Wednesday 7 December 2022

Did Britain, which has lost and says "Farewell" to its Polymath and Artist, Tom Phillips, give him the recognition he deserved when he was alive ?

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Tom, whose sixty-year career was principally in visual art and music and has died at the age of eighty-five, was born Trevor Thomas Phillips, two years before the outbreak of the Second World War in Wandsworth, South London. However, despite his astonishingly productive career, Tom's name remained unexpectedly little known and he found his exclusion from dictionaries of 20th-century art hurtful. “I’m not even in this one,” he would sigh, thumbing plaintively, adding : “I’m quite a well-known artist, you know”. 

His friend, t
he musician 
Brian Eno said : 'It's a sign of the awfulness of the English art world that he isn't better known. Tom has committed the worst of all crimes in England. He's risen above his station. You can sell chemical weapons to doubtful regimes and still get a knighthood, but don't be too clever, don't go rising above your station'. Tom himself had said :
“I'm a south London boy” and his mother was proud of the fact that she was, as she said : "A true cockney, born withing the sound of Bow Bells in 1901". In its tribute to Tom, Apollo Art Magazine said : 'Britain has lost one of its most brilliant and idiosyncratic artists. A talent like no other, he managed both to gain all the recognition the British art establishment could offer – a CBE (2002) to add to his status as a Royal Academician (1989), and a stint as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford (2005–06) – and to remain, somehow, underappreciated. An outsider, who despite the cult following of his best known work, perhaps never quite made the public impression he deserved'.(link)

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Tom was born in the early summer of 1937, the second son of Margaret and David, a Welshman, who, at that time, speculated on cotton futures and was fifty-six years old when Tom was born and twenty years older than his mother. Tom was five years old when his father left, Tom, his elder brother David and mother in Clapham in the middle of the Second World War, to work in job in Wales after the cotton market collapsed with the German invasion of France in 1940. At the age of five Tom started to attend Bonneville Road Junior School and later said that it was here that he : “Learned the word 'artist' and discovered that it was someone who did not have to put his paints away”. 

The year before he went to Henry Thornton School his mother had paid £500 for a Victorian terraced house, number 57 Talfourd Road in Peckham, where Tom's wife, Fiona Maddocks had interviewed him for RA Magazine when he was seventy-eight and in which Tom had his studio and would occupy for the whole of his working life. He said : “My mother bought it to save us from financial peril after my father’s gas mantle factory went out of business after the War. She let rooms to students from Camberwell School of Art, down the road. The last one, ironically, was her own son, in 1961”. 

In this, Tom was making reference to the fact that he stayed in the boarding house when he was a student at Camberwell at the age of twenty-four in 1961. After that, he gradually took over each room until he occupied all four floors and in 2015 said : “Now it is all studio. If that was good enough for Picasso, it’s good enough for me”. As the years passed he said he enjoyed seeing the crown of his favourite tree, a giant ginkgo in the front garden, draw level with the house.

Fiona said the kitchen in the house provided storage for Tom’s collection of 100,000 postcards, arranged floor to ceiling in 150 plastic files and the walls were covered in prints and sculpture : Indian, Oceanic, his own. The ‘breakfast table’ was obscured by toppling heaps of reading material – the New York Review of Books, New Scientist, a Lee Child thriller – plus sketchbooks, pots stuffed with pens, scalpels and brushes, old coffee cups, the remains of two boiled eggs and many crumbs. 

It was here that Tom followed his rigid routine and rose at 7am every day, eat the same breakfast of toast, marmalade and coffee, had lunch at the same café and worked in his studio from 9.30 to 1pm, 3.00 to 5.30pm and 8.30pm to about 12.30 am. And it was here, when Tom was twenty-nine in 1966, that he started work on 'A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel', the altered book which was to be a fertile touchstone in his prolific, prominently autobiographical output. After five revised editions, his undertaking was almost complete and he told Fiona : “God willing, it reaches its half-century, and a conclusion, in 2016”.

The ground floor of the house contained his office and small library with books spilling into every nook and cranny elsewhere and the bathroom, once named the ‘Samuel Beckett memorial bathroom’ in honour of its spartan plumbing, featured in Peter Greenaway’s 1985 film, 'Inside Rooms: 26 Bathrooms'. (link)

Tom said it was in his east-facing studio where the : 

 "Light and warm in the mornings. I tend to do sculpture, collage or special projects here”. These included his designing coins for the Royal Mint, including commemorations of Benjamin Britten and the '2012 Olympics'. The latter had a circle of fluttering bunting and Tom said :  "As a war-time child everything was celebrated with bunting", which also suggests flickering flames, surrounding the words XXX Olympiad. Around the outside ran his own little poem, in what he described as : "Dancing letters": 'Unite our dreams, to make a team of teams'.

