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Philippa Threlfall

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The ceramic relief murals of

PHILIPPA THRELFALL

Making of the Poynton Mural

Philippa has often given talks about how she and Kennedy made their murals over the years.
This is the first mural to have been documented in film as well as photographs.
There are a total of 28 short video clips on this page to help explain the process of
making this mural. Just click on each link to play the film.

 

In late 2009 I was approached by the developer of a site in Poynton, a small town just south of Manchester. Would I work on ideas for a mural to go on the wall of a new Waitrose supermarket? There were already some thoughts on the theme: sketches showed organic produce, farm animals, a local building of significance and figures involved in this rural idyll. I submitted my version of these ideas, but then it was suggested that we should include references to Poynton's industrial past. The village had been actively involved in mining up until the late 1930s.

After many different versions had been submitted to the Developer, the local council and Waitrose, the final design emerged in March 2010. This was approved by all, the quote was accepted and I was able to start work on the mural.

 Part 1 - About the design process (2.59 mins)

Philippa creating the design
  
Cutting slabs of clay

I decided that I would like to work in buff clay which would add richness to the many shades of green that I would be using in the mural. To achieve this we mixed together two different clays: St Thomas's body - a greyish clay and a red clay containing 20% grog.

The buff clay is formed into blocks and is sliced into thin sheets of clay (as shown here) which can be spread out on a flat surface ready for the modelling to begin. A lot of my work is modelling in low relief, but I always enjoy introducing texture into the surface.

Over the years of mural making I have amassed a great variety of tools to make marks and patterns in the clay, for example: combs, buttons, jewellery, Lego, kitchen tools and small pieces of machinery.

 Part 2 - Preparing our buff clay mix (2.05 mins)

 Part 3 - Tools and devices used (1.41 mins)

   

Before modelling begins, I draw out the whole design on large sheets of polythene. I make this drawing about 10% larger than the final size required to allow for shrinkage which takes place during the drying and firing process. The drawing is transferred onto the clay which is attached to a large sheet of thick polystyrene. This can be placed upright so that I can model on an easel.

Here we see a figure of a farmer as he emerges from the clay. I find that if I work on the head of a figure first, the person's character emerges and helps me to get animation and the right feeling for the whole.

A pastry crimping tool makes texture on the man's shirt and coils of clay are added to make his trousers. At this stage I can introduce different colours of clay, either in the form of coloured slips (liquid clay) or with clays worked into the surface.

 Part 4 - Squaring up and modelling potato picker (2.42 mins)

 Part 5 - Modelling the farmhouse with bushes (2.28 mins)

 Part 6 - Making and cutting in the distant landscape (2.12 mins)

Modelling up the potato picker
   
Modelled clay jug

This image shows the terracotta jug superimposed on a bit of canal, a little of the wheat sheaf, grasses and the farmers trousers. It is a good example of how various different pieces of the design have to work together. Each feature of the design has been modelled up separately and in full. When all the features are ready they can be arranged in accordance with the design and cut in together. 'Waste pieces' can be kept for experimenting with glaze colours.

 Part 7 - Complications around the jug (1.20 mins)

 Part 8 - Adding texture around jug handle. (1.48 mins)

 Part 9 - Cheese and apples (1.41 mins)

 

The design is then cut up into sympathetic shapes which will survive the firing process. Not all pieces are the same size, and the cut lines can actually help the finished effect, rather like the lead which delineates the areas of coloured glass in a stained glass window. At this stage the pieces of clay now resemble a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each piece is numbered on the back and a numbered drawing is made to use as a key when re-assembling later.

The clay pieces are now dried slowly to prevent warping and cracking and when completely dry they are 'biscuit fired' in the kiln to about 980°C. Clay fired to this temperature is pretty porous and can easily accept the glazes which are then applied.

 Part 10 - Cutting the panel line and numbering pieces (2.03 mins)

Numbering the back of each piece
  
Philippa modelling the miners

In early days I used to work on the floor, crawling about with hessian to divide the wet clay from the floor's surface. Later we began to use two inch thick polystyrene sheets as the backing, so that I can now stand up to work.

The image on the left shows how the flattened clay magically sticks firmly to the vertical polystyrene surface as I model and texture away on an easel. The clay always needs to be kept damp during this process.

 Part 11 - Modelling the miners, lamps and buildings (2.30 mins)

 Part 12 - Cutting in the miners and pit winding gear (1.56 mins)

  

As soon as I heard that the mural was to go outside a supermarket, I wanted to include a dog. I thought that children would like to pat him as they walked past. When I submitted the design for approval, I chose a sheep dog to go by the older man who sits reflecting about the past at the right hand side of the scene. This proved a happy choice because one of the councillors revealed that he owned a dog just like this and apparently exclaimed happily "there's my dog!"

When modelling, I roughed up the fur with a serrated tool but was careful that there were no sharp edges to snag little hands.

 Part 13 - Modelling the sheep dog (1.50 mins)

 Part 14 - Cutting in the sheep dog (1.48 mins)

Modelled sheep dog and bread
 
Miners and mining buildings

The two miners were based on a photo that we found of the last days of the pit in the 1930s. I thought that it looked from this as if the men were wearing waistcoats made of leather. I obtained good references of miners' lamps from which to work.

The pit head winding gear was a piece of precision modelling which contrasts with the free approach I used doing the men's clothing and the cobbled street.

My grandfather was a miner in his early youth and I thought a lot about him whilst I was modelling up these two men's faces.

 Part 15 - Pit winding gear (0.54 mins)

 

An older man sits to the right hand of the mural. He is meant to be contemplating both the past and the future of his village. He is probably a farmer but might have been down the pits at some stage of his long life.

