Text: Charles Kane | Images: Tom Phillips
There is only one place to sit if you are going to eat at the fashionable Ivy restaurant. It’s the row of tables against the run of stained glass windows on the left. But it is always worth pausing on entry to admire a set of painted portraits (known as The Professionals) set neatly into the wood panelling of the bar area. Ten significant 20th century artists are represented with a note on their ‘day jobs’. Each also has a subtle food reference and other intimate ‘jokes’ included in the deliberate ‘cigarette card’ design. They were created in 1990 by another outstanding artist of the 20th century: Tom Phillips.
The younger Phillips spent his life forging a vehemently independent path whilst excelling in a range of disciplines – an enviable talent that always unnerved the British art world. Now, at 75, he is an acknowledged establishment figure, but it is safe to say that the system has finally caught up with Phillips as opposed to any careerism on the part of the artist. Painter, printmaker, portraitist, designer, documentary photographer, teacher, writer, critic, composer, musician, scholar... the list seems endless. But perhaps the association that gives him the most satisfaction is his role as a Royal Academician (elected 1989) not unrelated to, one assumes, its historical connotations, for Phillips is most keen on the precepts of time and change.
Tom Phillips was born in Clapham in 1937 and, although widely travelled, has maintained a studio/home in the Peckham-Brixton-Clapham axis of South London all his life. Order and routine are an important part of his existence and the Talfourd Road workshop has welcomed many illustrious visitors to have their likeness captured by this accomplished painter. As befits a scholar of language and history (Eng. Lit. & Anglo Saxon, St. Catherine’s, Oxford) Phillips has many long term projects that have unfolded over the years and continue to evolve today. The most famous is probably A Humument – an annotated ‘found’ book – and another, 20 Sites n Years: where once every year he photographs the same 20 locations near his studio. But it is the basic premise of A Humument which captures and delights the imagination.
A Humument, like the Chinese game of GO, appears simple in design but rapidly becomes a work of increasing complexity and intellectual rigour. And its very origins are equally as remarkable. In 1966, Phillips went to a second-hand shop to buy, purely at random, any book marked [allegedly] at three-pence (in old money). By some amazing serendipity he acquired A Human Document (1892) by William Hurrell Mallock – a writer considered worthy of a fashionable Spy cartoon when he was caricatured by Leslie Ward for Vanity Fair in 1882, with the epithet: Is life Worth Living? A very Phillips-like philosophical question. Mallock himself must have appealed to Tom on so many levels (even as a fellow Oxford man) because he has reworked these pages for nearly 50 years, still finding fresh interpretations within the Victorian theorists’ text. Tom is a major feature of the prestigious Ruth & Marvin Sackner archive and collection of visual & concrete poetry located in Miami, who hold prime examples of A Humument. The Sackners are longstanding collectors and patrons of Phillips’ oeuvre.
Phillips is an artist for whom meticulous erudition is a quintessential ingredient to every work he makes. It is no surprise that when he ventured into television, it was in collaboration with the brilliant Peter Greenaway. Their A TV Dante, an adaptation of the first eight cantos of the Inferno, won them, jointly, a Prix Italia.
And so Tom Phillips, RA and CBE, has reached his 75th year. A long association with the Flowers Gallery – over 40 years – will be celebrated with a show of contemporary works in pastel on paper (‘...somehow I find myself in tune with paper and charcoal and chalk and pastel and especially with the rubbing out of same, working backwards, erasing away, letting the paper do the white work...’). Phillips has that mysterious gift embedded in all truly great artists – the ability to inspire by example. His was era somewhat overshadowed by the preceding generation of celebrated artists (exemplified by Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Ivon Hitchens) but Phillips now occupies pole position, along with contemporaries like David Hockney, as the return to veracity in art gathers momentum. All that truly remains is for it to be announced Tom Phillips has been appointed President of the Royal Academy. It is a tribute well overdue.