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The Guardian NOVEMBER 30, 2022 - by Charles Darwent

TOM PHILLIPS OBITUARY

Painter, printmaker and collagist known for his extraordinary breadth of involvement in the arts

In 1966, the artist Tom Phillips, who has died aged 85 after a long illness, walked into a junk shop on Peckham Rye in south London and bought a novel called A Human Document by the Victorian writer William Hurrell Mallock.

The choice of book was random. "I'd decided it should the first one I picked up that cost thruppence, and this one did," Phillips recalled in an interview to mark his seventy-fifth birthday in 2012. "It also had the most striking title - it leapt out at me. There was a witness, [the painter] Ron Kitaj, but sadly he has died. He said: 'Well, this one costs thruppence, Tom. Here it is. You'd better get it.'" Phillips paused. "He didn't live to see the end, alas."

This was not surprising. When Kitaj died in 2007, Phillips had been picking his slow way through Mallock's novel for more than forty years, altering every page to create a new work to which he gave the abbreviated name A Humument. There would eventually be two handmade versions of this, each of which took twenty-five years to complete. It was only in 2016, shortly before turning 80, that Phillips decided to end the project, on its fiftieth anniversary.

In an interview in the Guardian the following year, he said: "I could have imagined doing a third, but that would have taken another twenty-five. So I'd be a dribbling 105-year-old, or more likely dead, before I finished it. It was time to stop."

In part, Phillips' glacial pace sprang from his frequent changes of mind about how the novel should be handled. Having started by highlighting isolated phrases in pen and ink in the 1960s, he moved on to more elaborate interventions in collage and paint in the '80s.

But there was also a touch of obsession to his art-making. Whenever A Humument looked in danger of being finished, Phillips would begin to rework pages he had already reworked, or reshuffle existing pages randomly.

He completed six print editions of A Humument for the publishers Thames & Hudson, the final one published in 2016. He had also produced in 2010 an iPad and iPhone version, which allowed users to shuffle its 392 pages for themselves. A Humument was shown in its entirety at the ICA in 1973 and in 2015 the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition dedicated a whole room to the work. It was an approach that sparked the imaginations of schoolchildren and art students, many of whom contacted him.

A Humument was not necessarily the slowest of his projects. In 1973, Phillips began work on 20 Sites n Years, in which he set out to photograph the same twenty places in his local area on the same day each year for the succeeding twenty years. The work, typically, was still going on in 2016, more than forty years later: "Fortunately, the will to undertake the task has persisted," Phillips wrote. The film-maker Jake Auerbach documented the project in a film that same year, and Phillips appointed successors to continue it after his death.

In The Seven Ages of Man, Phillips saved the clippings from his monthly visit to the barber to make a set of seven tennis balls that charted the progress of his hair colour from black, via various shades of grey, to white. (This was shown at the Royal Academy in 2012.) "If you want to make a series of tennis balls covered in your own hair, marking your life from black to white, then you have to be very patient," Phillips said, reasonably. "And I am very patient."

This was no more than the truth, although patience did not account for the extraordinary breadth of his involvement in the arts. He was born in Clapham, south-west London, the second son of Margaret (nee Arnold), who ran a boarding house, and David Phillips, who speculated on cotton futures. There was nothing in the young Tom's background to suggest what he would become.

It was while he was at Bonneville primary school that, as he said, he first "learned the word 'artist', and discovered that it was someone who did not have to put his paints away". Armed with this revelation, Phillips soon moved on to other forms of art-making. At the local grammar school, he took up the bassoon and violin and sang as a baritone in the choir. In 1957, aged 19, he added the piano to his repertoire, and signed on as one of the original members of the Philharmonia Chorus.

While studying English and Anglo-Saxon at St Catherine's College, Oxford, from 1958, Phillips attended life drawing classes at the Ruskin School. This led to his studying art full time at Camberwell School of Art - his first tutor there was the painter Frank Auerbach (father of Jake) - from which he graduated in 1964.