The image here shows him when I had first drawn his outline into the raw clay. Traces of the "squaring" lines can be seen, showing how I use a grid to help me transcribe the original design onto the clay. Cottages appear behind, based on old photographs we found of miners' housing in Poynton.

The man sits on a sack on which the word POYNTON appears - upside down so as not to appear too pronounced.

 Part 16 - Modelling farmer and cottages (1.18 mins)

Farmer in the early modelling stage
 
Two trays of glazed pieces ready to load into the kiln

Here a tray contains clay pieces ready for the glaze kiln. They all appear grey or black because the glaze is stained with natural oxides and only turns into colour under the fierce heat of the kiln. We glaze fire at about 1100°C.

Glazing is an interesting process. There are so many variables: it is always a mixture of careful knowledge combined with a kind of creative go-for-it. I nearly always mix my own glazes, using metallic oxides for colours which give subtle and natural effects. All sorts of transparent and opaque glazes can be applied and rubbed away to bring out the richness of the clay. Lustres and oxides can be added and coloured glass can be melted into recesses in the surface.

 Part 17 - Loading a kiln (2.09 mins)

 

Here we can see a number of glazed pieces of clay. They are the results of a series of experiments that I made to reassure myself that I was happy with the colours and tones of my proposed glazes.

Amongst the rich decorative surfaces, I always leave some calm areas: unfussy and/or unglazed. "Plain and pearl, plain and pearl" as my great mentor Peggy Angus used to say. A knitting term for those who don't know!

 Part 18 - Glazes and glaze samples (3.40 mins)

Various glaze samples
 
Panels one and two partly glazed

This photo shows two panels with some glazed ceramic together with some which has been reassembled ready for glazing after being biscuit fired to 980°C.

The richly modelled nature of my work lends itself well to glazes: the glaze runs into the texture and emphasises the surface patterns. This mural is made in buff clay but, as can be seen here, different colours of clays have been added to add variety to the final results. The same glaze applied to red, buff or white clays will look very different after the firing process.

At the top of this picture, the coloured design can be seen together with some glaze samples as appear in the above picture. I refer to the samples as I work and I look at the coloured design all the time when glazing.

 Part 19 - Reassembling panels after biscuit firing (1.08 mins)

    

Glaze can be applied in different ways. It can be painted on with a loaded brush - as here in the photo - or dipped or poured. I often apply glaze only to sponge it off again. This is because only small amounts of glaze can enrich the surface and high points whilst at the same time the glaze remaining in the crevasses emphasises the textured surface.

All these pieces will be fired in the kiln at about 1100°C. Sometimes pieces have to be fired more than once to achieve the right results.

 Part 20 - How patterns effect glazes (1.49 mins)

 Part 21 - Glazing the greens (2.02 mins)

 Part 22 - Glazing the sheep dog and cobble road (1.36 mins)

 Part 23 - Completion of glazing and firing (1.03 mins)

Philippa applying slip to biscuit fired piece
 
Making the slate sky work

Over many years I have used slate and stone as a background to my work. The natural colours are sympathetic to the fired clay and to my glazes which are in turn stained with metallic oxides: cobalt, copper, manganese and iron.

I like to make my 'skies' of slate, which gives a lovely neutral matt background to the ceramic. Years ago we found a worked out quarry in Cornwall and were able to get many bags of this particularly iron rich slate. Here, I arrange the pieces of slate around the ceramic ready for the final assembly into resin.

The arrangement of the slate is quite an art. It must not look like crazy paving, but should sweep across the mural's surface like clouds. Tiny pieces can crowd together in one area whilst elsewhere larger pieces must be cut to fit behind a particular figures or building.

 Part 24 - The slate sky (1.18 mins)

 

The pieces of ceramic and slate are now to be made into panels which can be transported to the site and attached to the wall.

Polyester resin is unfortunately a noxious substance and good ventilation is necessary when using it. Here, the resin has been mixed with catalyst and black iron to colour it black. Now wood flour - a form of very fine saw dust - is being added to make a mastic. This is spread over a backing of fibreglass and the pieces of mural are embedded into the mix.

As the ceramic and slate is worked into the mastic, the resin oozes up between the pieces and forms the pointing in between each part of the whole. We must always remember to allow for the screw holes so the panels can be can fixes back to the wall.

 Part 25 - Preparing the resin and fibreglass backing (2.02 mins)

Creating the resin mix
  
Embedding pieces of ceramic and slate into resin

Although the slate has been arranged it is a different matter when it is being placed into the resin mastic. It always seems as if it as to be arranged all over again. There is an element of panic at this stage because the resin is only workable before it begins to turn i.e. sets solid. Everything must be in place before this.

Here the ceramic has been put in and the last pieces of slate are being placed in the final panel.

After about five months the mural is nearly finished.

 Part 26 - Embedding ceramic and slate into resin (2.15 mins)

 Part 27 - Finishing touches (1.54 mins)

 

The mural consists of five panels each measuring 540mm x 1200mm.

We took these up to Cheshire from Somerset and here we can see my son Daniel lifting one of them into place into the prepared cavity of the brick wall.

The panels are fixed back to the wall with stainless steel screws, which are then covered with resin so that it is virtually impossible to detect them.

As we worked, the residents of the village were coming up to us and asking about the various features of the design. It is always good to know that our murals with local references cause such real interest.

 Part 28 - Putting up the mural (2.06 mins)

Putting the panels up on the new Waitrose store wall

So on a glorious October day the mural was finally installed onto the wall of the new Waitrose store in Poynton. The official 'unveiling' took place on the same day, only about two hours after the last screw was hidden. The ceremony was attended by the Mayor and members of his council, together with a local personality, the Press and representatives from Waitrose. All seemed very satisfied with the end result.

Opening ceremony