Art That Speaks Volumes by Richard Cork


Tom Phillips RA’s 'Periwinkle Diary', 2008, at his south London studio.


"Murakami" pastel on paper, 2012.

The indefatigable Tom Phillips RA is in an especially productive phase as he celebrates his 75th birthday. Richard Cork reports for RA Magazine Summer 2012

When I arrive at his south London studio, the tireless Tom Phillips RA is sitting in front of an easel, working on a small, densely organised painting. White-bearded and still defiantly a smoker, he is 75 in May. ‘It isn’t my favourite age,’ he declares, adding with relish, ‘My life’s hugely full of projects.’ Not all of them are art projects. ‘I’m still playing competitive ping-pong: we have international facilities at my other studio up the road,’ he points out, with a winning grin.

There is no room for ping-pong in the large Victorian house in south London where we talk. Phillips has been here since 1961, and ‘only bit by bit have I occupied it, like an Imperial power. I like this studio, it’s like an old jacket. Moving from here would be a major trauma.’

Displayed on the studio walls are a series of recent pastels that will form the centrepiece of his new show at Flowers East in London. Although abstract, they are filled with subtle references to dancing figures, primitive creatures, wind-blown leaves and much else besides. ‘Everything feeds my art,’ Phillips explains, before describing how the pastels are ‘worked in reverse’ by making marks and then ‘erasing with rubbers’. The pastels, which include Murakami (2012) are full of vitality, testifying to the artist’s innate energy, inventiveness and optimism. ‘I’m always hopeful,’ he says. ‘I remember that line from Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.’

Phillips’s art is astonishingly diverse. He draws and paints portraits from life, and has composed operas and ballet scores. More responsive than most artists to the power of words, he often takes them as the starting point for works such as his version of Dante’s Inferno. But his most widely hailed achievement has been A Humument, an artist’s book which he describes as ‘a treated version of a Victorian novel by W.H. Mallock called A Human Document.’

Phillips came across the novel when he was rummaging through an old furniture repository in Peckham with his friend the late Ron Kitaj. He bought it for threepence, and boasted to Kitaj that he would make it the basis of a long-term project. By highlighting words or phrases, adding images and filling its pages with colour, he has transformed the Victorian text in an astonishing range of highly adventurous ways. ‘I had never heard of Mallock, who was once a very popular novelist and philosopher,’ says Phillips. ‘His book never lets me down. There’s very good language in it, and it has words like “web” and “net” which have now changed their meaning!’

The original novel can now fetch £285 a copy, and Phillips admits, ‘That’s my fault.’ Over the years, his version has been so admired that Thames & Hudson are publishing a fifth edition to coincide with his birthday. He is also showing screenprints of pages from it in his exhibition of prints and original works at GX Gallery in Camberwell.

Phillips clearly loves working. As well as designing the silver kilo coin for the Royal Mint, he is continuing work on his series of books from his extensive collection of postcards: ‘I’ve got 50,000 of them.’

On my way out, I notice some delicate pencil drawings of periwinkles hanging on the wall near the front door. Phillips smiles. They are from a project he began in 2006. ‘Each spring, I do a week of drawing them, one a day, an hour-and-a-half each,’ he explains. ‘They’re early this year, so I had better get going.’