Suddenly Last Summer

Suddenly last summer

In an article for Planet Magazine in May 2014, Dr. Peter Wakelin casts light on the late-starting professional career of the artist Philippa Robbins.

The pages of Planet seldom feature artists who are widely known. Perhaps it’s a function of being in Wales not to become a household name – we have few galleries to showcase our visual artists and they get scant media attention (Planet notwithstanding). But if being in Wales makes it harder to get noticed, so traditionally does being a woman, starting to exhibit later in life, and working through the medium of paint. The big career opportunities favour younger artists working in fashionable idioms from the fashionable colleges. That’s tough for those who come by more dappled, diverse routes, and a pity for the rest of us, for in the art world as in politics, narrow life experience results in narrow vision.

All these factors may have slowed the professional career of Philippa Robbins, who turns 50 this year: she’s a painter who lives in Wales and she trained and started showing her work only after bringing up two children. Nevertheless, her first ever solo exhibition last summer has begun her public emergence as a challenging artist with a mature, enriching grasp of life beyond the walls of ‘the academy’.

When her exhibition was being planned – at the intriguing and discriminating Art Shop in Abergavenny – Philippa asked if I would help her with her selection and write something for the invitation card. I had seen a lot of her work, thanks to some random coincidences revolving around a seaside street in Aberporth and a growing friendship, but it was still a revelation to follow her progress and explore the stockpiles in her studio from years of painting.

Finally installed in the atmospheric spaces of the Art Shop, the exhibition offered up a mass of Philippa’s serious, hard-won works to an audience for the first time. Around her drawings and paintings (ranging in scale from two inches to six feet), she installed papier-mâché sculptures, card maquettes, painted Russian dolls and found objects in a kind of cabinet of curiosities. Her exhibition’s title, Magical Thinking, was a word-window into her work. She says,

It’s a term from psychology that clicked for me as it describes a tendency to unscientific thinking that I can recognise. It describes a (sometimes) dark superstition or an irrational belief that there is a causal relationship between an action and an event; for instance, that a comfort blanket will have the power of the giver, that by looking after a doll you can protect the person the doll represents for you, that bones and coral carry an aura of the animals who made them.

Most of her themes are ‘magical’ in some way, found in these kinds of manifestations of the strange, and she performs a further magic with them: conjuring items of clothing as reliquaries of past lives, impossibly interlocking two pelvic girdles as an earthy love-token, making blank sculptures of the figures from Las Meninas as though they were Velázquez’s thoughts before he gave them life. The ‘thinking’ is always there. Her work is layered with reference and meaning. When she says that magical thinking echoes her sense of ‘dark, causal links that only acknowledgement can dispel or calm’, it gives a clue to the way that her painting is not just image-making but a process to examine and explore preoccupations. This does not mean she loses sight of painterliness: on the contrary she bypasses entirely the arid void of conceptual art made without a sensibility for what symbol, form or rhythm can convey. By applying her visual aesthetic so rigorously she finds what the critic Peter Fuller called ‘redemption through form’.

For me as a viewer, magic and thinking, art and experience, scintillate together when I look at a drawing such as Isabelle and the Magpie. I find here a knowledge of what a baby is, incomparably fragile but driven in its own development; a juxtaposition of potent symbols; a deeply visual appreciation of the texture and shape of materials transubstantiated as pencil. The effect is transcendental. Maybe it is the talismans of bone and bird’s nest on the floor, or maybe it is the floor itself, pulsing and vibrating soundlessly around the stillness of the figures. I feel this is not a drawing but a memory. Is it a story I have known? Could I have been a baby in a basket, looking down on myself, and down on the bird looking down on me? I don’t know; which is unexpected, as the drawing makes me feel that I know everything. I feel I have been here before, and I am transported here again. I sense my tiny feet touching one another, toes to sole. I recognise the struggle to move my eyes and focus them, unpracticed as they are at following and watching. And somehow I know how still I must lie, because I need ‘it’ to be still too, this creature on the edge above me, which might be showing me its beauty or about to hurt me.

Both Philippa’s parents came originally from Maesteg, though they moved to London before she was born. Her father taught human anatomy and as a child Philippa pored over the hundreds of engravings in his copy of Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body and admired a skeleton hand he kept in a kitchen drawer. This inherited fascination with what lies beneath the skin still constantly informs her work. When her father returned to Wales to take up a lectureship at Cardiff University she came with him, aged sixteen. Her mother joined them later to teach English at Porth comprehensive.

Like many bright children Philippa was discouraged from continuing with art at school, and when she went to Sussex University it was to read German and European studies. She took the opportunity in Brighton to sit in on art history lectures and write dissertations on the photographer Heinrich Kühn and the film-maker Leni Riefenstahl.

