Donnish Quixote by Susannah Frankel

Self Portrait (ekphrasis)
Oil on canvas, 80 x 50 cm, 1989

This feature first appeared in The Guardian, 1 November 1997. 

Tom Phillips is disgruntled. He arrives early for lunch and whiles away a few moments browsing in Zwemmers art bookshop. There, he stumbles across a dictionary of 20th-century artists. 'I wasn't even in it,' he says, forlornly. 'I'm quite a well-known artist as far as I know.'

It is true he has always been out on a limb. He came up alongside the fashionable likes of David Hockney and Peter Blake, but went, as he puts it, to 'the wrong school' - they went to the Royal College of Art, he went to Camberwell. He was never part of Pop Art, or any other particular group. Rather, he has thrived on his singularity, turning a career that spans almost 40 years into a lifelong search for the self. If his work may seem improbably varied, it is, in fact, all subtly (and not so subtly) linked: cross-referenced almost to the point of obsession.

Given his stature in the art world - in 1989 he became only the second living artist to have a one-man show at the National Portrait Gallery - and the breadth of his output, Phillips is remarkably little known outside it. 'Sometimes I think it's only American loonies who like my work,' he says. To complicate matters, he was actually better known in the Sixties as a composer of New Music. He has written an opera, Irma, and he translated and illustrated Dante's Inferno, for which he was awarded the Francis Williams Book Design Prize by the V&A in 1973.

This, Phillips's 60th year, may be a turning point. It has been nothing if not prolific. In spring, a CD retrospective of his music, Six Of Hearts, was released. In May (around the time of his birthday) Aspects Of Art, a painter's alphabet based on the collection at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London was published. In June, he exhibited new work - including an immense rainbow-coloured patchwork quilt constructed out of prostitutes' calling cards - at the Royal Academy's summer show. In the same month, The Winter's Tale opened at Shakespeare's Globe theatre with sets designed by Phillips.

In the meantime, he was preparing two exhibitions. One featuring large-scale drawings, collages and portraits opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery next week and will include his studies of composer Harrison Birtwistle and his friend Salman Rushdie - painted in 1992. A second exhibition, at the South London Gallery, called Sacred And Profane, shows his new work exploring feminism, religion and the relationship between the spiritual and the material, and includes the calling-card quilt.

Besides all that, Phillips is chairman of exhibitions at the Royal Academy. He curated the Africa exhibition and is a passionate collector of tribal art. And now there is Sensation - and Marcus Harvey's Myra, a painting that rocked the establishment in a way that hasn't been seen since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal and called it art back in 1917. 'Charles Saatchi rather bashfully suggested that the Royal Academy might like to show his collection,' Phillips says of how the exhibition came about. 'And Norman [Rosenthal, the exhibitions secretary] and I thought that sounded very interesting. Although the material in Charles Saatchi's collection has been incredibly well-publicised, it's been very little seen. I thought it would be good to show it in a much more public place to which a much larger audience goes.' The idea was taken to the Royal Academy committee, a committee, it's worth noting, democratically appointed by the membership at large, where it was approved. That was in January.

'The trouble really started in the silly season,' says Phillips, 'in August, when the papers, running out of material, picked up on Myra. The tabloid press loves an opportunity to put Myra Hindley's picture back in the news and that, of course, provoked a reaction.' Amid calls from the membership for both Phillips's and Rosenthal's resignation, the media drummed up anyone who might possibly object to the painting, including, most unfortunately, the relatives of the victims themselves. 'Every time they did that,' says Phillips, 'they reprinted the picture bigger and bigger and bigger. It was, in the end, shown to about 100 million people. We were attempting to show it to about 100,000 but we were the culpable ones. I never really understood that.' The brouhaha was, he concludes, based on nothing more than hysteria.

Now the hysteria has, for the most part, died down, Sensation looks set to become one of the gallery's most successful shows for years. For their part, Phillips and Rosenthal are working on upcoming exhibitions of a much quieter, more academic nature: Picasso's ceramics and Van Dyck. 'We've lost a handful of friends but gained far more. At the time of the adverse publicity, no one had actually seen Myra. It's a huge picture, monumental and sombre, not in the least bit glamorous. It's an amazing painting and a brilliant idea.'

