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.


MoMA Wales ‘Legend’

“The Palermo Dress” has been selected for inclusion in this exhibition which is running from 8th July to 31st August at MoMA Wales, Machynlleth.



(From MoMA Machynlleth)


Philippa Robbins was born in London in 1964 and lives in South Wales. She works variously and with great skill in painting, drawing, photography and textiles. She studied Fine Art at Cardiff College of Art after bringing up her two children, since when her work has received accolades in the Discerning Eye and the Royal West of England Academy and has been selected for the Hunting Art Prize and the BP Portrait Award. She has had three solo exhibitions since 2013 at the Art Shop, Abergavenny.
Flock is the largest work Philippa has produced so far. It consists of 300 sculptures laid out to form a single installation. The project evolved from an artist’s residency on a construction site at Stormy Castle in Gower (Loyn & Co, winner of the RIBA Manser Medal 2014). While painting the site in flux she found a discarded steel tie for concrete shuttering and the shape’s resemblance to a bird made her want to explore its potential. She experimented over the next three years, eventually setting 200 ties in wood and 100 in concrete. Each piece has a subtly different character owing to the previous use of the steel and the weathering of the blocks. The installation connects with earlier themes concerned with the untidy edges of the urban landscape and with magical thinking and transformation.
An illustrated catalogue produced for the exhibition is available from reception.
The limited-edition multiples in Flock are available individually for £195. A reduction of 20% is offered on groups of 5, and of 30% on groups of 10.







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2019  (solo) March, Art Shop and Chapel, Abergavenny.

2018 Vis-à-Vis Oriel-Y-Bont USW Trefforest.

Gallery At Home curated by Sonia Pang.  Nov 4th – Dec 9th

Hedgerows and Gardens Summer Show,  Art Shop and Chapel 23rd June – 18th August

(Solo) Flock, MoMA, Wales until March 10th

2017 RWA 165th Open Exhibition October 1st to December 3rd

Competition Exhibition ‘Legend’ MoMA Wales to 31st August

(Solo) Carapace, The Art Shop and Chapel, Abergavenny

(Solo) Flock, MoMA, Wales

2016 Triforium Exhibiton, Triforium, Temple Church, London.

(Solo) Waterloo Tea Rooms, Wyndham Arcade, Cardiff April 4th – May 3rd

(Solo) Washington Tea Rooms, Penarth, April 4th – May 3rd

(Solo) Waterloo Gardens, Penylan March 7th – April 4th

2015 (Solo) Time and Place, The Art Shop and Chapel, Abergavenny

A Winter Wildness, The Art Shop, Abergavenny

2014 Open Books, an exhibition of artists’ folding books.  Beginning in November 2013 in Hangzhou, China, the exhibition toured to Hong Kong and Australia in 2014.

The Winter Show, The Art Shop, Abergavenny.

2013 (Solo) Magical Thinking, The Art Shop, Abergavenny

The Long Winter Show, The Art Shop, Abergavenny

Open Books, an exhibition of artists’ folding books.  Beginning in November 2013 in Hangzhou, China, the exhibition toured to Hong Kong and Australia in 2014.

2011 Art for Children, MoMA Wales, Machynlleth.

2010 University of Glamorgan Art Purchase Prize  (Female Wales)
Oriel y Bont, University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd.

University of Glamorgan Art Purchase Prize 2010 (Female Wales)
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Kings Road Artists Show, The Old Library, The Hayes, Cardiff.
Welsh Artist of the Year, St David’s Hall, Cardiff

2009 Drawn In, Sidcot Arts Centre, Winscombe, North Somerset

2008 RWA 156th Autumn Exhibition, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol

Artist of Fame and Promise, Beaux Arts, Bath, Bath

Final Show Down, Garej Art Space, Cardiff

2007 Broken Headlight, Garej, Kings Road Studios, Pontcanna, Cardiff

Autumn Show, Gallery Redbill, Shotton

Summer Exhibition, Attic Gallery, Swansea

Undo, Centrespace Gallery, Leonard Lane, Bristol, Bristol

Artists of Fame and Promise, Beaux Arts Gallery, Bath

London Art Fair / Victor Felix Gallery, London Art Fair, Business Design Centre, London

2006 Winter Group Exhibition 2006-2007, Attic Gallery, Swansea

Where We’re @, Tactile Bosch, Cardiff

Winter Show, Gallery Redbill, Shotton

Autumn Exhibition, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol

Summer Show, Attic Gallery, Swansea

Summer Exhibition, RA, London

Mystery Postcards, National Portrait Gallery, London

2005 Washington Art Gallery, Penarth

Face Value, Chelsea Art Gallery, San Francisco, USA

Drawing Out the City, Bay Art, Cardiff

153 Autumn Exhibition, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol

Medical Edge, EuroArt, London

Summer Show, Royal Academy, London

Absence, Menier Gallery, London

Hunting Arts Prizes, Royal College of Art, London

Sense and Sensuality, BlindArt Inaugural Exhibition, Royal College of Art, London

2004 The Discerning Eye, Mall Galleries, London

152 Autumn Exhibition, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol

BP Portrait Award, National Portrait Gallery, London

Competitions, prizes and awards

Outstanding regional Entry, Discerning Eye 2004 , London

First Prize (Painting), RWA Autumn Exhibition 2004 , Bristol

Waterloo Tea Rooms

From 8th March to 3rd April I will be showing work at the Waterloo Gardens Tea House, Penylan, Cardiff and then from 4th April to 2nd May at Waterloo Tea, Wyndham Arcade, Cardiff.

The Christening Dress