Tom Phillips

National Portrait Gallery

Tom Phillips is a writer, scholar, composer, and artist. He first came to public notice with the publication of A Humament, 1980, a self-described “doctored Victorian novel.” The book is a fascinating and colorful meander through various styles of language and art. The work’s title plays on the title of an obscure book called A Human Document. Phillips tampers with the original book, including some passages, leaving out or rearranging others, so that the final version is a playful amalgam of words and patterns.

An important facet of Phillips’ work is its serial aspect. Both within and among works, he builds up layers, different ways of looking at the same person to reveal different aspects of character. Through multiple portraits, he introduces a strong sense of developing narrative. Keir McGuinness, for instance, was painted once a month for a year. For each four-hour sitting, McGuinness wore the same clothes, yet subtly his face changes with every sitting. A series of lithographs of Pella Erskine-Tulloch was done once a week for one year, using the same stone. Each image was reworked onto that of the week before, so that light and darkness rise and deepen, creating a kind of motion. In some works the subject comes into sharp focus, in others her head merges into the pattern behind her. The dominant, scratchy white lines and rich lithographic black gradually build up, are scraped back, then build up again.

In his self-portrait, Phillips uses two groups of nine small panels. Each panel was completed in about two hours and reveals something of the uncertainty of the artistic process, as well as a hint of vulnerability. His use of a collection of panels in his portrait of David Rudkin, a playwright friend, expands the role of the portrait to include biographical history. Phillips includes a collection of fragments portraying both head studies of the subject and scenes from his plays; he uses an array of styles, including Cubism, pointillism, and kinetic patterning.

In a lithograph of Samuel Beckett, Phillips portrays the playwright from the back as he watches a performance of Waiting for Godot. Below is a well-known passage from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Brian Eno is shown in three small studies rendered in three very different styles. The first is straight and conventional: by the third, the figure is almost completely deconstructed. Phillips’ interest in pattern recurs in many of his paintings. In The Dante Binding, 1981–82, Erskine-Tulloch sits clutching a large book. The pattern of her skirt gradually disintegrates, as do the patterns of the carpet, the pattern of the lettering on a poster on the wall, and the pattern of a vaguely Paul-Klee-like picture nearby. In another image of the same subject, stripes of light fall from the background to cover her face and skirt. Many of the pictures alter the portrait tradition of the sitter and his/her accoutrements; objects come to take on almost equal life.

Phillips’ interest in words and typography leads him to question the very process of naming. In his watercolors of the Monty Python troupe, he makes anagrams of his subjects’ names, so that Michael Palin becomes Milli Panache and Terry Gilliam is Emily Girlart. The exhibition as a whole goes far beyond what is often disparagingly referred to as “mere portraiture.” Phillips reveals a good deal about process, about how one sees people (above all, one’s friends), about knowledge built up in many layers, and about personal history. His work is full of intrigue and inspiration.

Natasha Edwards