old botanical name: Spiraea ulmaria.  It does have a whiff of aspirin.

meadowsweet

There is a lot of it now  flourishing on the sides of the roads all over Herefordshire: fluffy, slightly floppy, pale cream bundles framed by the hedges they grow by. I confess that the real reason I mention meadowsweet is to promote the Ledbury Poetry Festival and Edward Thomas’ poem, Adlestrop:

 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The Barrett Browning Institute

The Festival this year is mostly online, though there are some great events held in Ledbury itself over the weekend of 9 – 11 July. Click here for all the available events (online and non-online). The Festival is on until 11th July. The Barrett Browning Institute in the town centre  is the Festival’s headquarters, and if you go in you will find Sally Crabtree.

Sally Crabtree

Her latest installation is a sweetshop of conceptual confectionery which offers each member of the public a small gold coin which they can spend on just one thing at the counter and it explores the notion of choice in our lives-“Choose well. Your choice is brief, and yet endless” as Goethe says. It has the feel of a fairground stall with the excitement that each person goes away with a ‘prize’ so to speak. Of more value perhaps however is that each sweet that they choose comes with its own quirky, philosophical inner layer of meaning which they unwrap, depending on what they choose.

Festival A board

And for children… they can fill a jamboree bag with their own creations inspired by the Sweetshop of Words –  including lyrical lollipops, glass sweets and pop a pop a poem balloons!

stonewarew rutile signal vase

As I said in the last blog, the difference between poetry and pottery is only a “t”, and some new pieces have emerged out of the kiln which, if not poetic, are at least expressive.

Wavy rutile vase

The latest batch of ceramics has seen the rise of an ingredient called rutile.   Rutile is a glaze additive that produces colours ranging from light and dark blue, to tan, gold, yellow, and even purple.  It has a mind of its own, depending on the glaze base and the firing conditions and, because it is a mined colorant, its makeup also depends on the mine source. Many potters test their batches of rutile before committing to a full bucket of glaze – all the result of the mineral’s notorious inconsistency. But when it works, it produces many crystalline, speckling, streaking, and mottling effects in glazes during cooling in the kiln and thus it is highly prized by potters.

Wavy rutile vase verso

Of course, here at Peter Arscott Ceramics, and following in the contrarian, or maybe heedless, tradition, rutile is not used in this way at all but rather mixed as a powder with water and a viscous agent to produce a colourant that can be applied like paint to the bisque surface of the piece, and then dipped in a transparent glaze. In other words, it is not used as a glaze but as a colour that gives the object’s surface an effect halfway between wood and honey. See for yourselves.

rutile close-up

By the way, Brits pronounce it “root ill” and Americans say “root isle”, which I prefer. On the other hand, and digressing wildly, why do Americans say “rowt” when they want to say “route”? Answers please. And since we are on the subject, why do they pronounce “rubbish” as “garbage” and “chips” as “french fries”? I am sure that at least one of the three American readers of this blog will tell me in no uncertain terms.

my friend Edith

I got know a resident sparrow, called Edith, busy looking for anything to feed its chicks in their nest in the roof’s gutter. Luckily they were not flooded out, and I felt so sorry for her that I bought a  bag of mealy worms. She didn’t want to land on my outstretched hand but was OK on the table, where she would occasionally forget herself and leave a calling card. The fledglings have now flown, and she has lost all interest in visiting.  Spurned by a sparrow.

Goodbye, May

rain clouds over Ledbury

When I went for a long walk up to Bradlow Knoll and beyond, the day had decided to let rip and unload all of its stored water down onto Frith Wood and onto the lone walker struggling along its already slimy paths. It meant that all one’s concentration was on not slipping, rather than on looking around at the flora and fauna, so these images were taken towards the end of the trudge, when the clouds parted, and the path was level.

bluebells

It turns out that on Friday 21 May , the UK experienced 91% of its expected rainfall for the entire month, with approximately 63.5mm having already fallen. The wettest May on record was in 1967, when 131.7mm of rain fell across the month.

buttercup

It is not the first time the UK has experienced unusual weather this year. April was the frostiest on record, with an average of 13 days of air frosts reported for the UK, topping the 11 days seen in April 1970. Last year, the UK experienced its sunniest spring and driest May since records began with 626 hours of bright sunshine recorded for the UK, exceeding the previous high (555 hours, set in 1948) by more than 70 hours.

bumblebee and bugle

As May transitions into June, we can only hope for dry sunny weather, though the British are, by and large, wary of getting carried away, and will have nurtured low expectations in order not to let disappointment overwhelm them. Is this why, when we go abroad to guaranteed sunshine, and we know we needn’t harbour any circumspection, we allow our inner buoyancy to bubble up and take over? This would explain the uncontrolled alcohol intake, the flippant balcony jumping, the skin-flaking sunburns, the nudity and cross-dressing, the dread of going back home.