It was here that he also designed, for the Royal Mint its commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of  William Shakespeare in 2016, the prestigious five-ounce gold coin as a tribute to a giant of British culture. He also worked on the design for the mosaic  ceiling for the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs in Westminster Cathedral, with the black, vaulted ceiling bejewelled with 40 mosaic ‘flames’, each bearing a martyr’s name.

Needless to say, Tom had purpose-built studio nearby, designed by Eric Parry RA and said : 
 “Like many artists in the 1980s, I was seduced by pictures of New York lofts, and I went in with Antony Gormley, then a near neighbour” and said : "It’s a perfect place for storing pictures and playing ping pong”.

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It was in 1947 that Tom later recalled : 'I first met William Blake when I was ten years old. At primary school the class was set to learn by heart one of the poems in our colourful book of poetry for children. My hand shot up to claim “Tyger” for the incantatory magic of its words and the cunning of the picture, in which a tree climbed back up through the verses as one’s eyes reached the end. Our kindly teacher responded to my enthusiasm by telling me that this was the only page in the book where the same man who had written the words by hand had also painted the picture; one creation made of two activities. The school was in Clapham, an area known to Blake as part of the southern outskirts of London that he loved, such as “pleasant Camberwell” and Peckham where I live now, and where, also at the age of ten, Blake met his first emissaries from the visionary world, a sparkling cluster of angels gathered in a tree'. 

Having passed the 11+ examination, in 1948 he gained a place at Henry Thornton School for Boys in Clapham and it was here that he learned to play bassoon and violin and developed a keen interest in trainspotting and cycling' and once his voice had broken, sang solo baritone in school concerts. 

On the lighter side, in 2012 Tom recalled : "I was influenced by American comics in 1944, 1945. We used to get food parcels from America in the War; even after the War. My aunt was American. She used to wrap the things in American comics, which I and my brother latched on to very quickly. The first artwork I ever did was a copy of the cover of a Batman comic, DC comics 31 it so happens, which I love. I’m paying back my respect to the idea of the comic now. We try our best. Wonderful quote from Henry James that I’m working on at the moment :


‘We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. The rest is the madness of art'. 

His mother once said : "Tom was always a rebel. I can remember his homework books with drawings on every available space. Often he was sent home from school. To me the drawings looked like gargoyles. I hated Sundays since Tom would go on long railway journeys dependent only on a penny platform ticket. He was only eleven and as it got dark I became terribly worried. Also I had to bear the wrath of my husband who blamed me for not bringing him up properly". At the age of fifteen or sixteen Tom was still looking for the art of 'The magic artist' William Blake and said : ' On most Saturdays, I took the 88 bus from Clapham to the Tate Gallery. My visits would usually end in a special and dimly lit sanctuary hung with Blake’s watercolours, infinite riches in a little room'.

At home he was influenced by his older brother’s music tastes 
and visits to the Empress Music Hall in Brixton with his mother and may well have seen 'Hellzapopin' in 1949. By contrast, when he was thirteen in 1950, on family holiday to Europe, Tom was able to feast his eyes on the pictural bounty in the visits to the Uffizi, Louvre and Prado.

Back in 1954, while in the sixth form at school the young Tom, like other aspiring artists displayed his paintings on the railings of the Thames Embankment (link) and the following year he won a London County Council Scholarship to Paris and Aix-en-Provence for three months where he recalled : "I did a bad drawing of an apple in Cézanne’s Studio". His mother said : "He arrived home with a sack of horse bones from the First World War; I have never known why'.

At the age of seventy-five his father died before he was able to see Tom gain his place at St Catherine's College Oxford the following year as an undergraduate studying for a degree in English and Anglo-Saxon Literature. Tom himself recalled : “I wanted to go there because I wanted to act in plays and things like that. So, I went and studied, as they call it, 'English', for about half an hour a day". However, while there, he said : "I was drawing all the time and looking at art and reading about art and wanted to go to art school". 

