Tom Phillips is the polymath’s polymath. When he gave the Slade Lectures at Oxford in 2006, we gleaned that he is not only a painter, print-maker and a Royal Academician, but also a film-maker, opera librettist and set designer, a fluent writer, translator, composer, and a musician with a fine singing voice. Oh, and he designed a five-pound coin for the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, as well as a 50 pence piece that is still in circulation. Unsurprisingly, the word on the Oxford street was so enthusiastic, that the audience for his eight Slade Lectures grew with each appearance, finally spilling out of the auditorium.
One of his major projects is a book called A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, The Final Edition by Tom Phillips [Thames & Hudson. A limited edition is also available, in a clamshell box with a limited-edition print from the book signed by the artist, (a snip at £175).] What (disclosure, my friend) Tom has done is analogous to John Cage’s works for “treated piano,” in which the composer altered the piano strings with bulldog clips, hair grips and – no doubt – mousetraps. He’s taken a novel titled A Human Monument by W.H, Mallock, a romance published in 1892, by the not completely obscure author of The New Republic. [This last is a roman à clef satirizing Oxford and its late 19th century Hellenism, mocking writers such as Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, William Kingdon Clifford (and if his name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll find several references to him on my own book on G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles), Thomas Huxley, Jowett, Pater, Pusey and Ruskin. The New Republic was a best-seller, of course.]
Tom bought his original copy of A Human Monument in 1966 in the course of a warehouse prowl with our late friend, R.B. Kitaj, whom he told he would buy the first book he saw that cost 3d, (“thruppence” or “a dime” in Ron’s American money). This was it. Tom’s title came to him when he folded Mallock’s title page, covering up the letters “Monu.” Over the years Tom has altered each page by, first, drawing on it and obscuring most of the words with a Rapidograph pen; later he used paint or collage to blot out all but the words he wanted to feature – they look a bit like comic strip balloons, but with the words always in the same font. He says there’s a narrator of this non-linear plot, though I haven’t yet been able to discern his or her identity. But the naughty hero is clear. He bears “the downmarket and blokeish name Bill Toge.” “The intended pronunciation,” he says, “is ‘toe’ (as part of a foot) and ‘dge’ (as in ‘drudge’ or ‘fudge’.” At first, because of the slightly alarming p. 16, I thought it was Toge as in “todger” or “roger.”
The labour involved in making this final edition, with 92 new pages – not all as slyly erotic as this one – has been prodigious. Having spent many happy hours with its predecessors – since the first was published in 1973 – and this “Final Edition,” I recommend it as a Christmas present that will astonish its recipient, and keep the lucky person amused and busy for a very long time. There is an audio recording of the book read by Tom himself, freely available at www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument. Listening to it while perusing the printed volume makes the speech sequences clear, and removes any opacity, e.g., about page 4, which we can hear is a clear reference to 9/11, with its King Kong “I LOVE NEW YORK!” post card collage. And the artist’s mellifluous voice doubles the pleasure. A genuine Gesamkunstwerk.