The weather and the Brits. What would we talk about without it? It helps us overcome our social inhibitions, but there are rules when conducting these weather-related conversations. Firstly, the topic will almost always be introduced as a form of question and the person answering must agree, otherwise it is quite a serious breach of etiquette. Go on, try it out next time someone says “Cold, isn’t it?” and you say “No.”

dandelion don’t tell no lies. Click here

As for pottery, weather plays a part too. When freshly-made pieces are drying, the dry part will pull on the wet and crack the pottery prior to firing. The best way to avoid this is to dry everything in the shade, but since a humid or wet climate ensures that the pottery will retain its moisture, even after a week, it is best to give the pottery an extra week or even two – the longer the better.

slow dry

And to make sure it dries evenly during the first few days, a plastic bag over each piece is a good idea, otherwise you find parts that are attached to the main body dry too fast and hairline fractures only become bigger visible cracks after the final firing.  This can be deeply disheartening when you’ve put all your energy into one vase in particular, only to discover the fracture after the final hurdle. I’m sure it explains why so many potters turn to drink.

more bluebells

Going back 107 years to June 1914, I see that the month was cool and unsettled, alternating with dry, warm and sunny conditions. On the 8th the maximum temperature was only 13.4°C., and a severe thunderstorm, with hail, produced over 33mm of rain on the 14th. There were many dry and fairly sunny days during the second half of June, and during the last few days of the month it became increasingly warm, and eventually hot. On the 30th, it was sunny all day and the afternoon temperature reached 29°C.

Edward Thomas photo by Frederick Evans

I mention this because this was precisely the weather the poet Edward Thomas was remembering when he wrote “The sun used to shine”. It was the summer he and Robert Frost spent together in the Ledbury area, one of the great literary friendships which ended with Thomas’s death at Arras in 1917. I like to think they took the same paths along the Frith wood, as many of us here still do – they were great walkers. Despite my best research, they do not seem to have any particular interest in ceramics, even though the only difference between poetry and pottery is a “t”.

“Frost’s footfall” is an essay I have written about the two for The Common, a literary organisation based at Amherst College that publishes writing that embodies particular times and places, and where Robert Frost taught for forty years. Click here to read it.

 

The Ledbury Poetry Festival has been going for 25 years, and this July (2 – 11) will be offering us digital encounters with poets such as Margaret Atwood, Jorie Graham, Andrew McMillan, Jackie Kay, Fred D’Aguiar, Billy Collins, Fiona Sampson, as well as Mexican, Zimbabwean, Chinese, Slovakian and Belarusian voices, and puppetry, a poetry sweet shop, bingo, an interactive digital poetry trail…. Click here for more details.

betony – the stateliest of small flowers

 

The sun used to shine while we two walked

Slowly together, paused and started

Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked

As either pleased, and cheerfully parted

 

Each night. We never disagreed

Which gate to rest on. The to be

And the late past we gave small heed.

We turned from men or poetry

 

To rumours of the war remote

Only till both stood disinclined

For aught but the yellow flavorous coat

Of an apple wasps had undermined;

 

Or a sentry of dark betonies,

The stateliest of small flowers on earth,

At the forest verge; or crocuses

Pale purple as if they had their birth

 

In sunless Hades fields. The war

Came back to mind with the moonrise

Which soldiers in the east afar

Beheld then. Nevertheless, our eyes

 

Could as well imagine the Crusades

Or Caesar’s battles. Everything

To faintness like those rumours fade—

Like the brook’s water glittering

 

Under the moonlight—like those walks

Now—like us two that took them, and

The fallen apples, all the talks

And silence—like memory’s sand

 

When the tide covers it late or soon,

And other men through other flowers

In those fields under the same moon

Go talking and have easy hours.

 

moonpot

Spring clean

 

early April morning

Early April morning walk up to Frith Wood, clear sky, a little dew in the grass, birds singing – chaffinch, great tit, blackbird and the deep cawing of the “boss”, the raven, the usual lovely view from C.J.’s bench and then the last uphill trudge into the cool of the wood itself. I had the whole place to myself (I thought) until a hair-raising bark from deep in the trees made me jump out of my skin. It came at regular 5 second intervals and I thought I’d recorded it but realized when I got home that I had not pressed the start button. Research online confirmed that it was a barking Roe deer, probably warning others of my approach – it sounds very dog-like.

barking roe deer

Here we are in April, with lockdown appearing to recede, and Spring well-established, the blooms are beginning to open up, leaves are unfurling – it is the month of the growing season and thus aptly named: it is derived from the Latin word aperit, which means “to open”.

mayflower in April

Also, and more importantly to some, it’s also Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month, as well as National Soft Pretzel Month in the USA. And Edible Book Day is celebrated on April 1st – this is not an April Fool’s joke and is taken seriously by that voracious reader, the book worm.

wood anemone

The wood anemone was just beginning to carpet the ground, and the first bluebells were about to unfurl. It was a quiet and relaxing five kilometre walk after the initial “hart”- stopping  moment.

worm moon?

