We sat down with satirist, cartoonist, illustrator and polymath Zebedee Helm over Kedgeree to chat about our textile collaboration, his two takes on British culinary classics and the phenomenon of Imperial Leather soap.
“I like the unexpected surprise of a mess made beautiful and immortal” says the Financial Times’ resident illustrator Zebedee Helm, whose debut collection of table linens unconventionally gives pride of place to the moments of dining we often go out of our way to hide. Hand-embroidered on linen, Helm assembles a cacophony of food remnants and scattered utensils, capturing the delightful chaos of dinner preparation – the part he most enjoys. His own food philosophy combines a love for adapting the classics – including Kedgeree and Rhubarb Bakewell Tart – with a desire to amuse, experimenting with dishes such as Quails in Coffins and squirrel kebabs, the latter of which he sold from a tipi at Frampton Country Fair.
Outside of his personal triumphs in the kitchen and the odd experiment in carving – which saw him create a sculpture park on a roadside in Gloucestershire – Helm is most recognised for his irreverent cartoons and illustrations, featured in the FT, Private Eye and House & Garden, and for brands such as Fortnum & Mason, Hermès and The Row.
The turn to homeware isn’t too far a stretch for the illustrator, whose home in Lewes unsurprisingly also plays in his colourful world of satirical imagination. Technicolour tongue-in-groove panelling surrounds pink terrazzo countertops and trompe l’oeil painted floors depicting empty medicine containers. Perhaps most intriguing of all: the racks of witty spices and other condiments with labels such as ‘flies’ (for raisins), ‘All Spice girls’ and ‘Geri’ (for ginger). As he prepares the Kedgeree for our interview it takes him a minute to determine whether the jar labelled ‘Snuff’ is curry powder or cinnamon – the momentary inconvenience, he tells me, is definitely worth the relentless amusement.
AMO: Let’s start with the two designs – where did the inspiration come from?
ZH: The inspiration for the tablecloths comes from Ancient Rome. I had borrowed a book to help inspire a coffin I was painting for a friend’s burial. It was filled with black and white photographs of this and that, but my attention was well and truly grabbed by an image of a mosaic called Unswept Room. It consisted of surprisingly detailed depictions of the detritus from a lavish banquet. Like the detritus, I was swept away. It was so unlike any mosaic I had seen, which were normally of frolicking nymphs or tiresomely symmetrical scrollwork. It was both amusing and startlingly modern.
For the tablecloths, the image of the mosaiced messy floor instantly came to mind. I like the unexpected surprise of a mess made beautiful and immortal, making champions of the preparation leftovers and those entirely overlooked yet indispensable participants in the feast. The utensils were a natural extension of this idea. My models for these were the contents of my own utensils drawer, which I emptied onto the table and painted where they'd fallen. These faithful worker friends elevated from the darkness of the drawer where they had been jostling with stray corks, pricked by vicious little cocktail sticks, then to be embroidered.
AMO: Speaking of which, this collaboration is your first foray into the world of textiles and homeware. What have you enjoyed about approaching illustration through this medium?
ZH: A lot of my regular work is somewhat ephemeral, so I was delighted to be asked to do something that would exist in the real world and become part of someone’s home, participate in their pleasure and linger in their memories.
AMO: Thinking about objects to live with, your home is a menagerie of intriguing, humorous and beautiful objects. Is there a piece you particularly love?
ZH: If my house was on fire, the object I’d save would be my stone carving of the remnants of a bar of Imperial Leather soap. This soap is unique in that it has a label attached to it that, counter to all logical laws of nature, sticks to the bar despite the hundreds of rubbings and water dousing it receives in active service. Its presence means that the bar erodes in a very satisfying way around it. A few years ago I decided to carve a massive tribute to this phenomenon out of a piece of Bath stone (haha). I gilded the flat top then painted the rest of the label with enamel paint. This is the first bathroom I’ve owned that is big enough to display it in.
AMO: Laying a table with the chaos of the meal prep definitely sets an atmosphere for the dinner itself – can you tell us about the two dishes you have created?
ZH: I always gravitate towards a single dish that is generously served from the middle of the table. I am a very messy cook and no matter how simple the dish I will endeavour to use every pan and utensil in the house (this is why I identified so strongly with the Unswept Room mosaic). The two dishes I have created here are old favourites, both of mine and the country I live in. In Britain we are well known for our wonderfully bland cuisine but these recipes are at odds with that stereotype. Kedgeree is simple, easy to cook and both elegant and comforting, which is a rare combination. The Rhubarb Bakewell Tart is something delicious that I created myself, though I expect that if one checked on the internet there would be other recipes out there. Thank goodness for the internet. It provides such a valuable service snubbing out any egotistical thoughts that you might have had an original idea.
AMO: What are you working on next?
ZH: As usual I am working on far too many things at once. My current to do list includes two books, starting a paint company, a verre eglomisé commission, a set of drawings depicting piquant moments from the life of Anni and Josef Albers, as well as my regular illustration work for the FT, Jeroboams, the Grand Tourist podcast etc…
Explore the collection.