The Artist's Mother by Margaret Agnes Phillips
Prior to the publication of Tom Phillips: Works. Texts. To 1974 the artist was asked for a description of his upbringing, to be included in the preface. On the subject of his mother, Tom wrote:
"My mother is, happily, still alive. It would be impertinent for me to describe her. With some persuasion she has volunteered to appear this once in print to describe herself."
The following is her response, as it was published.
I am a true cockney, born within the sound of Bow Bells in 1901.
My first recollection was of my grandmother to whom I went to live when three years old. She was an avid reader and I well remember that even at lunch a book would be propped up by the cruet; our daily maid would be sitting with us, her hair in curlers.
I hated Sundays when all the elders went to rest in the afternoon. I was a lonely child.
At the age of nine I joined the Primitive Methodist Church (it was the nearest), and, having a good voice, I was chosen to represent them at the local Town Hall competition. The song was about the horrors of Strong Drink. I won the bronze medal and wore it all the most unsuitable places, especially the Victory Clubs where I used to sing for the wives of serving soldiers. One night when the tenor failed to turn up I sang all his songs. What cheek I must have had, most of all since he made an appearance later on.
At school I loved literature and poetry. I remember the pleasure of my Headmistress when I borrowed Robert Browning's Poems when I was about twelve years old.
Having had no business training I, like most girls leaving school, helped in the house for a little pocket money.
I met my future husband in my early twenties. I had to run away to get married as my Grandmother did not approve, since he was eighteen years older than I. He was fairly rich and owned a gas-mantle factory. We had a fine house called San Marino in Upper Tooting Park. This had been built by a native of that small country who had brought over his own craftsmen. We also had a large Bentley car and would go for drives on Sunday which was then a red letter day for me. I had one good year: but hard times were to come. My husband had the misfortune of having his factory gutted by fire, and, as the machinery was rented form the USA (it could not be bought) and a whole year's work was ready to go out, he could not deliver his orders. At that time the big combines were trying to force him out of business. In case they won he had kept two sets of books, as a result of which he did not get adequate insurance payment. I saw my lovely home sold by auction and borrowed fifty pounds to keep us going and buy furniture. Unfortunately we had a living-in maid who would not leave us although we were unable to pay her wages.
I then secured a job by means of false references, as a telephone operator (of which I had no knowledge) in a Japanese City Merchants. We then moved to a small flat in Clapham, and, after three years we were able to buy a fairly large house with a small deposit. I ran a boarding house for students and worked terribly hard to maintain ten rooms, providing breakfast and dinner for six or seven people with no help, as well as bearing two children, David, my elder son, and, four years later, Tom. With all this I was not unhappy and never lost my sense of humour.
In the late nineteen-thirties, with a small amount of money, my husband was speculating in raw cotton; it did not require much capital to buy options and he was able to make a bit of money. Then came 1939 and my students joined the forces. I had some curious boarders after that including a (genuine) clairvoyante and a man who, under various women's names, used to type, in purple ink, popular romances.
My elder son was about thirteen at this time and he already knew that he wanted to be a journalist. He has been a successful magazine editor and is also an author of travel books. 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. Again I hated Sundays since Tom would go on long railway journeys dependant 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. However, when he was seventeen he won a travelling scholarship to France, where he went to live for three months. He arrived home with a sack of horse bones from the first World War; I have never known why.
On the day France fell, we fell too, for the cotton market collapsed for the first time. We had not put fixtures on the selling price and of course it went right through. We were left owing brokers a considerable sum. I thought I should never smile again.
My husband went to work in Aberystwyth. I was left with the two children and several boarders through part of the Blitz. We had a shelter fixed in the cellar with bunks for the children, a bed, and, of all things, a deck-chair: we little thought of the gas main next to us and some cans of petrol my husband had been storing. While he was away I did a little speculating on tin and rubber by cable to India, but I did not make very much since I was too cautious and sold directly there was the slightest rise. It was too worrying and I soon gave up.
Our first holiday after the war was to France and Germany in 1947. I was astonished at the destruction in Germany; it was worse than London. I am ashamed to say that I did not feel sorry then, when I saw ham and eggs and pastries in the shops.
A few years after the war my husband secured a good position (taking ten years off his age) with a firm of chemical engineers and was able to save a little money so that we were able to go for a holiday several years running, on the continent.
The highlight of my life then was the arrival every evening of the Evening Standard in which I would scan the property adverts. Having only a little money I was interested in the short leaseholds and persuaded my husband to buy several properties. This was a gamble, but I hoped that by the time that the leases expired I would be able to extend them or purchase the freeholds. This did not work out; I did not reckon on how the prices would rise or how properties would be knocked down to build flats. I managed to keep one of them in which Tom now has a studio. Unfortunately all this happened after my husband's death. I had no-one to advise me and he had had a good legal brain.
In the last ten years I have done quite a bit of travelling; my last venture was to Egypt where I rode a camel at the age of seventy-two. I still dislike Sundays.