After last month’s Worm Moon, mentioned in last month’s blog and which was largely obscured by cloud, we may have better luck for the next two over the next two months, with a Pink Moon and a Flower Moon on the way. Wolf Moon (January), Snow Moon (February), Sturgeon Moon (August) and Beaver Moon (November) are just four of the monthly moons to look out for. But in order to avoid this blog becoming a lunar calendar, I must try and be as brief as possible and not get carried away (Yes, do try not to – Spiro).

pink moon

The Pink Moon supermoon will be at its peak on Tuesday, April 27 at 4.31am. The Flower Moon supermoon will be at its largest and brightest on Wednesday, May 26 at 12.13pm. The April and May full moons will both appear to loom large as the moon is at its closest points to Earth on its orbit. The Pink Moon, from the pink flowers – phlox – that bloom in the early spring, is also the Sprouting Grass Moon, Fish Moon or Hare Moon. The Old English/Anglo-Saxon name is Egg Moon. It is also known as the Paschal Moon because it is used to calculate the date for Easter. (OK, that’s quite enough – S.).

wavy fruit bowl

Right. Now the ceramics. Rummaging in the deepest recesses of the storage room is like going back in time. Waiting to see the light of day was a stack of stoneware wave bowls made some years ago and never sold. Spiro ( in charge of Marketing) says it is because they were not properly promoted for their practical use and that customers were perplexed by their description as “wave” bowls. Spiro wants to publicise them as fruit bowls and insists on the following description:

fruity feature

“A really stylish modern ceramic fruit bowl that looks great in any room of the house and can be used in so many ways. This amazing ceramic piece will make a stylish feature on a sideboard, dining room table or kitchen island. It also provides a sense of style to any contemporary space.”

stylish

I suppose I like them for their aesthetic qualities above all and prefer to see them as objects with visual impact, which, I keep telling Spiro, PAC followers do too. He is adamant that function comes before form. Anyway, this is his compromise:

fruit bowl with fruit

“No matter what kind of salad you serve up, this ceramic bowl is sure to make it look scrumptious! This simply designed tableware with its wavy brushstrokes in blue and green depicts a contemporary look with marine associations.  This bowl is perfect for everyday use or special occasions and along with the rest of the range can be used in infinite ways to suit your style. Material: glaze fired porcelain. Dishwasher, oven and microwave safe.”

Edible Book Day

I also found some chargers, or large round serving dishes, so both fruit bowls and chargers need to make room for new stock and will be displayed for sale in the garden at Oakland House, The Homend, Ledbury HR8 1AP from Saturday 18th to Sunday 19th April (10 – 5). They will be spaced out appropriately , but I assume there will not be more than six people together in the garden at any given time. If you want to purchase a bowl, put on a mask and knock on the kitchen door, either Spiro, or Thelonious, or I will serve you. Card or cash accepted. Prices range from £30 to £60.

wave bowl as birdbath

Anyone who’d like a piece but cannot travel, select the one you’d like and just send an email to info@peterarscott.co.uk  Shipping and packaging for UK will add £10.

a. 34 cms max width. 1.7k. £30

b. 42 cms width. 2.4k. £50

c. 42 cms width. 2.7 k. £50

d. 45 cms width. 3.7 k. £65

e. 40 cms width. 1.9 k. £45 Miró

f. 39 cms d. 3k. £40

g. 48 cms d. 4 k. £50

h. 42 cms d. 5 k. £45

 

i. 48 cms d. 5k. £60

Lastly, I thought you’d enjoy this video of a deer attacking a hunter. Just click on it:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

political pottery

wobbly shelf or shard luck?

