From a conversation with Frances Woodley

A conversation with Frances Woodley which was published in the catalogue that accompanied the ‘vis a vis’ exhibition. My “Palermo Dress” was paired with Shani Rhys James’ etching “The Hand Mirror”.

Shani Rhys James The Hand Mirror (2008)

Philippa Robbins The Palermo Dress (2016)

Frances Woodley:  It seems that I happened on a happy choice when I paired your painting with The Hand Mirror, a coloured etching by Shani Rhys James. You were clearly excited at the prospect of talking about your painting of a child’s dress in relation to the dresses found in Shani’s print. In hers, a young girl, possibly a memory of the artist herself, is surrounded by an eighteenth century pannier to the left with corseted bodices and skirts behind her and to the right.

The little girl in your painting, once we have discovered her in the yoke, is clearly dead, mummified in the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo but given a second life here in your painted dress. The little girl and her mummified companions are framed in the high-end postmodern baroque design typical of Dolce and Gabbana’s silk scarves. In doing this you appear to be juxtaposing the most abject of images with the most ostentatious. 

The etching presents another sort of framing, one that occurs in the imagination of the viewer. This is the little girl’s reflection, unseen by the viewer, in which she sees herself against a backdrop of high fashion of the past. Women today might read these garments in terms of constriction and seduction, social elevation coupled with physical immobility. 

Shani has previously said of another painting which holds equally true here: ‘This work is not about me confining myself to girly female areas, it is about me exposing the constraints of such objects, the confinement of the garments and the imprisoning of the baby, the wife and the home, all conspiring to keep her spirit, her life under wraps, to intimidate, to undermine and to dominate. Children were treated just as badly.’ 

If Rhys James print is making a feminist point dressed up as young girl’s play, is yours doing something similar? 

Philippa Robbins:  I was delighted to be included in this exhibition and flattered to be paired with Shani Rhys-James but I had reservations about talking about my painting. It can take a while to unpick some of the unconscious decisions I make while painting and I can find that the more I try to explain a painting, the more I lose its meaning. 

I had been drawing children, on visits to Spain and Mexico, dressed in their Sunday Bests, all beautifully coordinated. At the time I was also looking at Diego Rivera’s large paintings of little girls dressed neatly and posing prettily. So something was forming in my mind about dressing and posing children, how we manipulate and modify their behaviour through dress and how these choices indicate what we expect of their childhood. 

Before The Palermo Dress I made a series that started with paintings of previously worn christening dresses and an Irish dancing dress and then progressed to paintings of unworn designer dresses. I went from painting dresses with sentimental value – heirlooms that had a value not only to do with the craft and time invested in them by their makers but also to do with the memory of the child who had worn them – to those with great financial value, an ersatz nostaligia but no soul. 

In the later paintings I started to make small visual interventions. The designer dresses are no longer depicted as the perfect, covetable pieces they once were; the lemons on one dress, for instance, have mosquitoes on them and the Italian tiles on another have a cockroach scuttling across. I wanted to deliberately flaw them in a way that undermined the image by preventing it from being able to be read as sentimental, so that the cloth is no longer more important than how the child shapes the cloth. 

FW There’s an interesting convention seen in paintings of children from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in which the boy toddler is dressed up as a girl until the age of two or three. Folklore has it that dressing a boy as a girl was supposed to confuse death and the devil from claiming him, girls being of generally less value than boys. Once weaned and safely past an infant death, the boy was breeched. Cornelis de Vos (1584–1651), whose painting of a little girl’s dress Alan Salisbury appropriated for his own daughter’s portrait, made several paintings of small boys dressed in this way. 

The connection between death and the dress is an intriguing one. Whether mummified in the catacombs or in a painted portrait, female identity is utterly tied to the form and decoration of her dress. That is how she is left behind. In the Capuchin Catacombs men of high standing are dressed in their full military, civic or religious regalia, whilst wives, mothers, virgins and girl children are decked out in the finest dresses of their day – though the silk and trimmings have frayed and faded. The dresses, because they are often more identifiable than their wearers’ faces, only contribute further to this fascinating, if macabre display of the outward signs of female identity. 

PR  With The Palermo Dress the figures from the catacombs, and specifically Rosalia Lombardo, the girl in the central caretta (cartwheel) design, lent themselves naturally to D&G’s Sicilian theme. 

My juxtaposing of the ostentatious and the abject – excessive dress and faded shrouds  – was deliberate. I found that subverting the original design in this way linked back to ideas I had previously explored in my exhibition Magical Thinking (The Art Shop, Abergavenny 2013). There, children’s clothes were shown to assume a protective role or significance through being hand-knitted or hand-me-downs thereby carrying something of the aura of previous wearers or makers with them. In The Palermo Dress I felt that the mummified figures could slip almost unnoticed into the busy pattern to become a private and protective Sicilian totem for the wearer of the dress. 

FW  You talk here about your dress as being designed. Do you mean that or do you mean composed? 

PR  The Palermo Dress is a composition of the designed D&G dress with additional imagery although it is, de facto, a design too. It is a painting of an imagined dress for an imaginary child. It is a “what if?”. 

The obviously expensive D&G dress uses imagery  from Sicily – wooden puppets and cartwheels –  to suggest that the wearer enjoys a privileged childhood rich in that heritage and tradition. My interventions, which include the addition of backdrops from the Palermo puppet theatre showing battles, as well as the figures from the catacombs (Rosalia was imposed centrally where in the original there was a wooden, boy-puppet head, if I remember correctly)  were me playing with the idea of what could be a less flash Sicilian dress. 

There’s a lineage and a balance and tension I enjoy between the brand new dress, crisp and colourful, and the century-old figures, and between the young girl who would wear this dress (the imaginary child) and the 2 year old on its yoke. 

FW  You mentioned in a previous conversation the notion of folding and unfolding as a hook on which to consider your painting in relation to Shani Rhys James’ coloured etching. You thought that your dress was in some way compressed, which suggests that Rhys James’ dresses were unfolded, perhaps as a tale unfolds. Could you expand on this? 

PR  The works have certain similarities; both have young girls at their heart and both explore links to the past but these are dealt with in very different ways. In Rhys James’ etching the discrete elements of the painting extend across the whole field; the girl is at the forefront and has an umbilical connection to the costumes behind her (in that they have formed her and she in turn keeps them alive, at a distance, by continuing to remember them). 

The Palermo Dress, by contrast, is very contained; there is no distance. One girl exists only as the imagined wearer of the dress, the other, Rosalia, is depicted, central, but no longer with us, along with the other mummified remains, so the present and past coexist in the same tight space with the narrative collapsed – or folded – into the one dress.