At the age of nineteen, he added the piano to his repertoire and had an audition for the 'Philharmonia Chorus' founded by Walter Legge and was accepted and sang on the recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Otto Klemperer. Three years later he met Jill Purdy, a fellow member of Philharmonia Chorus at the International Festival of Music, while singing 'The Messiah' under Sir Thomas Beecham at Lucerne and would go on to marry her two years later. 

In 1958, his first year at Oxford, Tom  forged an important friendship with David Rudkin, the future playwright, whom he described as : "A vital  intellectual stimulus". He also attended the 'Edgar Wind lectures on 'Iconography in Renaissance Art' and occasionally attended a drawing class at Ruskin School. He also sold his first professional painting, 'The City', to Pembroke College JCR for £12 and was pleased when was later exhibited at Ashmolean Museum was placed alphabetically placed next to Picasso.

In 1960, at the age of twenty-three, Tom graduated from Oxford and returned to London to take up a teaching post teaching English, Music and Art at Aristotle Road Secondary Modern School for Boys in Brixton. He also signed up for evening life drawing course at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. 

He recalled : “The only artist I knew about who was teaching was Frank Auerbach, so I joined his class and that was the deal done as far as my life was concerned. I think you always need someone who passes the baton on, you know, it’s a race that we’re all run­ning one after the other. So, I followed lots of his advice and learnt a lot from him as well as other people who were there who were interesting”. One of those was the American, Charles Houghton Howard, whose classes in abstract exercises were an inspiration. It was also the time when Tom joined that explosion of the new form of printmaking, silkscreen.

In 1962, Tom left the Philharmonia Chorus and began his most ambitious painting to date, a polyptych portrait of David  Rudkin which he would finish two years later. He also made his first large pastel drawings, one of which was purchased by Tate in 1965. It was typical of Tom’s tastes as a polymath, that his main inspiration came in these years, not from an artist but a musician, the American composer John Cage. In particular, it was Cage’s embracing of the elements of luck and chance in his work, spelled out in his book, 'Silence', that appealed to Tom. 

In the late 1960s, Tom was teaching at the Ipswich School of Art where the musician, Brian Eno was his best student and who recalled : "I was a 16-year-old student and he was one of my tutors". Over the years that followed they became friends up to and beyond Brian co-founding Roxy Music in 1971. Brian recalled : "We used to call him "Black Tom" because he always seemed to dress in black. He had a black beard, black hair and rather haunted black eyes as well. He was very authoritative, whereas a lot of teachers in the Sixties had an "anything goes" attitude and he had a rigorous approach to being an artist. I remember working on a painting for some time, and he looked at it in his sceptical way and said : "It's rather slight, isn't it?" That discomfited me, but it didn't annoy me. His coolness was intriguing. Also I think I wanted that kind of rigour. The artists of the past who impressed me were the ones who really focused their work. Mondrian, for example, he was the product of that kind of thinking - making clear decisions about what one wanted to do".(link) 

With recognition beginning to take off, Tom worked on his 'Golden Section' paintings and in 1965, his first major painting, 'A Little Art History' and his first one man show at Exhibition at AIA Gallery London was a sellout. 

Tom now started teaching Liberal Studies at Walthamstow Polytechnic where he met the pianist John Tilbury and took part in imprvisation concerts at several polytechnics and wrote his first musical composition, the conceptual music score, 'Four Pieces' in 1966 for John Tilbury. It was at this point in his career that he walked into Austin and Sons Ltd Peckham, which in the first instance was a shop selling old furniture and bought a novel called 'A Human Document' by the Victorian writer William Hurrell Mallock. 

His choice of book was random and as he recalled in 2012 : “I’d decided it should the first one I picked up that cost thruppence and this one did. It also had the most striking title – it leapt out at me. There was a witness, the painter, Ron Kitaj. He said : "Well, this one costs thruppence, Tom. Here it is. You’d better get it” '. The fact that, in the years that followed, his own 'A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel' proceeded at a glacial pace sprang from his frequent changes of mind about how the novel should be handled after starting in the 1960s by highlighting isolated phrases in pen and ink.(link)

Tom finished the 1960s with a burst of creativity when, in 1969 he finished first of his lettering paintings, 'The Message Digests Itself' along with 'Here we Exemplify' and on the day of the moon landing he completed 'Irma: The Score', his opera extracted entirely from 'A Humument' with its first performance at the Bordeaux Festival.

n 1972 he gave up teaching and left his position at Wolverhampton College of Art and a year later began his annual photographic work, '20 Sites n Years', which he continued each year from that point on. (link) It was a nine mile circle where Tom took photographs in 20 specific places from the same spot in the same direction with the same framing. The result was an eternal, evolving portrait of Tom's neighbourhood in South London.