Last week I walked into the studio and slammed the door behind me. There was a resounding crash. I knew then that I should have repaired the wobbly shelf that held stacks of three legged bowls. However, all potters develop a protective skin that steers them away from howling at the moon, so I swept it all up.

beyond glueing

I hope the night of March 28th is clear and cloudless because this month’s full moon, called the Full Worm Moon, is a “Supermoon”, the nickname given to a full moon when it’s closest to our planet. It’s named the Worm Moon due to the softening of the ground that typically happens in the spring that allows earthworms to emerge. And I couldn’t resist bringing worms into the blog again.

supermoon

But March in the UK is usually associated with the yellow splash of colour that daffodils provide, and we rather take them for granted.  I didn’t know that the word derives from “asphodel”, a variant of Middle English affodil, from Latin asphodelus.

daffs

Yes, we Brits do go on about our daffodils, but we’re not the only ones. They are also valued in China. They bloom around Chinese New Year, and symbolize good luck, prosperity, and good fortune. If the flowers bloom exactly on New Year’s Day, it means that you will have good luck for the entire year. The Feng Shui three legged Money Toad will also bring luck – in fact all things three legged are a good thing, unless they are on a wobbly shelf.

three legs = good luck

Now that we’re talking about China, I can remind you that this is a ceramics blog and that porcelain developed in China and exported to Europe was so named after its country of origin. Porcelain and china, by the way, are fired at a higher temperature than stoneware, which is what I use, but are made of a finer particle clay, which results in a thinner construction and more translucent body.

willow pattern story

So, still with China, many of you will be familiar with The Willow pattern. It is a distinctive and elaborate chinoiserie pattern popular at the end of the 18th century in England when, in its standard form, it was developed by ceramic artists adapting motifs inspired by fashionable hand-painted blue and white wares imported from China. Part of the marketing ploy, claims Spiro (in charge of Marketing at Peter Arscott Ceramics), was to come up with a good story to sell it.

the Duke arrives in his boat

This is the story: once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter. She fell in love with her father’s accounting assistant, angering her father. He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride.

the lovers escape, Dad with whip in hand

On the eve of the daughter’s wedding, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand, though it looks more like a ball and chain.

the lovers transformed

They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. He sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves

protest vase

I decided I would give the traditional pattern a more up-to-date interpretation. My visit to Hong Kong three years ago was an eye opener, and I enjoyed the vibrancy and energy of the place – click here to visit the blog – so with the suppression of free expression and democracy in Hong Kong and the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang in mind, I made a willow pattern protest vase, since I feel strongly about the issue, and I am a potter. Instead of the doves, two helicopters, instead of the lovers escaping over the bridge, prisoners with guards. You get the idea :

Confucius said that an oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger.

And Confucius did not say the following:

 “Man who keeps both feet firmly planted on ground has trouble putting on pants.”

zaijian – 再见 (Goodbye)

The jumble vases of Mud Month

panoramic view from Bradlow Knoll

Apologies for the brevity of this month’s blog, which like the month of February itself, seems shorter than others and lacking a defined personality. Unfair really. After all, had it retained its original Old English name of Kale-monath it would be forever associated with brassica as Cabbage Month, which we can assume was the daily culinary highlight for the medieval English but must have been an off-putting addition to the domestic winter fug within.

muddy path

The other Old English name was Solmonath, which literally means “mud month.” Whichever way you look at it, February does not come out smelling of roses, until the Romans arrived and thankfully renamed it . So, thank you Romans. They named it after the festival of purification called Februa, during which people were ritually washed.

jumble vase

Three facts about February: in Welsh, February is sometimes known as “y mis bach” which means “little month.” It  is the only month where it’s possible to go the entire time without having a full moon.  February frequently occurs in lists of the most commonly misspelt words in the English language

dinosaur legs

However, Frith Wood. It was a cold day, as you can probably tell by the images, and my powers of observation were subdued. The only thing that drew me out of my reverie was the appearance of two giant dinosaur legs wearing green socks. The “green socks” of moss around the two tree trunks struck me as strange. The moss seems to only grow to a certain height before it applies the brakes and comes to a dead halt: “this far and no more”. Possible explanation? The air within 60 centimetres of the ground is moist because water is constantly evaporating from the ground, so moss, lazy like everybody else, just hunkers down and laps it up. Anybody with a better or more scientific explanation please tell us.

another jumble vase

So, to ceramics (about time, says Spiro). Two larger-than-usual vases came out of the kiln this month, and they do look different. They are part of a series called “jumble vases”, made from stoneware slab-rolled and cut into different shapes which are then applied to each other in such a way that the final piece looks as if it’s made from five or six different vases.

jumble vase showing its decals

After the piece is bisque-fired, each “fragment” is hand painted, then the whole piece is dipped in transparent glaze and fired at the usual 1275 degrees. When it comes out, the areas that have been deliberately left blank then have decals applied. These are fine transparent designs which are soaked in water then carefully placed on the glazed surface. Then the vase goes back into the kiln and fired to 800 degrees.

jumble vase 2

They are sculptural, visually arresting, but also practical, since you can fill them with water and put plants (or other things) in them.

things to put in a jumble vase

Lastly, if you’ve ever heard of flash-fiction (a self-contained story under six hundred words, in this case) and you are interested enough, you can read one of my stories at 365 Tomorrows by clicking here. They are an online site publishing science fiction in all its incarnations, from hard sci-fi to cyberpunk and beyond.

