He was 8 years old when, in 1942, three years after the outbreak of the War, the city was occupied by French and German Axis troops and was there when it was taken by British and American troops the following year. Phillip made no mention of this, but did recall : "I've always had an interest in materials. It started off with a passion for sand. I was brought up by the sea and used to play around on the beach. If you dug holes in certain spots you could find clay mixed with the sand and I used to make small things out of it". He was five or six at the time and recalled, of his pots and animals : “I even tried to sell them”.“annoyingly, I can’t remember", which is not surprising, since she was 4 years younger than him.
At the age 18 in 1952, he was 'called up' for his two years compulsory National Service in the armed forces and because he was bi-lingual, found himself posted to Paris and recalled : “I could speak French and was supposed to be joining a general’s staff. But when I got there my post had been taken by someone else and so I found myself living this very independent life, with my own flat and a lot of time to explore the city”.
He got into photography, wrote poetry and even started a novel. He also went to the Louvre where he began to make drawings of the sculptures and said : “I found that, while I could sense there were certain forms within the marble, no matter how hard I looked I couldn’t see them. In those days, there were no invigilators and so you could touch the statues if you wanted, and when I did, I could feel the curves I had sensed. It made me think for the first time about sculpture being the art of the invisible; it was quite a discovery”.“I wanted to be self-taught, but I was so incompetent, technically speaking”. He received no encouragement for his parents and said : "I wasn’t encouraged to become an artist in any way, and I did it in spite of my father encouraging me to do something else". It was in his second year that he had turned his focus to art and said he "became more and more involved with sculpture. I found a basement in a street near my college and I just started working". He produced a series of small clay works that were exhibited and sold well. He said : “I made £50 having spent £30 to hire a gallery".
“idol”. He had died in France at the age of 81 in the year Phillip joined St Martins and was being hailed as the Patriarch of Modern Sculpture and had said : "There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things".“Brâncuși made sense. Brâncuși had discovered the pileup, physically putting one thing on top of another. What really struck me in Greece was the way the Parthenon rooted itself into the landscape. My later reluctance to see abstraction as something worthwhile was to do with it being cerebral and not from nature. Greece allowed me to rediscover how things can be of the mind but also of nature, and the idea of using gravity as a way to make things stand up”."Put to one side everything I had done before" and destroyed all the work then in his studio, including the Matisse-like nudes and started afresh, giving his workspace a general clean-up and symbolic coat of white paint. He began a series of drawings, the results of which included two seminal sculptures, his concrete 'Window Piece' and concrete and steel 'Declaration' in 1961. "I had to get special tools for Declaration because it was made of green-coloured concrete and marble chippings. I called it Declaration because in a sense it was a manifesto piece for me. I suddenly established new ideas about fundamental forms and sculpture being off the pedestal and extending on the ground and stretching out. I was also interested in repetition and symmetry".
Tim Hilton, art critic of the Guardian, has suggested that 'Declaration' with its neat, symmetrical row of circle/square/cross/cross/ square/circle, was ‘probably the first time in British sculpture that repetition of non-organic forms has served as a principle of the sculpture’s composition’. The Deputy Head of The Courtauld Gallery, Barnaby Wright, said that, for Phillip, this period 'opened the possibility of using abstraction to explore the experience of man's place within nature without trying to convey that experience by imitating natural appearances'.“From Brâncuși I was thinking about adding one thing to another as a way to make things stand up, and when leaning two leaves against each other I came up with the cone shape”.
"When I first started making sculpture, the 'truth to materials' notion of the 1950s, which Henry Moore had quite a lot to do with, was an anathema to someone of the 1960s like me. I was anti-material in a sense and that is what attracted me to fibreglass. I was one of the first people to use it as a material in itself. Most previous fibreglass work had used moulding techniques : you took a female mould of a form that you'd already made in some other material, put the fibreglass in and came up with a positive". Working directly with fibreglass Phillip "would make a male mould and build something - Rosebud, for instance - around it. I made a cone out of linoleum and I tried to put fibreglass directly on top but it started to collapse. I strengthened it with plaster and then added the fibreglass directly and sanded it down".
'Rosebud' was his first painted sculpture, he said : "The whole idea was to colour it. I wanted an almost painterly finish - originally it had brush marks in pink, with a deeper red showing through. It was a quality I wanted to pick up from painting, but it didn't really work and I abandoned it. In the end I used an acrylic finish to get a smooth, matt surface. The idea was to suggest that the surface itself was coloured - that it had a total skin, equivalent to the surface underneath it".
His 'Tra-La-La' in 1963, used brightly coloured plastic and in the same year his colourful, cone-based 'Twilight' used plastic, wood and aluminum.