Two years into her course her father was diagnosed as terminally ill and she came home to Penarth to help look after him. After he died she didn’t return to her degree but instead settled down with her boyfriend David Robbins. They had two daughters, and she made bringing them up her primary role. David’s job took them successively from Cardiff to London and Singapore before returning them to Penarth.

While the children were small, in London, Philippa continued her photography, building a darkroom and learning techniques from an elderly portrait photographer at Elstree film studios. The period in Singapore gave her the chance to paint almost full-time at home while the girls were at school, though she worked privately, distancing herself from the ex-pat lifestyle, and few people saw her output. Her daughters figured strongly as subjects, especially when illness kept them still and pale, and she produced images of them with an apparently dispassionate detachment the some found discomfiting.

Shortly before they were due to leave Singapore, Philippa’s Penarth friend Branwen Thomas visited them, herself an artist and the daughter of the painter Charles Burton, and encouraged her to consider art college. On her return to Britain in 2000, she took a foundation course and then a BA in fine art at Cardiff.

After graduating, aged 40, she put her work forward for every opportunity that was open to her. She won prizes in the prestigious Discerning Eye competition and the Royal West of England Academy, and she was selected for the intensely competitive open exhibitions for the Hunting Art Prize, the BP Portrait Award and the Royal Academy. Her work was also shown in exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art Wales and Beaux Arts in Bath. But it was only after several years of this kind of success that she took her work to Pauline Griffiths at the Art Shop, who offered her a first solo exhibition.

One of the qualities apparent in last summer’s exhibition was Philippa’s skill. Thankfully, form and finish in painting is now beginning to be valued after a long prohibition during which leading artists might hire technicians to make their ideas real and painters were taken seriously only if they roughened up to do graffiti art or paint with household materials.

In Philippa’s case the skills have to be remarked upon because they are so breathtaking. She paints naturalistically with ease but she manipulates her colour palette and her compositions to find stranger forms of interest. For example, she models a doll’s face so that the painting’s two-dimensionality doesn’t fool the eye but, more than that, attracts and satisfies it. She can render in drawn line every strand of a woven basket in its proper place. This isn’t just for show; it’s through such conjuring that drawings like The Baskets become more than either baskets or drawings but translations as intricate and ordered as the weaving itself. They gain a meaning of their own, in the same way that a poem resonates beyond the imagery it uses or the type it’s printed in. Her baskets are like organic forms, their frames and handles spines and ribs and collarbones (anatomy again) and their weave like skin or hair, reminiscent of the curls on a Botticelli portrait head, overlain, intricate, touchable. Constrained colour and exaggerated size (The Baskets is 140cm across), make the objects grand and other-worldly, like a folk story brought to opera which invites a new audience to see its rhythms and symbolism. In painting, such amplification of familiar objects is what Warhol did with soup cans and Lichtenstein did with comics. In a post-Pop way – more grown-up and not so confrontational – Philippa’s big drawings give the same shock of making the known new.

One recent series doubly embodies craftsmanship by incorporating Mexican tinplate frames and nicho cabinets. In 2010, she and David defied shootings and kidnappings in the news to go to Oaxaca and Mexico City to seek out tin-ware makers, and visit the Day of the Dead celebrations and Frida Kahlo’s studio. They found crafts with an active dialogue between tradition and invention, not the impoverished production seen in tourist markets (so sadly notable in Welsh lovespoons). She bought or commissioned tin frames decorated with idiosyncratic stars, shells, crowns, flowers, birds or flames and nichos with doors that open to compartments inside. Her minutely painted images in these settings bring to mind vitrines, reliquaries or mausolea: a single, bone-white fragment of coral on a black ground is revered for its wondrous origins, her first tiny shoe becomes a votive object, her own invented Day of the Dead skeletons seem to dance to life after their year’s separation.

Long before last summer’s exhibition there was obsessive concentration and commitment at the heart of Philippa Robbins’ working practice. In the past decade she has moved through a sequence of thematic explorations – desolate urban landscapes, painterly depictions of empty pill packets, and touching, gentle portraits, cropped to the face without distractions, close and intimate.

Her experimentation and growth continue, often with collaborators. She has taken part in a touring exhibition of folding books organized by Mary Husted, which is currently in China and Australia. Recently she has been making puppet heads using papier mâché and her children’s dental casts as part of a planned installation with Clive Hicks-Jenkins. She is part way through a sculpture and painting project with the architect Chris Loyn for a new building at Stormy Castle in Gower.

With or without an exhibition to plan for, nothing escapes her studio without being considered, selected, deselected, reworked. Her wry sense of mischief is never far away, but her toughness cuts to something starker and more unforgiving, seen first in those images of her sick children and now most clearly in appraising, dark self-portraits. As a mature artist she is the anatomist’s daughter still, incising and recording without sentiment.

Philippa Robbins’ work can be seen at the Art Shop in Abergavenny.