cyberpunk (benign)

Spring is around the corner, snowdrops have appeared, crocuses are out, next the daffs, and then it’s Summer. Antio sas, as Spiro the Greek says.

crocus sativus

worm grunting

May Hill hovering on the horizon

The fitter your legs, the fitter your mind. This is what I told myself as I slogged up Bradlow Hill to my favourite viewing spot one harsh cold morning last week. It’s good for you, colder temperatures help people think clearly, people perform tasks better. What’s more, people are less inclined to tackle cognitive problems in the summer, as opposed to winter, because the warm weather uses more glucose that’s needed for mental processes.

the slog uphill

Yes, a long, brisk walk is as good as a run when it comes to lowering risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol because it’s the total energy used, you see, rather than the intensity of the workout, that counts.

frond vase

Encouraged, I tried tackling a cognitive problem. When did time begin? Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten? Where do lost socks go when they are missing? No answer presented itself.

hoar frost

But it was cold. Very cold. Everything was covered in wispy white and the mud, usually so slippery and just waiting to play with you, was ice solid and didn’t try any of its old tricks. I decided it was a hoar frost. Later, when I got home, I looked up “hoar” – it comes from an Old English adjective that means “showing signs of old age”. In this context, it refers to the frost that makes trees and bushes look like white hair.  It is formed by direct condensation of water vapour to ice at temperatures below freezing.

frozen worm roof

More cognitive problems: which came first – the chicken or the egg? Why do men have nipples? What would happen if somebody hired two private detectives to follow each other? At a cinema or theatre, which armrest is yours? What happens to worms when the earth above them has frozen? Just think how nice it would be to sleep curled up in a warm place, like a worm when the temperature goes down and the frost appears. They burrow below the frost line where they nest in chambers at the bottom of tunnels they dig, kept moist by the slimy mucus they produce. All that soil above them keeping them warm, like a blanket – bad news for birds, no matter how early they get up on a cold winter’s day.

do worms dream?

Do worms communicate? Do they produce any sound? My research later showed up all sorts of interesting facts, like worm grunting – which is the art of rubbing iron and wood to cause vibrations in the ground that cause worms to wriggle to the surface – but I read that earthworms do not have vocal cords, lungs or larynx to drive air through and generate noise, and why didn’t I enrol in a biology class, it was suggested, and get a life.

lobe vase

Looking around at the whitened landscape another cognitive problem came to me. What makes stoneware and porcelain white? I know this one: kaolin, or rather kaolinite, a mineral. Kaolin is the only type of clay from which a white, translucent, vitreous ceramic can be made. It is a refractory clay, meaning that it can be fired at high temperatures without deforming, and it is white-burning, meaning that it imparts whiteness to the finished ware, be it stoneware or porcelain. Ceramicists like Edmund de Waal usually like their pieces in their pure white state.

Much as I like the white of stoneware and porcelain, because I am a painter, I feel the need to colour the surface with stains and oxides before dipping the piece in a transparent glaze and firing it to 1275℃.

horn vase

By the way, it turns out that Kaolinite is also used in toothpaste, incandescent lightbulbs, cosmetics, paint, whitewash and paper.  Some people even eat it to help digestion or to lower food toxicity, but don’t try it at home.

bottom mystery

When I got to the top of the hill, I saw that someone had already beaten me to CJ’s bench and left his or her mark. In full Sherlock cognitive mode, I studied the patch left by the person’s bottom on the frosted wood: hmmm, not a large person, and very confident of the waterproof clothing worn, and given the heat required to melt the ice, I surmised the person had, like me, climbed the hill to the bench to generate such heat. Therefore, the person was ahead of me and in the woods. I decided not to test the theory. If I rushed ahead and approached walkers ahead of me whilst looking for damp patches on their bottoms I would only get into trouble.

three legged bowl 52

Instead, I looked at the low wintry skyline and noticed a thin finger of cloud below the top of May Hill, which made it look as if it were floating just above the horizon.

raven photo: www.copetersen.com

The rest of the walk through the woods was uneventful with only a few walkers crossing paths, no squirrels, no birdsong, only the neighbourhood raven who always croaks way above the trees. It made me think of Merlina, the Queen raven that recently disappeared from the Tower of London, presumed dead. It was Charles II who officially decree that the birds must be kept at the Tower at all times (otherwise the kingdom would collapse), and when numbers fell to just a single raven guard, Winston Churchill ordered that the flock — known as an “unkindness” — was increased to at least six.

