Tom Phillips, British artist and polymath who jokingly painted on the pages of a Victorian novel – obituary

Tom Phillips, portrayed in 1983 in front of his screenprints inspired by Dante’s Inferno – Peter Brooker/Shutterstock

Tom Phillips, who has died aged 85, possessed more than a dozen identities including essayist, composer, poet, art historian, translator, filmmaker, fiction writer, curator and Royal Academy collector; he became famous, however, as an artist.

Also in this area, Phillips’ production was extraordinarily varied, ranging from the figurative, to the abstract, to the conceptual, making him unclassifiable. Yet in 1989 he became only the second living artist to have a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery; his subjects included Salman Rushdie, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Hall, Iris Murdoch and the Monty Python team.

His other works included collages, theater sets, sculptures, mud paintings, patchwork quilts (including one constructed from prostitutes’ business cards), and a series of orange peel collages on the theme of “serial castrator” Clementine Seville, the “Peckham Peeler”.

As Chairman of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy, Phillips curated a major exhibition of African art (of which he himself was a collector) in 1995 which toured Berlin and New York. In 1997 he played a leading role in bringing “Sensation,” an exhibition of works from the Charles Saatchi collection, to Burlington House, causing such an uproar that three academics resigned themselves to exhibiting Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley , made of children ‘s handprints .

His most significant work was A Humument: a Treated Victorian Novel in which he undertook a project in the 1960s after randomly purchasing A Human Document by Victorian author WH Mallock at a second-hand bookstore. He started creating art from its pages, painting, collage or drawing over the print, letting some of the text peek out in bubble shapes, creating a different story from the original and adding new characters like his hero and alter ego” Bill Toge”, whose surname appears only on pages that originally contained words such as “together” or “together”.

A page from A Humument: The Final Edition, published in 2016, 50 years after Tom Phillips began his

A page from A Humument: The Final Edition, published in 2016, 50 years after Tom Phillips began his “Victorian novel treatise” – Tom Phillips

Several editions of A Humument have been published over 30 years, with more and more pages revised each time and old pages reworked.

While no one questioned Phillips’ creative genius, some critics found this and similar works of art too cerebral: “verbal diarrhea given pictorial expression,” as has been put.

But for those looking for connections in Phillips’ work, A Humument was full of tantalizing references to events in his life and his other interests: art, music, and literature. One of his characters, Irma, became the subject of an experimental work written in 1969. “It contains, in a certain sense, all that I have done,” explained Phillips.

Trevor Thomas Phillips was born in South London on 24 May 1937 to a Welsh father and a Cockney mother who ran a boarding house to supplement her husband’s unreliable income from speculating in cotton futures.

He was educated at Henry Thornton Grammar School, Clapham, where he played violin and bassoon in the school orchestra and sang lead baritone in school concerts. In 1954 he exhibited in an open-air art show on the railings of the Thames Embankment. A year later, at the age of 17, he won a scholarship to travel to France. When he returned, she bought a piano and taught herself to play. In 1957 he became a founding member of the Philharmonia Chorus.

From 1958 to 1960 Phillips read English and Anglo-Saxon literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He took life drawing classes at the Ruskin School, acted in comedy, and designed and illustrated Isis magazine.

After graduating he taught for a time at a secondary school in Brixton, which he hated, meanwhile taking evening classes in life drawing (with Frank Auerbach) and sculpture at Camberwell College of Arts, where he became a full-time student in 1961.

Another page from A Humument: The Final Edition (2016) - Tom Phillips

Another page from A Humument: The Final Edition (2016) – Tom Phillips

When he graduated in 1964 his work was selected for that year’s Young Contemporaries Exhibition in London and the following year the AIA Galleries, London exhibited his first solo exhibition.

Phillips became a teacher at the Ipswich School of Art, where one of his students was Brian Eno, who would become a lifelong friend. He soon moved on to teaching Liberal Studies at Walthamstow Polytechnic where he met John Tilbury, the pianist, for whom he wrote his first musical compositions.

In 1966 Phillips exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and began work on A Humument. In 1968 she moved to Wolverhampton School of Art and held a second solo exhibition in Birmingham.

Throughout the 1970s his works were widely exhibited. After a stint as a visiting tutor at the Kassel School of Art, Germany, he gave up teaching and embarked on the first of many trips to Africa, which became a lifelong passion. His first significant publication, Works and Texts I, was published in 1975. The following year saw the completion of the privately printed edition of A Humument.

From the late 1970s, Phillips began to contribute regular reviews to the Times Literary Supplement and other papers. In the 1980s she designed a series of tapestries for her old Oxford college and took up portraiture with a portrait of her bookbinder friend Pella Erskine-Tulloch. In 1983 a limited private edition of his translation of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by the translator, won the V&A’s Francis Williams Book Design Prize. A television adaptation of Inferno, co-directed with Peter Greenaway, was broadcast in 1990 and won first prize at the Montreal Film Festival and the Prix Italia. In 1989 he was elected Royal Academician.

Tom Phillips portrait of the writer Iris Murdoch, painted between 1984 and 1986 - National Portrait Gallery

Tom Phillips portrait of the writer Iris Murdoch, painted between 1984 and 1986 – National Portrait Gallery

In the 1990s Phillips produced a glass screen and paintings for the Ivy Restaurant in London, illustrated Plato’s Symposium and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for the Folio Society and published a new book Works and Texts. In 1994 she published Merely Connect: A Questschrift for Salman Rushdie, marking the fatwa’s fifth year and conceived during a series of portrait sessions.

As the decade progressed he moved into new areas such as set design, quilting, mud drawing and wire sculptures. He designed an ENO production of Othello (including translating the libretto), and in 1997 designed the sets for A Winter’s Tale at the Globe Theatre. In 1998 Largo Records released Six of Hearts, a CD of lyrics from A Humument set for soprano, and ensemble songs and other music written in the 1990s.

In 2000 Phillips’ passion for the ephemeral produced The Postcard Century, an encyclopaedic and evocative portrait of the 20th century through 2,000 postcards and their messages year after year. The same year she designed lampposts, pavements, gates and arches for Southwark Council’s Peckham Renewal Project. In 2003 he designed a Royal Mint commemorative £5 coin for the 50th anniversary of the coronation and two years later wrote the libretto for Heart of Darkness, a chamber opera with music by Tarik O’Regan.

Phillips’ other “ongoing” projects included 20 Sites ‘n’ Years, a series of photographs of the same 20 locations in his studio’s south London borough taken once a year, and Terminal Grays, a series of paintings consisting of dotted bars of the leftovers on his palette at the end of each workday.

He provided cover art for pop albums including King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black (1974), Brian Eno’s Another Green World (1975), and Dark Star’s Twenty Twenty Sound (1999). He has also produced books on art including Music In Art (1997) and Africa: the art of a continent (1999).

Phillips was a man of almost Kantian rigid habits. He continued to live in his mother’s house in Peckham, got up every day at 7am, ate the same breakfast (toast, jam, coffee), lunched in the same cafe and worked in his studio from 9.30am to 1pm, from three at 17.30pm, then from 20.30 to approximately 00.30.

In addition to his role at the Royal Academy, Phillips was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum. He was appointed CBE in 2002.

Tom Phillips married first, in 1961 (did 1988), Jill Purdy, with whom he had a son and a daughter, and then, in 1995, the writer Fiona Maddocks, now music critic of the Observer.

He survives him with his children.

Tom Phillips, born May 24, 1937, died November 28, 2022

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