In the period between 1974 and '78 Tom undertook in succession studies based on 'Conjectured Flags' and also '54 Union Jacks Occurring on Postcards'; the design for the progressive rock band, 'King Crimson' of their 'Starless and Bible Black' album cover which featured stencil lettering and fragment, 'this night wounds time' 'A Humument' and a detail of his 'After Raphael' for Brian Eno's album 'Another Green World' (link)

After ten years work  'A Humument' was completed and published in 1976 and Eno's production recording of Tom's 1969 experimental opera, 'Irma' to a controversial arrangement by Gavin Bryars, the score of which involved 93 random phrases taken from the original 'A Human Document'. Then, in the late 1970s, Tom began work on a new translation of Dante’s 'Inferno', illustrated with his own prints and when fire at 'Editions Alecto' destroyed his work Tom decided to continue the project independently and with a view to creating what would be one of the finest 'livres d’artiste' of the 20th century. It was his own translation and every detail of the book, the binding and even the paper was bespoke and the result, his limited, signed edition, was published by the Talfourd Press, over ten years later in 1983.

In 1984 his subject was the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett at the Riverside Studio and he recalled : “I spent a couple of weeks paint­ing his portrait when he was rehearsing a play here". He showed the great man his translation of Dante and said : "He was rather kind about it. He was just a nice, lovely man”. In reality Tom weathered Beckett's criticism of his blank verse translation, three years in the making and said : 'He was watching a rehearsal of 'Waiting for Godot' and I thought I was going to be too in the way, so then I said to him : "You know, from the back you look exactly the same as you do from the front" and he thought it was very funny and it'd be interesting, so I did it that way. And I said : 'What you see in the picture I made of you is your work, which is good, and then the back of your head, which is fine".

The following year, which brought Tom peer recognition when he was elected as a Royal Academician, also saw him produce portraits of Brian Eno and  Eno and start his portrait of the novelist, Iris Murdoch. He painted Pete Townsend for Peter Blake's cover of the Who 'Face Dances' album.

In 1990, inspired by Tom's work, 'A TV Dante' (link) was a mini-series directed by Tom and Peter Greenaway and covered eight of the 34 cantos in Dante's Inferno, part of his 14th  century epic poem, 'Divine Comedy'. (link) Its success won them the 'Prix Italia'. The following year he completed his portrait of the 'Monty Pythons'. Ever to create the unexpected, Tom then designed the menu cover and glass screen for the Ivy Restuarant in West Street in Central London.

In 1997 he designed the production of Shakespeare’s 'The Winter’s Tale', directed by David Freeman for its opening season at The Globe Theatre. His The Postcard Century', a history of the 20th century in postcards was published in 2000 and a complementary Channel 4 series 'Pictures in the Post' was screened.

In 'The Seven Ages of Man', shown at the Royal Academy in the same year, Tom had saved the clippings from his monthly visit to the barber to make a set of seven tennis balls that charted the progress of his hair colour from black, via various shades of grey, to white. He said :  “If you want to make a series of tennis balls covered in your own hair, marking your life from black to white, then you have to be very patient. And I am very patient”. 

In 2016 shortly before turning 80, Tom, who had produced a second Humument  said : “I could have imagined doing a third, but that would have taken another 25 years. So I’d be a dribbling 105-year-old, or more likely dead, before I finished it. It was time to stop”.

Tom maintained his rigorous working regime to the end of his life. In September this year he published 'Humbert', after Humbert Wolfe’s, 1927, 'Cursory Rhymes' which he called : “A perfect canvas for creative intervention”. In October came the illustrations for an edition of T.S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland', to mark the poem's centenary and on 27th November, the day before his death, he finished a jewel-like collage created from the pages of one of his favourite publications, the 'New Scientist'.

Tom had once said : 

"You know that lovely line of Beckett – ‘I can't go on, I'll go on' – that's how it feels. I get frustrated if I don't use the ammunition that's given me and the armoury that I have. That at least I used it all up, or tried to, that's all I can claim".

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Via twitter :

Gnarlybole said : 'Thank you for that. I never knew that he taught at Wolverhampton. Sadly, I was three years too late to benefit from his tutelage. He was, undeniably, one of our finest multifaceted artists'.

Samuel West, actor, said : 'Thank you for this, John - it's handsome. Will RT it tomorrow, when more of us are up.'

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