Seeing the landscape beyond through the vertical grid of the trees, I was reminded of a vase I made some time ago, thus the next two pictures:

view through the trees

You may have noticed that I have taken the advice of my marketing manager, St Spyridon (see previous blog), and have scattered images of recently made vases throughout this blog in a haphazard manner unrelated to the text. He assures me it is called scattergun influencer marketing and all the kids are doing it, and why am I calling this  blog worm grunting? It’s got nothing to do with ceramics.

Brittle Star

Nor has this: some of you who read my verbiage, my waffle, my flannel, might be interested in listening to me read a section from a short story called sibling published in Brittle Star.  Please join us for the magazine’s first ever virtual launch, hosted by the Barbican Library through Zoom. Free to attend, just click here to register.  It is  the publication’s twentieth birthday, with readings by contributors strictly limited to five minutes each.  There will be no ceramics on view, no matter what Spiro says about it being a great marketing opportunity. It will be on 26th January at 6pm until 7pm (UK time).

Keep well.

December squelch

December from Bradlow Knoll

The month of December signals the full emergence of the cold winter season and, as the last month of the year, it promises a new beginning in January – who would not be looking forward to that?

into the woods

On the other hand, we’ve learnt to change our habits so much in 2020 that, as a result, bread-making, chess, virtual wine tasting, online bingo and TV bingeing may be on the up but to the detriment of other activities such as going to your local shop, meeting other humans and playing golf. I do go walking more though.

mud and leaf

Yes, there is always the great outdoors, and on this particular day the sum was out and the day crisp and bright as I made my way into the Frith. There was no point looking for colour other than the general grey-green-brown hues, no plants, no fungi, just the wet mud of the path and Autumn’s fallen leaves, lots of dead bracken and, somewhere high above, a croaking raven.

bracken

Most of the brown areas are the result of bracken. It was traditionally used for animal bedding which later breaks down into a mulch that can be used as fertilizer, and it’s best not eaten, as it contains a carcinogenic compound, though it is used to store freshly made ricotta cheese. Highly invasive, luckily in autumn it turns brown and dies down. Ferns are definitely prettier.

Cameron Contemporary Art Gallery

Walking in squelchy mud is tiring and forces one to use muscles you didn’t realize you had until you clamber into bed, aching and stiff. That night I slept as soon as my head touched the pillow. I dreamt of trees, squirrels, mud snorkeling and giant stoneware vases.

 

nocturnal advice

At some point, I woke up with a start. There, at the end of my bed, sat an old man with a long white beard. He wore a woven straw hat, so he wasn’t Father Christmas. There was a musky smell of sheep in the air. He looked at me and asked:

“Do you honestly think that they care that bracken was used for animal bedding?”

“Sorry?” I mumbled, “who are you?”

“Remember me?” he asked. “Come on. Your blog of November 2019?”

I searched my memory and suddenly it came to me.

“Ah, yes, of course. St Spyridon, patron saint of potters.”

“Spot on, though you did misspell my name on that blog.”

“How can I help?” I asked politely.

“I believe it’s the other way round. I am here to help you.”

“Oh, how?”

“You’re having trouble with your blog. It’s been preying on your mind, and last night before you fell asleep you muttered the words “hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates”. If these are the last words a potter says before sleep, I am duty-bound to make an appearance.”

“Well. It can’t happen very often then.”

“You’d be surprised how often a disturbed and troubled potter utters the magic words before drifting off.”

I sniffed the air, which was rude of me.

“Oh, I used to tend sheep before I became Bishop of Trymithous. That’s why I wear this shepherd’s hat. Anyway, your blog. You’re finding it increasingly difficult to relate its content to ceramics, when, after all, it’s meant to be a ceramics blog. Is that right?”

“Yes, I admit that.”

The Chuffed Store

“Your blogs tend to be text-heavy, filled with rambling non-sequiturs and partly related images. The last one was all about mushrooms.  I am here to provide a solution. Instead of trying to twist the text towards any ceramic-related narrative, I propose you write about whatever takes your fancy and intersperse that with unrelated images of your work. Each image, when clicked on, will link the viewer with details of the piece, where it can be bought, and for how much. The more images, the lighter the blog. Vision trumps all senses; the human brain can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds.”

Jewel Street

“Wow. You’re quite media savvy for a third century Greek monk. I suppose once you get to Heaven you absorb everything past, present and future, and take on a wisdom beyond anything human.”

“Natch. By the way, how many followers do you have?”

“Well, seven that I know of,” I hesitated, then added pathetically “not including my wife and mum, of course.”

Jewel Street

Wanting to change the subject I asked:

“So, who else have you helped in this way?”

“Oh, I gave Josiah Wedgwood a hand with his marketing, Bernard Leach too, Kawai Kanjirō, Pablo Picasso…”

“Gosh, all that knowledge at your fingertips.”