Myra Hindley is the world's most infamous serial killer and any treatment of her must, necessarily, be sombre. Back in 1992, however, Phillips began a series of artworks based on a female murderer of his own. She is a far lighter affair, a bawdy creation, in the quintessentially English manner of, say, Chaucer and the product, thankfully, of Phillips's imagination and nothing more. Her name is Clementine Seville and she is the Peckham Peeler, a marauding mad woman who goes around the streets of London luring men into her snare, then killing them by removing their penises. The series is being shown for the first time at the South London Gallery this month.

'It all came from peeling an orange,' Phillips explains. 'When you peel an orange, you try to do it in one go, absentmindedly. Then you find, to do it in one go, you've made this phallus! I left it on my assistant's desk and we made jokes about The Peeler coming for me. It wasn't part of my work at all. But then I thought, serial killing has long been covered by the world of film and books, why not art?'

And so, the not-so-lovely Ms Seville was born. Her name's based on oranges. Her aim's to rid south London of its seamier (male) residents. Stuck on to emerald green blocks, the phallic peels are surrounded by her signature, obscene, rhyming scrawl. "You take nine inches?' asked Paul Rix. I did but there were only six.' 'Bill Turner had a huge erection. A major prize for my collection.' The response to The Peeler may be sensational, for want of a better word. Phillips bemoans the fact that when the Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell saw part of the series at the Summer Exhibition he dismissed it as nothing more than pieces of trimmed orange peel. 'They're not trimmed,' says the artist indignantly. 'They're whole.'

The Peeler paintings, only a very small, 'funny and horrific' part of Phillips's immense output, are in many ways a key to his more serious and more complex work. They are based in south London, where he was born and has lived all his life - the area informs a large part of his creativity. ('I've moved about four miles in 60 years,' he says, pulling the filter off a Silk Cut cigarette. 'I'm very attached to south London. It's uneven and pockmarked. Relatively unspoilt in one sense, ruined in another.') They form part of an ever-evolving series. More importantly, they transform something so mundane as to be barely noticeable into something greater than the sum of its parts.

At its best, Phillips's work is alchemical, transforming the banal into the beautiful. Much of it is monumental, iconic even. Take the ethereal beauty of Brent Cross, a crucifix created out of the advertisement pages from Sunday supplements that shimmers, strangely, with colour. ('I take material that everyone's using and put it into a transcendental context, like the cross - the name, which is a gag, came later.') Or the forthcoming millennium project made entirely out of used postcards.

Phillips has been working with postcards since the beginning of his career but is, at present, filing them year by year to make a history of the 20th century based on the cards themselves and the messages they bear. He has a card showing the Nazi Party Congress, sent from Nuremberg in 1936, with a description of Hitler speaking, and an early card of the Beatles, posted in 1963.

'Everything I use is almost like dirt off the street,' he tells me. 'I very rarely use intellectual matter. Prostitutes' cards, an old book that was popular in its day, colour supplements, postcards. Everything I use has already, in some way, been accepted by the world. It isn't plucked out of an ivory tower. It never is. I love the matter of human life. Why do you think I live in Peckham? You've got to love it somehow. That's a test of love of life.' Tom Phillips was born in south London on May 24, 1937 and grew up near Clapham Junction during the second world war. His father was Welsh, his mother, in her own words, 'a true Cockney', ran a boarding house to supplement his father's income when the family fell on hard times. Phillips remembers, from a very early age, being interested in art. 'When I was nine,' he has written, 'I was astonished that Isobel Thingummy was given the art prize for her version of A Day By The Sea, when mine had so many more people in it, and boats.

'I knew I was going to be an artist as soon as I found out you could possibly get away with doing something like that for a job,' he says. 'An artist is a child. He doesn't have to put his toys away. He can always make a mess. Seems like a good idea to me.'

After school and the aforementioned art prize humiliation, Phillips studied Anglo-Saxon and English literature at Oxford - his tapestries decorate the great hall of St Catherine's to this day. At the same time, he attended the Ruskin School of Drawing. There followed a brief stint teaching English, music and art at a Brixton secondary school, while in the evenings he continued his studies, now at Camberwell School of Art where, before long, he enrolled full-time, studying under Frank Auerbach, whom he cites as a major influence and inspiration to his work today.