This was followed in 1964 by 'Genghis Khan'. When he titled the piece, he was originally thinking of Coleridge’s poem, 'Kubla Khan' and its opening lines : 'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree/Where Alph the sacred river ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea'. The title led some to see the sculpture as anthropomorphic and possibly a helmeted warrior? Apparently, when it was displayed in the grounds of a gallery in Germany, and the police were called after complaints that someone was camping in the woods.
Phillip recalled his meeting David Smith the American abstract expressionist sculptor and painter, best known for creating large steel abstract geometric sculptures. : "In 1964 I went to the States and I taught for a year at Bennington, where I made 'And the Birds Began to Sing'. It was in fibreglass to start with, and then David Smith said to me "Whatever you do in fibreglass you can do just as well in steel". When I got back to this country, as a sort of experiment I went to Aeromet, a fabricator that Caro used, and they made 'And the Birds Began to Sing' in sheet steel." It was his fourth cone sculpture and related to the nursery rhyme, “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie . . . and when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing”. Unlike 'Genghis Khan', Phillip titled it after it was finished.
Philip recalled : “The 60s were a very exciting time, but also very fraught. At St Martin's in '68 and '69, people were questioning everything so much that you couldn’t really be a teacher. That was good in a way and eventually gave rise to new artists who were very independent and anti-authority”. For Phillip, born of the pre-War 1930s generation, there was a gulf between him and the post-War 1940s baby boomers who were now his students. For him, only in his mid-30s, there was a feeling that he had become part of 'The Establishment' and “might be sidelined at any minute. The idea of the avant garde became worrisome – the notion that you could do something new, and that it would eventually be upgraded, didn’t make sense any more”.
With the coming of a new decade Phillip moved in a new direction and recalled : "At the beginning of the 1970s the idea of working with a material other than steel began to be attractive. There was some demolition work going on next door and I made some brick pieces, started using steel mesh with brick, and then when they demolished the roof I started using slate and steel. I wanted to work in slate in a big way, so I went to Wales and found a quarry. I lived in a caravan for a while, working in the quarry, putting things together and collecting bits and pieces. Eventually, myself and half a dozen students loaded about 20 tons of slate on to a truck and brought it to my studio, and that was my stock. Later on I bought a stock of elm".
At the age of 56 in 1990 Phillip became Professor Emeritus of the Royal College and was made President of the Royal Academy of Art for what would be a 5 year tenure and presumably declined the knighthood which traditionally accompanied the position. He took over at a time when the Academy was facing financial trouble and later said it distracted him from his work : “There was work pressure, health pressure and academy pressure. It did affect my productivity, and for a time I was only producing about one new work a year. But I always felt as an artist it was too easy to stay in your ivory tower, and I fought against that, not least by teaching, but also by taking on public roles”.
Phillip provided some insight into his thinking when he recalled that in the summer of 1991 : "I learned how to make poodles out of balloons - I saw a guy doing it at a fair in France. He could do a poodle in about 15 seconds flat; it took me about three minutes. Translating that on to a gigantic scale is an absurd thing to do, yet it has a resonance in its absurdity. I don't know whether it's the object itself that has the magic, or the idea of an ephemeral thing turned into a vast enterprise, but I liked it".the one sculptor of his generation prepared to jettison what he has proved himself good at in order to explore what cannot be programmed'. Phillip validated this the following year when he turned unexpectedly to Japan and ceramics and two years later made the powerful unglazed, vessel-themed works. Phillip said : "If something is new in my work and developing I know it instinctively, if it doesn’t obey the rules I usually follow. If it breaks fresh ground in some way, it’s exciting. I mean, I call sculpture the art of the invisible – because it’s below the surface, you can’t see what’s going on. The sculptor is the one who has to understand the inside".
In 2013 Phillip was interviewed at his 'Une exposition du Consortium / Centre d’art contemporain à Dijon Commissariat (link) and a year later, at the age of 80, he said that he still thought "about sculpture all the time” and was in a “constant state of keeping an eye open for things that might be a trigger” and at that time a broken children’s toy found on the pavement featured in another new piece he was working on.
"I'm really pleased with it. It's got a real dynamism, that's why I call it 'Recoil'. It has things going one way and things going the other way - push and pull - the kind of release from gravity, as it were. I have to cope with gravity and play with it and go with it and go against it and so on. So it's all about that".
Phillip said that although in the past he was : “scared of the blank page, I’ve learned that something will always turn up. The idea that you "go for a walk", as Klee said a long time ago, is a good one. And it doesn’t matter if you sometimes find your road blocked, or you go down a blind alley. The detours are all part of the journey”.
"If something is new in my work and developing I know it instinctively, if it doesn’t obey the rules I usually follow. If it breaks fresh ground in some way, it’s exciting. I mean, I call sculpture the art of the invisible – because it’s below the surface, you can’t see what’s going on. The sculptor is the one who has to understand the inside".