This is an additional activity about artist Tom Phillips and A Humument, his 50-year altered book venture, which is an epic undertaking, and well worth looking at while working on 2.5 and doing things with recycled papers.
Way back in November 1966 Phillips was rooting around in a second-hand shop at Peckham Rye (where, as I’m sure everyone knows, William Blake saw an Angel in a tree). Phillips was looking for a book – he told a friend he would buy the first threepenny volume he found, and use it for a long-term art project, and that’s exactly what he did. But at that stage he can have had no inkling of just how long the project would last, or how much it would influence his other work.
The book Phillips bought was A Human Document, penned by long forgotten author WH Mallock, and published in 1892 for the princely sum of three and six. Mallock appears to have been a somewhat curmudgeonly and humourless man, whose view on Life, the Universe and Everything was vastly different to Tom’s outlook.
But despite that, his book provided limitless inspiration for the next 50 years.”Once I got my prize home I found that page after randomly opened page revealed that I had stumbled upon a treasure,” says Phillips on his website. “The book’s rechristening resulted from another chance discovery. By folding one page in half and turning it back to reveal half of the following page, the running title at the top abridged itself to A HUMUMENT, an earthy word with echoes of humanity and monument as well as a sense of something hewn; or exhumed to end up in the muniment rooms of the archived world. I like even the effortful sound of it, pronounced as I prefer, HEW-MEW-MENT.”
Tom Phillips began ‘reworking’ the book, starting with page 33. Initially he kept things simple, leaving some words unaltered, obliterating others with ink, and allowing the remainder to be visible beneath his hatched lines.But gradually his work became more complex. He even created a ‘hero’ who interacts with the characters in the novel. “Since the W in WH Mallock stands for William, its commonplace short form, Bill, would provide a good matey name for his humdrum alter ego,” Phillips explains. “When I chanced on ‘bill’ it appeared next to the word ‘together’ and thus the downmarket and blokeish name Bill Toge was born. It became a rule that Toge should appear wherever the words ‘together’ or ‘altogether’ occurred.”
The resulting ‘treated’ book was published in 1973 by Tetrad Press, but it was a small print run, and the artist continued to work on his pages, making changes, covering things up, revealing new words and thoughts, and generally revising and developing his ideas. He worked on his original copy of A Human Document without destroying its pages, but for later revisions he acquired other copies of Mallock’s book, and used just one side of a page, mounted on acid-free paper. He kept notes detailing alterations, along with dates, preliminary drawings and the gathering of sources, and employed a variety of artistic techniques, such as painting, collage and cut-outs. A few pages remained as he originally created them, but most were altered.
The first edition available for sale to the general public was finally issued by Thames & Hudson in 1980. Five more updated, reworked editions followed, and the final page of the final edition (which came out last year) incorporates a photograph of the grave of William Hurrell Mallock, who died in Wincanton in 1923. “I failed to find the grave in 1990 but it was eventually discovered and photographed by Patrick Wildgust,” says Phillips. “Partly hidden by bushes it had itself become treated by wear and gathering moss. On the last days work on A Humument in 2016 I was thus able to incorporate that photograph into p367 and finish my strange labour.
Throughout his endeavours Phillips searched first for suitable text, and that influenced his imagery. “I plundered, mined and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems, erotic incidents and surrealist catastrophes which seemed to lurk within its wall of words,” he explains in his original introduction. “As I worked on it, I replaced the text I’d stripped away with visual images of all kinds. I began to tell and depict, among other memories, dreams and reflections, the sad story of Bill Toge, one of love’s casualties.”
Phillips never worked on pages for A Humument in numerical order. He describes his creation as ‘a dispersed narrative with more than one possible order’, saying it is more like a pack of cards than a continuous tale. And there is never one narrator, or even a reliable narrator. He took parts of words to make other words, and revelled in the opportunity to create a nonsense vocabulary. However, he did set some rules, the most important of which was that Mallock’s words could not moved to suit his purpose – they had to remain in their printed positions on the pages.”Where they are joined to make some poetic sense or continuity of meaning, they are linked via the often meandering rivers in the typography,” he adds.
