Tom Phillips CBE RA (1937-) is that rare thing: a polymath. After reading English at Oxford (and at the same time studying drawing at the Ruskin School) he went on to study at Camberwell School of Art. His artistic career has led to many solo and group exhibitions all over the world, including the Royal Academy and National Portrait Gallery. He also pursued interests in music and literature, such as translating and illustrating Dante's Inferno in 1985, composing his opera Irma in 1969, and writing the libretto for an opera version of Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ that had its UK premier at the Royal Opera House in 2011. He has also created stage designs for ‘the Magic Flute’ at Holland Park Opera. The melding of visual art with textual content is a hallmark of his work.
To celebrate his 60th birthday in 1997, retrospectives of his work were held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and also the South London Gallery. More recently in 2001, his drawings were showcased in an exhibition at the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth.
Phillips was Vice-Chair of the Copyright Council from 1985 to 1989. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1989 and was Chairman of the Royal Academy’s Exhibitions Committee from 1995 to 2007. He curated the Royal Academy’s exhibition 'Africa: The Art of a Continent' (1995) which subsequently travelled to the Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He was appointed a Member of the Royal Society of Painter Etchers and Engravers in 1987 and an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1999. He is an Honorary Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, Leeds University (Bretton Hall) and the London Institute as well as an Honorary Member of the Royal Institute. He served as a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery (1998 - 2006 ) and a Trustee of the British Museum (1999 - 2006). Phillips was made a Commander of the British Empire for services to the Arts in the 2002 Birthday Honours list.
Perhaps his best known work is "A Humument": an ongoing project on which Phillips has worked since 1966. It is a transformation of W.H Mallock’s Victorian novel "A Human Document" published in 1892 into a treated novel; each page has been re-worked highlighting certain words of the original text to create a new story and illustrating that story over the original text.
‘I took a forgotten Victorian novel found by chance. I plundered, mined and undermined its text to make it yield ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems, erotic incidents and surrealist catastrophes which seemed to lurk within its wall of words. As I worked on it I replaced the text I stripped away with visual images of all kinds.’
Phillips turned 75 in 2012 and is working as hard as ever, with a 5th edition of ‘A Humument’ recently published (by Thames & Hudson), a new solo show of original work in London in Summer 2012, and also exhibiting new print editions at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.