01749 672548

People Who Used the River at Greenwich

Year Completed : 1972

Size : 60' Wall

Client : Department of Health and Social Security

Location : Glenister Green, Woolwich Road, Woolwich, London

Current Status : Daniel has seen this in 2014 in its current location

People Who Used the River at GreenwichThe only photo I have of the mural being made. Seen from the studio above gallery, two figures are being modelled up on the studio floor - a midshipman and mariner from the age of sail.  Hessian divides the raw clay from the cement beneath.  White slip (liquid clay) has been applied ready for the application of transparent glazes at a later stage.The ceramic and stone has been transported to site and imbedded into cement on top of concrete blocks. Workmen now fix the panels back to the wall.Kennedy with a polythene sack of stones.  We had collected these from many sites all over the West Country and had then transported up to the site at Greenwich.Kennedy lays stones into the wet cement render.  We organise the backing stones into drifts and layers to give a consistent but lively background to the different figures.Kennedy points up between the blocks.  The Seller of Fish appears behind.The mural in its original position ran around two corners at each end.  Here at the left hand end there are courtiers from the 18th century.A view of the whole mural, which faced directly onto the Woolwich Road.  The hospital was state-of-the-art design in the late 1960s but the concrete structure became stained and in this photo taken a year or two later appears rather grim.  The textures and colours of the mural did enliven the building.An eighteenth century courtier stands against the background of slate, stone, pebbles and aggregate.The seller of fish is shown against the Royal Barge.  I drew this from the beautiful original in the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, from whence came several of the details in the mural.A midshipman and mariner from the Age of sail.  The midshipman, holding a spyglass in his hand, carries a ceremonial sword.A sailor carries a barrel.  As often happened, I remember that Kenney was the model that I drew when making the figure. Luggers on the river often had red sails at this time which was convenient in that we could use our terracotta clay to represent them.A Victorian mother stands with her fancily dressed little girl who waves at a pleasure boat passing along the river.The pleasure boat is a paddle steamer and a young boy with his hoop observes it from the bank.  One or two of the little people on the boat are waving.Moving into the 20th century, there is the figure of a sailor who carries a rope.A docker, now as much part of history as the figures from the 18th and 19th centuries.  This photo was taken of the mural in its new position in a small park opposite the original hospital.  Grass now grows beneath the figures and open sky can be seen behind.A close up photo of the mariner with his barrel.A close up photo of the Victorian mother in her bonnet.A close up picture of the 20th century sailor.A close up picture of the 18th century courtier.Original drawing of the Greenwich mural

In the late sixties – early seventies, The DHSS (Department of Health and Social Security) planned and built a new prototype hospital to serve Greenwich. We were commissioned to make a mural using ceramic and stone to cover a long wall which faced onto the Woolwich Road. The architect, Tony Noakes, had seen my work in articles in a magazine then highly regarded by the architectural profession: The Cement and Concrete Quarterly. In a subsequent edition of this magazine an article appeared about the mural. The architect wrote: "Greenwich District Hospital is the biggest ever architectural development project undertaken yet a Government Department. ... Between two projecting blocks on the Woolwich Road frontage, a 60' wall was needed to enclose the play garden of the Day Nursery. I was considering this when I came across ... the murals of Philippa Threlfall. She is a potter who has developed a technique of setting coloured stones with glazed and unglazed ceramic in mortar bedding on precast concrete paving slabs. I approached Miss Threlfall, who submitted three designs. We chose one illustrating the maritime history of Greenwich, from mariners to modern dockers. It fulfils its decorative purpose admirably, enlivens the street scene ... and has as Miss Threlfall predicted not acquired 'improvements' by aerosol artists, in spite of an area prone to vandalism. This is the only piece of commissioned art work in this project. Unlike so many of the dutifully provided pieces of abstract sculpture that are so often found sitting self-consciously in front of modern buildings, this mural both stands as its own as a work of art and also achieves a happy integration with the architecture." I wrote: "We worked on precast concrete slabs made by the contractor approximately 2 ft square and 3 inches thick. ... The stones were collected from various sources including aggregates from Amey Roadstone Corporation, for whom we had been doing a mural using their aggregates. We used slate in the sky areas from a worked out Cornish slate quarry, and collected pebbles from beaches in Cornwall, Somerset, Devon and Wales. These together gave us a limited but subtle palette of colour ranging from green grey of some aggregates to the rust and yellow of the Cornish slate ... to the soft browns and whites of Chesil Beach. The ceramic was modelled and glazed in our studio in Wells and the pieces assembled on site like an outsize jigsaw. We were glad that the design had the theme 'People who have used the River at Greenwich' because we felt that it might give a feeling of the history of the river associated with the fine architecture in Greenwich to local people who may have become almost immune to history. The ships, costumes and many of the details were taken from paintings, photographs and exhibits in the Maritime Museum ... The figures shown are, from left to right: eighteenth century courtiers and fish-seller; mariners from the age of clippers and midshipman; a Victorian mother and children, and a twentieth century sailor and docker." The DHSS site architect (not Mr Noakes) was – we thought – a patronising young man. He said on the last day of the three week erection "You had better take your photos today, because you’ll never see the mural looking like this again." This was because the area was a rough one. Whilst we worked up there, plate glass had been pierced with air rifle shot on the day of its installation. But in fact there was never any vandalism associated with the mural. The worst I ever saw was a cigarette butt stuck between the lips of the 19th century Midshipman. The mural was still in excellent condition when the hospital was closed in 2003/4. The site has been re-developed but happily there was local pressure to save the mural. The blocks were transported to a new site in a small park – Glenister Green - across the street. In spring 2007, I was involved in the small amount of repair work necessary and it is good that the mural is now again a permanent part of the local scene.

Lat/Long : 51.486435, 0.010394

Green - mural exists and with good access

Mural still exists and with good access it can be easily seen by the public


Contact Us

Philippa Threlfall
Black Dog
Tor Street

01749 672548