At the outset he intended to keep outside material at bay. But gradually fragments from A Humument made their way into almost everything he did, so it became a two-way process, and he included motifs and collaged imagery from his other work. It seems to have been a kind of symbiotic relationship, where the various works he was engaged with fed off and enriched each other, and the forgotten Victorian classic informed much of Phillips’ other work, including a decorated skull, fictitious globes, and an opera, Irma, telling the story of Mallock’s heroine.
The Humument is a strange book, obviously an artwork, but also part poem, and part story, drawing on philosophy, myths, history, art, architecture, literature, religion, popular culture, modern times, and all sorts of other things. Phillips is very erudite, and widely read, with a tremendous breadth of knowledge, and wide-ranging interests and skills. He is a kind of Renaissance Man for our age – one of these people who does lots of things, and does them all extremely well. He’s a renowned musician, composer and writer, as well as a highly acclaimed artist working in many different mediums – painting portraits (Samuel Beckett and Iris Murdoch are among his subjects) and abstracts, and creating sculpture, mosaics, tapestries, and wire frame objects. His work can be found in every day places like the streets of Peckham, and in grand buildings like Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.
Born in 1937, in Clapham, Phillips showed an outstanding ability for art and music at a very young age. After studying at Oxford he attended Camberwell School of Art, where he was taught by Frank Auerbach . He himself taught for a time (apparently he was a big influence on musician Brian Eno who was one of his students), and as demand for his artwork increased, awards and accolades stacked up.
In 1983 he was awarded the Frances Williams Memorial Prize for his illustration and new translation of Dante’s Inferno. Additionally, he and Peter Greenaway won the Italia Prize for their TV version of the Inferno. In 1984 Phillips was elected to the Royal Academy in 1984, chairing its Library and its Exhibition Committee from 1995 to 2007. He was a trustee for the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum, and was awarded a Commander of the British Empire for services to the Arts in 2002.
If you want to know more about Tom Phillips and A Humument, his website at http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/ is brilliant. I came across him about 18 months ago when a friend of a friend wrote a review on a book blog, and I was so intrigued I bought the book (the 5th edition). I picked up a second-hand copy fairly cheaply, but prices seem to have risen since then. I don’t like all the pages, but it is always interesting. You don’t have to view it as a conventional book (indeed, I’m not at all sure that you could – or should). I’m knocked out by the scale of the concept, and I loved reading the artist’s account of how he approached this project, and how he actually worked on it. Some parts are funny, others are sad, and bits are rather rude. There’s no plot as such, but there is a sort of story about Bill Toge, alongside the parts of Mallock’s novel that remain visible. And it’s packed with thoughts about life, art, the universe – you can have fun spotting the quotes that Phillips has strung together, making Mallock’s words pre-echo Beckett, Virgil, EM Forster and a host of others. And there are references to his own life, and to world events. Some pages are heavily worked with bright, bold colours or collaged materials, whereas others are paler and less ornamented, and the words of the original show through more clearly. And the style varies – you find a page with a beautifully detailed portrait, and next to that might be a cartoony sort of picture, or something that looks as if it belongs in a comic, or vibrant geometric shapes, or delicate pastel swirls, or lines and circles. In theory it’s the sort of thing I hate, but in actuality I loved it – it’s like being sucked into an alternative world. It’s beguiling says Adam Smyth in a London Review of Books article. And he’s right. That’s exactly what it is. Beguiling. No need for all those other words I’ve written at all!
PS: Please don’t ask why I like Tom Phillips, but not Will Ashford, because I don’t know!
PPS: I really like a lot of his other work, and much of it also incorporates text – words and letters are obviously very important to him. Some of it can be seen on the website of the Flowers Gallery which handles his work. And there is more at the ever excellent Tate website although, sadly, very little is on public display in the galleries, and you have to make an appointment to view.
Tom Phillips: http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/
Flowers Gallery: https://www.flowersgallery.com/artists/view/tom-phillips