By this time, Phillips was a husband and father: he had married Jill Purdy in 1961: their daughter, Ruth, was born three years later. A son, Leo, followed in 1965, when Phillips - known locally as "Black Tom" for his hair and funereal taste in clothes - was teaching at the Ipswich School of Art. Among his students was the future Roxy Music member Brian Eno, who would become a sometime collaborator.

It was typical of Phillips's polymathic tastes that his main inspiration at the time came not from an artist but a musician, the American composer John Cage. In particular, it was Cage's embracing of the elements of luck and chance in his work, spelled out in his book, Silence, that appealed to Phillips.

With Eno, he invented the game of "sound tennis" - "a kind of hand tennis played in a room full of old pianos, the scoring being based on the noise they made when you hit one of them," Eno recalled, twenty-five years later. "It was rather a good game."

In 1978, he would record Phillips's opera, Irma, based on the still-evolving A Humument.

Phillips's own career, meanwhile, had branched out into yet other forms of art-making. In the late 70s, he had begun work on a new translation of Dante's Inferno, illustrated with his own prints: this was published in 1983. Six years later came A TV Dante, which he co-directed with the avant-garde film maker Peter Greenaway.

By now a Royal Academician - he was elected RA in 1989 - Phillips curated the academy's show Africa: The Art Of A Continent in 1995, before taking over as its chairman of exhibitions. Two years later, he was pilloried for his part in showing Marcus Harvey's painting of the Moors murderer Myra Hindley in the academy's now famous show Sensation.

Then there was design. In 2000, with the sculptor Antony Gormley, Phillips came up with ideas for street furniture for an urban renewal project in the area around his studio in Peckham. This was followed, in 2003, by a commission from the Royal Mint for a £5 coin marking the fiftieth anniversary of the coronation, and then, in 2011, for another gold medal, co-designed with Sir Anthony Caro, to commemorate the London Olympics.

In between all of this, Phillips managed to paint portraits of his friends among the great and good (Eno, Iris Murdoch, Samuel Beckett, Pete Townshend) - he had a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1989 - design album covers and menus for the Ivy, be made Slade professor of fine art at Oxford (2005-06), write a book on music in painting and play cricket at the Oval (for his fiftieth birthday). In 2000 he published The Postcard Century, a history of the twentiethth century told through two thousand postcards and their messages. Much of his work is now held in the Massimo and Francesca Valsecchi collection at the Palazzo Butera in Palermo, Sicily.

He was appointed CBE in 2002. His first marriage ended in 1988, and seven years later he married Fiona Maddocks, now the music critic of the Observer.

In spite - or, perhaps, because - of all this, his name remained unexpectedly little known. He found his exclusion from dictionaries of twentieth-century art hurtful. "I'm not even in this one," he would sigh, thumbing plaintively, adding, "I'm quite a well-known artist, you know."

For all that, his life was more than adequately recorded in his own work of reference, which was A Humument. Like his house in Peckham, bought by his mother and in which Phillips lived from 1984, the book provided a still point to a constantly turning world. Life's big moments - love, marriage, divorce, death - all turn up in the narrative, encrypted or occasionally openly.

In a page from the late '90s, dedicated to Fiona, he wrote: "You in mine fused. A life lived for perfect love. My rose of triumph. My authoress. My cause. Give me tomorrow."

He maintained his rigorous working practice to the end of his life. In September he published Humbert, after Humbert Wolfe's Cursory Rhymes (1927) - "a perfect canvas for creative intervention" - and in October an illustrated edition of TS Eliot's The Waste Land. The day before his death he finished a jewel-like collage created from the pages of one of his favourite publications, the New Scientist.

He is survived by Fiona, his children, Ruth and Leo, and by Fiona's two daughters.

Tom (Trevor Thomas) Phillips, painter, writer and composer, born May 24, 1937; died November 28, 2022


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