Philippa Threlfall has been making relief murals in ceramic since the 1960s. Together with her husband and partner Kennedy Collings she has completed over one hundred major works on sites all over the United Kingdom and overseas. Some of these were made for private clients, but most were commissioned for public display in shopping precincts, banks, airports, hospitals and office developments.
Philippa Threlfall and Kennedy Collings lived and worked in Wells, Somerset, where they had a medieval cottage within the Liberty of Wells Cathedral. The property had been a cider house called Ye Blacke Dogge in the early seventeenth century, and they named their business Black Dog after this medieval name.
Philippa studied Illustration and Ceramics at Cardiff College of Art and went on to qualify as an art teacher at Goldsmiths College London. She taught ceramics and painting part time for six years at North London Collegiate School in Edgware, and during this time began to receive commissions for mural work.
Philippa left London for Wells in 1967 to marry Kennedy, who had trained as a historian at Trinity Hall Cambridge but was at that time still working for shoe company C & J Clark.
Philippa’s first mural Evolution of Life in the Sea was created for a school in N E Yorkshire in 1963. After a year Kennedy left Clarks to join Philippa making murals; his interest and knowledge of materials and techniques proving the perfect complement to Philippa’s originality in design and modelling. They built a large studio behind the house and jointly developed new and original approaches to making relief ceramic murals.
Their work during the 1960s, 70s and 80s mostly from commissions. A number of development companies and building societies commissioned several different murals, such as the Buildings of Sussex. The resulting publicity generated further work from many different directions.
The principal characteristic of Philippa and Kennedy’s work is that it is sympathetic to the specific site, providing local interest with a sense of place and relevance. This usually meant site visits and painstaking research. The couple’s shared interest in history influenced their approach to design. Often, the resulting murals involved architectural facades, figures in an historical context, medieval maps and locally researched artifacts. Other themes might include coats of arms or natural history. In addition, the murals often had lettering incorporated into the design.
The medium has always been terracotta and buff clays imprinted and textured and modelled in low relief. The ceramic is fired right up at the top of the earthenware spectrum (over 1,100°C) with selectively applied glazes.
Philippa always mixes her own glazes, using natural oxides to produce soft rich colours that sink into the textured surface adding richness and detail. As well as ceramic, the murals often include natural stone, aggregate, pebbles and slate; such as in the Exploration Obelisk at Redcliffe Quay in Bristol.
The combination of stone and ceramic proved a vandal-proof surface, and the accessible subject matter and tactile qualities of the works has always seemed to attract a wide cross-section of people.
In the eighties, Kennedy worked out a way of reproducing smaller pieces of terracotta, making small decorative tiles of great intricacy. This became the business called Black Dog of Wells, which grew from a profitable sideline into a thriving concern.
Kennedy died in 2002 and Philippa still lives and works in the new house with workshops which they built opposite their original medieval property. She continues to design and make murals, together with panels for domestic settings. She now works with her son, Daniel, who runs the Black Dog business. Each year Philippa adds new designs to the range, which now sells through the retail trade across the country and in the USA.
A new post by Joe Simpson, Diary of a Tile Addict, June 2017.