Of his days as a teacher, he tells me: 'It was a horrible job. It was a horrible school. I used to wake up in the morning not knowing whether I was happy or not, and then I just realised that I wasn't, because this cloud of a day had arrived. By and large, the artist's life is one where the clouds aren't there. Or they are, but you generate them yourself. That's also the tough thing about being an artist. Nobody asks you to do anything. You have to make it all up and then wait and see if anybody wants it.'

To say that Tom Phillips is a creature of habit would be something of an understatement. He lives in his late mother's house in Peckham, where, each day, he gets up at the same time (7am) and buys the same paper, which he reads while eating his 'identical breakfast' - toast and marmalade and a cup of coffee, as it happens. He answers correspondence between 8am and 9.30, then starts work in his studio, breaking for lunch at 1pm. 'People always phone you once you've got going,' he tells me, irritably. 'I've got all this equipment, an answer-machine and everything. But I've never been able to leave my phone off the hook since my mother was dying.'

He usually eats at the Choumert Cafe down the road, where he always has the same thing. (We meet at The Ivy. Phillips designed the menu and supplied the art at the restaurant. He says he always eats the same thing here too.) He starts work again at three, works till 5.30, when he goes for a 'doze', then goes back to work at 8.30 and continues until about 12.30, 'sometimes till one or two if things are going well - or badly'.

Minor alterations to his routine irk him. Like when the BBC moved Radio 4's afternoon play from three to two o'clock, for example. 'The BBC finds it necessary to upset us all from time to time,' he says, clearly feeling personally wounded by the decision. Of his wardrobe, he says, he's been wearing the same clothes - corduroy trousers, a sleeveless sweater (he insists it's not a 'tank top') and shirt - for 40 years. 'I'm just upset if I can't get exactly the same thing.'

Recently, his routines have been disrupted in a happy way - by the arrival in his life of his second wife, the music critic Fiona Maddocks, and her two young children. Phillips has two grown-up children of his own by his first wife. 'It is temporarily disruptive,' he admits, 'but it's also creative. Love is love. It's the king of it all. And if you're in love with someone it's an enrichment. Tell me something better.'

However, things are settling down now, he says. Which is important. Because if the rigours of his routine may seem unduly perverse, they pale into insignificance compared with those he applies to his work. Phillips positively thrives on such constraint. 'There's nothing I like better than performing with both hands tied behind my back,' he tells me. 'The constraint makes the excitement.'

In many ways, the lesser-known photographic project, 20 Sites n Years, is the quintessential Phillips work. (Phillips illustrates its development in a lecture given at the Tate Gallery every two years.) Every summer for the past 25 years, Phillips has revisited the same 20 sites in the Camberwell area and photographed them using the same camera, the same lens and the same type of film. He stands in the same place each year, marking the spot with a cross, and takes the pictures from exactly the same angle.

Phillips now takes his son, Leo, with him each year in the hope that one day he will be able to hand the project over to him.

The photographs document in minute detail the physical and sociological changes in his local environment, one that is of particular importance to him: the locations for the project are situated around a perfect circle, a half-mile radius from his home at the time the project was conceived.

'It's nothing glamorous. It sounds boring, but, actually, urban change, recorded in detail, can be quite beautiful,' he says. Site 13, for example, is a urinal, chosen by Phillips as a memorial to a famous photograph of Degas coming out of a Parisian pissoir. It is always photographed at 3.30pm, 'an unexceptional and torpid time of day'. As well as the gentleman's convenience, the site includes the entrance to the council's salvage depot. Phillips on several occasions has been threatened by local dustmen, who assumed he was a council spy, checking up on the hours they were putting in, 'even though you don't look like a nark'.

'Since the first 1973 photograph also showed a prone house-painter taking an indefinite tea break,' he has written, 'the site could be subtitled A Nation At Work.' He continued to 'dice with death' as he puts it - long after the days of the urinal were numbered. It was removed in 1978. In 1982, the Falklands War made its mark on the site in the form of a tank, passing by the ex-urinal which had by then become a wall. In 1983, a CND sign went up on the wall. In 1984, Phillips and his son were approached by a policeman, who asked if they had seen or, better still, photographed, a man coming out of the post office carrying a till. 'I regretted that we had missed a spectacle - 20 Sites shown in a court of law. The first criminal to be convicted by virtue of his presence in a work of art!'