“Yes, but there are limitations. We get given one luxury when we arrive at the Pearly Gates but this is restricted to each person’s contemporary experience and era. So, for example, my friend Albert Schweitzer has a gigantic church organ, Siggy Freud has a gramophone player, Nelson Mandela has a constant supply of Dom Pérignon, and so on. Alas, I could not have any of these because they did not exist in my time.”

“So what did you choose?”

“Goat’s yoghurt. I’ve always had a passion for it, and it was considered the height of indulgence in my day.”

“But presumably you can share things, listen to Freud’s records, sip Nelson’s champagne…?”

“Yes, true. Albert is teaching me the organ, though, of course…… for a fee.”

“You use currency there?”

“No, we exchange things.”

“So how do you pay Mr Schweitzer?”

“In yoghurt.”

Jewel Street

St Spyridon raised a hand and signalled the end of our conversation.

“I will only appear when genuinely needed. It’s no good muttering “hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates” unless you have a real potter’s dilemma, otherwise I’d be forever at the beck and call of potters.”

He stood up and waved, then slowly disappeared through the bedroom wall.

The Chuffed Store

Later my wife woke up and, despite my protestations, accused me of allowing sheep into the house while she was asleep.

Parfum d’Ovine

Just click on the images of ceramics to find out more about each piece. Jewel Street is a new outlet you might like to visit, and if you do want to buy a three legged bowl for Christmas the voucher code is PETERARSCOTT10, which will get you a £10 discount. St Spyridon is full of ideas. Meanwhile, back in the workshop, recently made up vases are drying in readiness for their bisque firing in a few days.

waiting for the kiln


αντιο σας

Fungus

image of ceramic pot in 192os setting of Haslington House in Malvern

Star vase at Haslington House. Photo Amanda Jackson

After driving to Upper Colwall to deliver a vase for a photo shoot at Haslington House for the Chuffed Store‘s Christmas catalogue (well it is November), and after gazing down at the counties of Herefordshire on the West and Gloucestershire on the East side of the hill, I was inspired and needed a walk.

portrait of King Alfred

This is King Alfred

A damp and overcast day for a walk in the Frith Wood, but this time in the company of son and daughter-in-law, which shifts the dynamics from the usual meandering inattention of two eyes to the more stimulated and observant six, focussing on all things mycological. Both are keen fungus foragers and they know how and where to look, pointing out all sorts of strange little outgrowths along a track I had only been along two days ago without spotting anything unfamiliar. Even before entering the wood at the top of Bradlow Hill , in the sloping meadow just a few feet from Chris Johnson’s bench, they noticed a large Parasol mushroom.

Parasol mushroom held by hand

Parasol

WARNING. Dear reader, one way of minimising the risk of poisoning by Parasol-like mushrooms is to steer clear of any specimens with caps smaller than 10cm across when fully expanded, so avoid small specimens. The other, better, way to reduce to zero the risk of harm is to not take any of this blog as trustworthy – remember that I am a ceramicist and I know as much about mycology as a fish does about bicycle gears. Which reminds me that this is meant to be a ceramics blog and I don’t know how I’m going to link mushrooms to pottery.

stinkhorn fungus

This is not a Parasol. It is a Stinkhorn.

Anyway, keep in mind that all fungi deteriorate in flavour and texture as they age (don’t we all). This Parasol was obviously way past its sell-by date, so we didn’t take it home.  Experts recommend gathering Parasols at the ‘partly expanded umbrella’ stages of development before putting them in a pan and frying them in butter. Keep the stems chopped up for mushroom soup.

small stump puffballs

Stump Puffballs.

Just behind the C.J.’s bench was a cluster of Stump Puffballs. Must be eaten while the flesh is white throughout (they can be fried with onions or used to make soup) and its best to leave “mature” ones alone, once they have a darker or brown surface, they are inedible. However, even when young, the tough outer skin needs to be removed – a fiddly job – and if any are turning yellow it means they are maturing and should be chucked out. At the end of the cooking session you may want to throw them all out and nip down to Tesco for a bag of button mushrooms.

Blood Red Web Cap mushroom

Blood Red Web Cap

Rosy Bonnet mushroom

The Rosy Bonnet

Once into the Frith and its murky light, some of the fungus we came across are quite ugly, others bizarre, but they play an important role within our ecosystems, helping to recycle nutrients from dead or decaying organic matter, and providing food and shelter for different animals. A pile of old logs in your garden will encourage fungi and the wildlife that depends on them. Some are strangely beautiful in their own right, and the Wood Blewitt is one, the Blood Red Web Cap another, the Rosy Bonnet, the Amethyst Deceiver… by the way, the images of mushrooms and fungi held to the camera by a hand with red painted nails, that’s my daughter-in-law’s and not my son’s.

