Phillips worked as a portrait painter, a musician, a poet, a curator, an art historian, a translator, a filmmaker, and a composer, and also held a 12-year-long position as chairman of the exhibitions committee at the Royal Academy in London. He was perhaps best known, however, as an artist.
In his art practice, Phillips worked in a variety different modes, painting both figuratively and abstractly, taking successions of photographs, creating sculpture and site-specific works, illustrating volumes by Cicero and Dante, and crafting distinct forms of writing.
Phillips’s masterpiece remains a treated book series titled A Humument (1966–2016). In 1966, at random, he purchased a secondhand copy of the 1892 novel A Human Document by the economist and writer William Hurrell Mallock. In these pages, Phillips painted, drew, and collaged onto the text.
In some cases the text peers out through demarcated speech bubbles, thereby creating a new narrative from the original about the challenges of art-making. The first iteration was complete in 1973, with several more editions published over the last 30 years, each time with revisions.
In 1989, Phillips became the second living artist ever to have a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, wherein his subjects included novelist Salman Rushdie, director Peter Hall, and the Monty Python comedy troupe. The gallery’s holdings of his works include a 1984–86 oil painting with seven related studies of novelist Iris Murdoch; portraits of musician Brian Eno, Hall, cricketer Geoffrey Boycott, and composer Harrison Birtwistle; and the 1987 pen, ink, and gouache work Tom Phillips (“Humument Self-Portrait at Fifty”).
As chairman of exhibitions at the Royal Academy, Phillips curated a major exhibition of African art in 1995. That show subsequently traveled to the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 1997, he brought the controversial exhibition of works from the Charles Saatchi collection, titled “Sensation,” to London’s Burlington House.
At the National Portrait Gallery, Phillips curated the 2004 exhibition “We Are The People,” which featured postcard photographic portraits from the early part of the 20th century.
Phillips was born in south London in 1937. He showed early talent in music—playing violin, bassoon, and piano, and singing baritone—as well as art. He went on to study English at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford (1958–60), and at Camberwell School of Art (1961–63), where he was trained in life drawing by painter Frank Auerbach. He had his first solo show at the AIA Galleries in London in 1965 and was the recipient of the John Moores Prize in 1969.
In addition to his role at the Royal Academy, Phillips served as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum. He was appointed CBE in 2002.