Phillips's working and reworking of the text of a forgotten Victorian potboiler, WH Mallock's A Human Document, is similarly a case in point. For some years, inspired by the cut-up techniques of William Burroughs, Phillips had been making poems out of articles in newspapers and magazines until, in 1966, he decided to push the technique to full-page and book length. Out walking with his friend, Ron Kitaj, he determined to buy the first threepenny book he came upon in a second-hand shop. The book was A Human Document. Working page by page, Phillips exhumed hidden texts, revelling in the rich language but appropriating meaning to his own, often ribald and allusive ends by isolating bubbles of words in pen and masking (with watercolour and collage) the rest of the page. The book has by now become a laconic journal of the artist's personal life. It represents his own, and his reassuringly ordinary hero Bill Toge's search for those elusive things, love and happiness (Toge can only appear on pages where the words 'together' or 'altogether' appear). When every page of the book had been treated, Phillips published the new book, A Humument. He has continued work on it, at the rate of about 20 new pages a year. Sometimes, prints are made of the originals, but Thames & Hudson occasionally publish the work in book form. The third edition is published this month.

Phillips describes his work on the book today as 'a mining exercise. It's just like the mines in South Africa. They turn them out for gold and because they're getting a lot of gold, they throw out a lot of the other stuff which itself contains minute particles of gold. Then they mine through that again later and they find a lot more that, originally, they'd thrown away.'

As Phillips's life progresses, the book reflects his personal experience: his divorce from his first wife; the development of the relationship with his second. A recent page, dedicated to his wife, reads: 'You in mine fused. Our lives lived for perfect love. My rose of triumph. My authoress. My cause. Give me tomorrow.'

'I'm a different person now,' he tells me. 'I'm working with the same vocabulary but I'm a different person technically and emotionally, so I'm looking at the pages very differently. It's the fact that you are chained by this author - who, 100 years ago, put the words on the page - that creates the tension.'

As well as exemplifying Phillips's preoccupation with constraint, A Humument also illustrates another very important aspect of his work: his constant inclusion of the written word. Phillips has always incorporated handwritten autobiographical material, personal epiphanies and studio diaries into the body of his work. A Human Document, for example, was also used to illustrate his own translation of Dante's Inferno. A Humument covers globes, transformed into objects of beauty by Phillips and, more recently, collaged plaster casts of skulls, also worked in bronze, mud and glass. The Curriculum Vitae series - huge, often very personal paintings which 'explore the moments when I stumbled upon what has become my subject matter' - features words actually created by Phillips, rather than found. They are excavated out of thick layers of paint with an eraser. More recently, Phillips has turned his hand to immense word sculptures, created out of fine copper wire.

'I thought to myself, why can't I do something in which nothing else exists but the words?' he says, 'which themselves produce a visual poem because of the tensions that link them.' A Song Of Myself, on show at the South London Gallery, is the most openly autobiographical.

'I sing of myself as seafarer. Awkward in water. Setting out for far havens. Daily more distant. Of Toge. Donnish Quixote. In endless quest for love . . . Of the Peckham Peeler. Clementine Seville serial killer. Feminist fatale. For I am the risen photographer. Seer of sites. Snapping at the heels of the hurrying years. Abstracted Autolycus. Saver of scrapings. Custodian of dust. Scriber of circles. Recycler of signs. Crafter of stars. Cross builder . . .'

In 1984, during the London rehearsals of the San Quentin group in Waiting For Godot, Tom Phillips painted a portrait of Beckett, from behind, seated in his director's chair. His studio wall takes its motto from Westword Ho! The words also appear at the bottom of the painting. 'No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

The criticism most often levelled against Phillips is that his work is too varied, that he is a better writer than he is painter, that he is Jack of all trades, master of none, and even that no one person could possibly be the brains behind all the work.

'There's almost nothing I do that isn't work,' he says. 'I read for my work. When I go to the opera, that's work too.' He has no time for holidays. Besides, he finds the beach 'stressful'. 'All my work is intertwined. It's all a journey, a quest. If the work doesn't, on its own, make sense, then it's no good, it's a poor piece. But if the work doesn't connect with other things, then it's also a poor piece. I'm just inhabiting a world and trying to make it interesting for people. It gives me pleasure knowing that every single thing ties in with every single other thing, covering a period of almost 40 years.'