Tom Phillips is an artist whose work follows rules, systems and series and is fuelled by several persistent preoccupations, expressed through an even larger number of formats. These include painting, opera, concrete poetry and ornamental forms of writing, sculpture and site-specific designs. He has also taken on several para-artistic roles – critic, curator, committee chairman, translator – all of which he has folded back into his art.
Born in 1937, Phillips attended drawing classes and lectures on Renaissance iconography alongside his studies at Oxford. Back in the South London neighbourhood where he has lived and worked nearly all his life, Phillips was taught by Frank Auerbach at Camberwell School of Art.
Phillips's first one-man exhibition in London was in 1965 and he won a John Moores prize four years later. However, in the late 1960s he was possibly better known for his music activities including his own compositions, as performed by the pianist John Tilbury.
In the course of Phillips's teaching career, at Ipswich, Bath and Wolverhampton art schools, he introduced Brian Eno, his best student, to the ideas that helped Eno develop ambient and generative music.
In 1966 Phillips resolved to dedicate himself to making art out of the first secondhand book he could find for threepence on Peckham Rye. Thus began A Humument, longest of Phillips's extended serial projects. A Humument is a radical 'treatment' of a forgotten Victorian novel by means of collage, cut-up, ornament and other techniques.
A Humument has become a touchstone of Phillips's oeuvre. The Royal Academy’s 2015 Summer Exhibition dedicated a full room to it. Quotations from A Humument populate his other paintings, works of art criticism, and some of the songs he wrote when returning to music in the 1990s.
Irma, a central character and the muse of A Humument, gave her name to an opera – conceived in 1969, recorded in 1977 and 1988, with its full score published in 2015. A new production directed by Netia Jones premièred at the South London Gallery in September 2017.
This variety of output is another Phillips hallmark. Since the mid 1970s, Phillips has received many commissions for site-specific artworks and portraits, and these provide two further informal series that wind their way through his oeuvre. He has made tapestries for his old college St Catherine’s in Oxford, sculpture for the Imperial War Museum, street mosaics for his native Peckham, and ornament and memorials for sacred spaces, including both Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.
Phillips's portrait subjects have included Samuel Beckett as well as friends such as Iris Murdoch, Sir Harrison Birtwistle and the Monty Python team.
Phillips received the Frances Williams Memorial Prize in 1983 for his illustration and new translation of Dante's Inferno. He also made a TV version of the Inferno with Peter Greenaway which won them jointly as directors the Italia prize.
Works by Tom Phillips feature in major galleries and specialist collections across the world including Tate, National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Australia, and the Ashmolean Museum. An archive of his papers is kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.