Bernard Palissy's ceramics

It's 2006, the start of a new academic year at Oxford University. Oliver Quick, a seemingly ordinary, bespectacled guy, arrives dressed in a jumper with a two-tone scarf draped around his neck.

That's the opening of Emerald Fennel's unhinged film.


Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) disgusted by Palissy ceramics
Saltburn shot - Amazon Studio

Saltburn, a black comedy psychological thriller, follows the story of a student (portrayed by the talented Barry Keoghan) who becomes obsessed with a wealthy fellow student at his college, a gorgeous Jacob Elordi in the role of Felix Catton, who invites him to spend the summer at his eccentric family estate.

Loaded with mythological, literary and artistic references, and packed with the aesthetics of the 2010s, the film plays wildly with the traditional tropes of British comedy, brutally depicting the monstrous caricature of a desperate aristocracy, which is glazed over the glamour of the modern world.

Almost every shot in Saltburn conceals a deeper meaning - for instance, the film is shot 1.33 on 35mm film, the oldest way of shooting cinema, but also an expedient to bring the characters closer on the screen and give the viewer a claustrophobia feeling -  through the use of graphic/symbolic elements to exacerbate hidden messages for an easier reading.

And so it is with the Palissy ceramics.

What do the Palissy plates in Saltburn mean, and who is he?


Plate by Bernard Palissy, Paris, last quarter of the 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public domain photo

If we were in the film - fortunately not, for us - Oliver would have quickly replied that he knew who "Bernard Palissy, the 16th century Huguenot ceramicist" was.

The Palissy plates first appear in the sequence where Oliver begins to integrate into the family. We find a disgusted Farleigh asking what these plates are when suddenly a spontaneous Oliver recognizes them in the artworks of Bernard Palissy, leaving Felix's father overjoyed and impressed that someone had noticed his mostly untraceable collection.

As viewers, we understand that Oliver has taken the time to read Saltburn's art book and has done his own research into the Palissy plates that later end up being the symbol of Farleigh's downfall.


Bernard Palissy, self-portrait in faience, from the collection of Baron Anthony de Rothschild in London, hand-coloured lithograph.
Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library

Bernard Palissy was indeed a 16th-century Huguenot ceramicist, born in 1510 in southwest France, where he trained as a glass painter. He happened to be the most innovative and original ceramist of the French Renaissance.

He is most famous for being the forefather of Palissy Ware, a type of pottery that reflects his fascination and the growing popular interest in the natural world as a result of the colonization that took place during the 16th-century, right when wealthy people were exposed to new plants and new species of animals that they had never seen before.


Details of a dish by Bernard Palissy, earthenware, Paris 1550, Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Cologne. Public domain photo


Bernard Palissy's best-known works are the plates on which he vividly depicted lakes and ponds, including flora and fauna. 

For the three-dimensional effect, Palissy went into nature. 

He then captured snakes, lizards, frogs and bugs and kept them alive in jars in his studio, where he would dip them in vinegar and urine and kill them.

He rubbed them with a greasy substance to make the real work begin. Palissy covered the animal with clay to make a lifelike model, which was his very own artistic signature.


Details of a dish by Bernard Palissy, earthenware, Paris 1550, Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Cologne. Public domain photo

The figures were then arranged on a plate and painted to create a kind of diorama that looked like a pond.

Snakes, insects, frogs, or foliage were collected and glazed in mostly deep greens, reds, yellows and a glossy glaze to enhance the water effect.


The surface decorations included also sea creatures, shellfish and other like fruit or vegetables.

The platters and plates soon had fans in the highest circles. One of his clients was the French Queen Catherine de Medici, for whom he created a grotto in the gardens of the Tuileries Palace in Paris, which unfortunately never finished.

These plates were indeed very influential many people copied the Palissy ware style and nowadays they are sold for about 63,000 euros.

Palissy’s ceramics are held in the collections of major institutions like the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London and the Getty in Los Angeles, when not held in private exposition.


Bernard Palissy, 1570-90 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The choice to feature the plates in Saltburn perfectly fits the purpose of showing a very aristocratic need to be surrounded by the finest and absurdly expensive artistic collections, while pointing out the subject of the collection itself.

Much of the pottery has snakes in the center, which is the symbolic evil leitmotif that runs throughout the film. As for the Sampuru (サンプル, from the English word sample) - the Japanese art of reproducing life-like dishes using resin, plastic or silicone - in Saltburn, Palissy depicts both the realm of the world and the evil destruction of the unconscious impulses and the wickedness of the film's characters in an English manor house.

The menacing message placed perfectly in the middle of the movie, as for the snakes in Palissy vessels, will then bring to an unexpected blasting end.