The Blewitt mushroom

Sordid Blewitt

In many parts of mainland Europe, Wood Blewits are available in supermarkets throughout most of the autumn and winter months, and they are particularly popular in France, Spain and Portugal. Young caps are best, and they have the added advantage of retaining their bluish colouring as an aid to identification. They are very good if sauteed and served with veal, pork or chicken; they are also fine with cheese, rice and pasta dishes.

the jelly-like Witch's Butter fungus

Witch’s Butter

What about the Yellow Brain or Witch’s butter?  According to European legend, if Yellow Brain fungus appeared on the gate or door of a house it meant that a witch had cast a spell on the family living there. The only way the spell could be removed was by piercing the fungus several times with straight pins until it went away.

Honey Fungus growing at the base of a tree

The Honey Fungus

The Honey Fungus can be a destructive forest microorganism since it causes “white rot” root disease. It also feeds on dead plant material, allowing it to kill its host, unlike parasites that moderate their own growth to avoid host death – so they are bad news if they appear in your garden. In parts of Europe it is highly prized and ranked above Morels and Chanterelles for their distinctive “mushroomy” and nutty flavour.  On the other hand, the largest known organism in the world is a Honey Fungus that spans over 8.9km2 in Oregon. It is estimated to be 2400 years old. Yes, the largest living thing on Earth is a humongous fungus.

The cup-like Polyporus grows on dead wood

Polyporus Varius

The Polypore fungus is one of the good guys. It is an indicator species of healthy natural forests, and Ötzi the Iceman, who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE and was found in the Similaun mountains of Austria in 1991, was carrying a polypore species, probably for medicinal use.

King Alfred's Cake fungus looks like a lump of coal

King Alfred’s Cake

We came across the inedible King Alfred’s Cake, or Cramp Ball, or Carbon Ball, which it resembles. I expect you all know the legend of King Alfred (b 871) who once hid out in a countryside cottage during a battle and was put in charge of removing cakes from the oven when they were done. He fell asleep and the cakes burned and when the old lady of the house returned, she beat him with her broom. The fungus is said to resemble a charred cake. The fungus is a useful form of tinder for fire-lighting. you can drop a spark on to the inside surface and if you are successful you will see a small orange glow begin to form and spread throughout the fungus, similar to a charcoal briquette. 

An opened chestnut burr reveals two chestnuts

Open chestnut burr

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree

I loved him and he loved me

There I used to sit upon his knee

‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree…..

There beneath the boughs make no mistake

Good Queen Bess play darts with Drake

Watching Alfred burn the birthday cakes

‘Neath the spreading chestnut tree.

(click here to hear Glenn Miller’s famous version)

A Hungarian dessert made from chestnut and cream

gesztenyepüré

A significant percentage of the trees in the Frith is chestnut. The ground in the wood is littered with fallen chestnuts and opened burrs, many already nibbled by that nemesis of all saplings, the grey squirrel, who strip bark from them when the tree is about eight years old and onwards. It might be the vitamin C they’re after to set them up for winter since the chestnut is the only “nut” that contains that vitamin. Roasting the fruit involves scoring the fruit beforehand to prevent explosion due to expansion in the oven. Once cooked, its texture is slightly similar to that of a baked potato, with a delicate, sweet, and nutty flavour. In Hungary they puree cooked chestnuts mix them with sugar and rum, force it through a sieve and top it with whipped cream: gesztenyepüré (go on, say it). 

the lobe-shaped Jelly Ear fungus

Jelly Easr fungus

the brain-like underside of the Maze Gill fungus

the porous underside of a Maze Gill fungus

It may be that now that Autumn is here the variety and colour of the flora in and around the wood has diminished, but the incredible array of what so often goes unnoticed is exceptional. I’m only posting some of the photos taken – there are actually twenty six images of different mushrooms and fungi from this one walk: a whole world below knee height.

A cluster of small ink cap mushrooms

Ink Caps

The black mess left after the Ink Cap mushroom rots used to be used as ink after boiling with a little water and cloves, and, of course, a splash of urine. Also, be warned: it can cause sickness when ingested with alcohol, so do not combine mushroom hunting with a pub crawl.

a small white Yellow Stainer mushroom

Yellow Stainer

Not recommended, the Yellow Stainer can cause stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, sweating and diarrhoea. It looks as if something had a nibble of the one above.

image of large ceramic pot with moon-shaped lid

Big Blue

Many fungi, like the Witch’s Butter fungus, are lobed. A lobe is a curved or somewhat rounded projection or division of a bodily part. Behold: a large blue stoneware piece with four lobes at the base and a moon lid. Hmmm, a tenuous link, but if one of you come up with a better one, as I’m sure you will, I will include it.

Read more