Writing on art – an underwater journey

Welcome to this episode of Writing on art.

Every episode is inspired by a work of art in a museum or gallery that is available online. We’ll look at it together, and then I’ll give you some ideas for writing and making. You can do as many or as few of the activities as you like.

This time we’re taking an underwater journey and travelling 500 years back in time, with the help of some art from the Wallace Collection in central London.

To start with, you just need some paper and pencils.

There are six tracks for you to listen to, or the text is on this page if you prefer to read. You can pause the recording and come back to it whenever you like. Press play to start.


Click here to see the photo.

Click on the photo to enlarge it. You can right-click and save the image to look at it offline. Use the sliders at the bottom and on the side to move the picture around.

1) How many creatures can you see?

Pause the recording while you have a look. You might want to get someone in your group to write down all the creatures so you can remember them. When you’re ready, press play again.

2) What do you think it would feel like to touch the basin?

Pause the recording and take your fingers on an imaginary journey around the basin. What’s your favourite place to stop? Write down your favourite place, or draw a quick picture of it. Keep it a secret from everyone else. Take turns to give them clues about how it feels and see if they can guess what you chose.

3) Five little speckled frogs

Five little speckled frogs,
Sat on a speckled log,
Eating some most delicious bugs.
Yum yum!
One jumped into the pool,
Where it was nice and cool,
Then there were four speckled frogs.
Glub glub!

Choose one of the other creatures on the basin – or any other watery creature you like – and write your own counting rhyme. Start off with five and decide what they are doing, and what makes them disappear, one by one!

4) Would you like to see a portrait of Bernard Palissy? Click here.

This is a portrait from the imagination – it was painted by Delaroche in 1832, hundreds of years later. Can you see Palissy sitting by the kiln in his workshop? There is a small window in the kiln to let him check how the firing is going. You might spot a large pestle and mortar for grinding up pigments (colours) under his elbow and a large pair of metal tongs on the floor for getting hold of pots that are too hot to handle. What’s he doing? Is he writing notes on the recipe for his glaze? Or planning the design for his next dish?

The basin was made out of clay, decorated with shiny glaze and fired in a kiln, a huge oven that can be heated to very high temperatures. It was made by a student or follower of a famous French potter called Bernard Palissy. Palissy was born around the year 1510. He was born to a poor family, but he had an education in geometry, and worked as a portrait painter, a glass-painter and as a surveyor, measuring and recording details about the land. When he was about 30 years old, someone showed him a beautiful, delicate porcelain cup. It might have been made in Italy, or even in China. He tried for 16 years to recreate the delicate white material the cup was made of. He says in his autobiography that he spent all his money and even burned his furniture and the floorboards of his house to feed the kiln. It drove his wife and children to despair, but he still couldn’t discover the secret. So he invented a completely different kind of pottery, using metals like tin, lead, iron and copper to create coloured glazes, and modelling wildlife scenes that came from the marshes around his home. By chance, a member of the French court saw one of his dishes and liked it so much he invited Palissy to help design and decorate a palace. Catherine de Medici gave him an official title: ‘the king’s inventor of rustic figurines’. He was allowed to set up a pottery works in Paris, near the royal palace of the Louvre. Palissy was also very interested in science, including fossils and the history of the earth, geology, and in engineering how to bring drinking water into cities. Sadly, during the religious wars in France, he was he was thrown into the Bastille prison for his beliefs. He nearly 80 years old, and died there.

Palissy’s style of ‘rustic’ dishes became really popular, and lots of people copied them for hundreds of years afterwards – so much so that it is sometimes hard to tell whether a dish was really made by Bernard Palissy or, like this one, that we’ve been looking at, made by one of his followers. 

5) Would you like to eat a meal off a plate decorated like this?

Or have it on the table as an ornament? Think of your favourite food. How would you decorate a plate to serve it on? What would make people smile when they saw the picture underneath the food? Perhaps a hen for a boiled egg? A leafy green forest for broccoli or salad?

  • Find a real plate from the kitchen. Trace round it to get a circle, then decorate it, using drawing, colour or you could even stick on decorations with collage.
  • If you have more time, you could model your own plate. Cover a plate with tin foil or cling film and use plasticine or playdough to model some underwater creatures. You can press spoons and forks into the plasticine or playdough to create the waves and other patterns. See what else you can use to make the texture of fish scales – perhaps the net from fruit or a cheese grater?
  • If you have some bread or biscuit dough, you could even model edible sculptures. Give them a glaze of egg yolk or sugar to make them as shiny as the fish in the basin, bake them and then arrange them on a plate.

I hope you’ve enjoyed having a look at this amazing basin. Perhaps you have an idea about fishy story you’d like to write, or a comic showing some more underwater adventures?

Have a look at some of the other wonderful plates and dishes in the Wallace Collection by searching the Wallace Collection website for the words porcelain or maiolica – you’ll find lots of plates illustrating stories and legends.


A recipe for playdough

8 tbsp plain flour

2 tbsp table salt

60ml warm water

food colouring

1 tbsp vegetable oil


  1. Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl mix together the water, a few drops of food colouring and the oil.
  2. Pour the coloured water into the flour mix and bring together with a spoon.
  3. Dust a work surface with a little flour and turn out the dough. Knead together for a few minutes to form a smooth, pliable dough. If you want a more intense colour you can work in a few extra drops of food colouring.
  4. Store in a plastic sandwich bag (squeeze out the air) in the fridge to keep it fresh.


Salt dough

Salt dough is good for more detailed modelling and lets you paint and keep your models.

1 cupful of plain flour (about 250g)

half a cupful of table salt (about 125g)

half a cupful of water (about 125ml)

Mix the ingredients to form the dough. When ready, place your finished items on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment and bake at the lowest possible temperature in the oven for 3 hrs or until solid. Don’t be tempted to turn up the heat for a faster result as this can make the models swell out of shape. Leave to cool and then paint.

(Both recipes adapted from www.bbcgoodfood.com)

 Word bank

Some words that might be connected with this underwater journey: slippery, shiny, smooth, shell, pincers, snakeskin, fish scales, fins, ferns, carapace, antennae…

Further reading and watching

The Frog Princess, Brothers Grimm

Frog and Toad stories by Arnold Lobel

‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song‘ by Edwin Morgan

For adults

In A.S. Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book, the potter Benedict Fludd is inspired by Palissy.