House of curiosities: in the studio with Tom Phillips RA

Published 10 March 2015

When Tom Phillips RA rented a room in a south London house 50 years ago, little did he know the entire house would become his studio.

  • From the Spring 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    The best place to interview Tom Phillips is in the kitchen over breakfast. There are two vacant chairs, which is a good start, and the strict work regime of his day has not yet begun. ‘Kitchen’ needs some qualification. The room is at the top of a tall Victorian house, almost level with the crown of his favourite tree, a giant ginkgo. Were it not for some evidence of food supplies, you might think you were in an overcrowded archive that just happened to boast a microwave and sink.

    The kitchen provides storage for Phillips’s collection of 100,000 postcards, arranged floor to ceiling in 150 plastic files. Walls are covered in prints and sculpture: Indian, Oceanic, his own. Shelves are crammed with tiny African goldweights (a fraction of his collection), box files, coffee, Lemsip, beard trimmer, fruitcake, tins of soup and bottles of red wine. He eats out a lot.

    The ‘breakfast table’ is obscured by toppling heaps of reading material – the New York Review of Books, New Scientist, a Lee Child thriller – plus sketchbooks, pots stuffed with pens, scalpels and brushes, old coffee cups, the remains of two boiled eggs and many crumbs. If you clear a space – less easy than it sounds – you see the table is a glass-lidded display case, with more African goldweights visible beneath. If you come a month later, little will have moved. Clearing up, like home improvements or soft furnishings, is not encouraged. “It’s a place without vanity. Or at least without the vanity of a homemaker.”

    This is where, since 1966, Phillips has worked on A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, an altered book which has been a fertile touchstone in his prolific, prominently autobiographical output. After five revised editions, this undertaking is almost complete. “God willing, it reaches its half-century, and a conclusion, in 2016.”

    The younger of two brothers, he grew up in Clapham but first knew the house when he was 12. “My mother bought it to save us from financial peril after my father’s gas mantle factory went out of business after the war. She let rooms to students from Camberwell School of Art, down the road. The last one, ironically, was her own son, in 1961.” He gradually took over each room until he had all four floors. “Now it is all studio. If that was good enough for Picasso, it’s good enough for me.”

    Phillips, 77, is married with children and stepchildren. Doesn’t his wife mind his domestic eccentricity? I can answer with some authority: I am his wife. My response, in précis, “We muddle through cheerfully.” His description of the house is no exaggeration. The ground floor contains an office and small library (with books spilling into every nook and cranny elsewhere). The bathroom, once named the ‘Samuel Beckett memorial bathroom’ in honour of its spartan plumbing, featured in Peter Greenaway’s film, Inside Rooms: 26 Bathrooms, from 1985.

    The first floor has a large painting studio. A smaller, adjacent room (pictured above) overlooks the jungle-like garden. An ardent recycler, Phillips has turned a variety of objects, from a child’s sledge to tangerine peel, into art. A truncated wooden cross, exactly as he found it in the street, is festooned with “quasi offerings, like a sort of fetish”. A still-life from Phillips’s student days and a recent pastel hang either side of the window.

    He says this east-facing studio is “light and warm in the mornings. I tend to do sculpture, collage or special projects here.” These include designing coins for the Royal Mint, including commemorations of Benjamin Britten and the 2012 Olympics, with a Shakespeare one planned. His current preoccupation is with the mosaic ceiling for the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs in Westminster Cathedral, reaching completion this year. Soon the black, vaulted ceiling will be bejewelled with 40 mosaic ‘flames’, each bearing a martyr’s name. Some are already installed.

    The drawings for the ‘flames’ are visible on Phillips’s desk, amid Humument fragments, books, post, iPad, more coffee cups, more crumbs. Does he ever dream of a clean white space? No, and yes: he has a purpose-built studio nearby, designed by Eric Parry RA. “Like many artists in the 1980s, I was seduced by pictures of New York lofts, and I went in with Antony Gormley, then a near neighbour.” But does Phillips use this airy haven? “Yes. It’s a perfect place for storing pictures and playing ping pong…”

    Tom Phillips’s English Martyr Mosaics are installed in Westminster Cathedral during the course of this year.

    Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. Her latest book is Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks (Faber, 2014)

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