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Trevor Thomas Phillips was born on 24 May 1937 in Clapham, London, the younger of two sons. His mother ran a ten-roomed boarding house and his father speculated in cotton futures. His family called him Tom.
In 1940 the cotton market collapsed and the family had to sell their home. Phillips' father went to work in Aberystwyth, leaving his wife to run a small boarding house in London. After the war the family finances improved and they were able to holiday annually in France and Germany. His parents began to buy short leasehold properties as investments and although these did not yield the return that they wished his mother did buy the freehold of one house, which would later become her son's studio and home.
From 1942 to 1947 Phillips attended Bonneville Road Primary School in Clapham. Whilst he was there he claims that he "learned the word artist and discovered that an artist is someone who does not have to put his paints away, so decided to become one". Although he enjoyed school he was noted his fascination with drawing and his refusal to conform. His mother recalled him buying a platform ticket every Sunday and taking long railway journeys when he was just eleven. In that year he progressed to Henry Thornton Grammar School, Clapham, where he developed his love of music, playing violin and bassoon in the school orchestra and singing solo baritone in school concerts and stage events. In 1954 he exhibited paintings for the first time, in an open art show on the railings of the Thames Embankment. A year later, at seventeen, he won a travelling scholarship to France, and lived there for three months. His mother remembers him returning to London with a sack of horse bones from the first World War, but more significantly he bought himself a piano and started to teach himself to play. In 1957 he became a founder member of the Philharmonia Chorus.
From 1958 to 1960 Phillips read English Literature and Anglo Saxon at St Catherine's College, Oxford. He attended life drawing classes at The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, acted in plays and designed and illustrated the Isis magazine. Upon graduation he taught Art, Music and English at Aristotle Road School, Brixton, London. He also attended evening classes in life drawing (under Frank Auerbach), and sculpture at Camberwell College of Arts, where he became a full-time student in 1961. When he graduated in 1964 his work was selected for that year's Young Contemporaries Exhibition in London and in the following year the AIA Galleries in London exhibited his first one-man show. While studying at Camberwell Phillips married Jill, and their daughter Ruth was born in 1964. Their second child was a son, Leo.
Phillips became a teacher at Ipswich School of Art, where one of his students was Brian Eno, who would become a lifelong friend. He soon moved to teaching Liberal Studies at Walthamstow Polytechnic where he met the pianist John Tilbury and participated in improvisation concerts at several polytechnics. His first musical composition was Four Pieces for John Tilbury.
The year of 1966 was important for Phillips. He exhibited in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition for the first time, started work on A Humument, and began collaborating with Brian Eno. When Cornelius Cardew founded the Scratch Orchestra, its constitution was drafted in Phillips' garden in Bath (where he had become a teacher at the Bath Academy of Art) and he participated in most of the concerts until he became disillusioned with its politicisation. In 1968 he moved to Wolverhampton to teach at Wolverhampton School of Art, and he had a second one-man exhibition, at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. He wrote the opera Irma in the following year and started the Terminal Grey series of paintings.
Throughout the 1970s his works were exhibited widely in one-man shows and collections. After a period as a visiting tutor at the Art School in Kassel, Germany he abandoned teaching and took his first trip to Africa. In 1973 he began the 20 Sites n Years photographic project. His first significant publication, Works/Texts I, was published in 1975 by Hansjörg Mayer and his first retrosepctive exhibition toured Europe. This was also the year that he met Marvin and Ruth Sackner, who were to become his patrons and founded an archive in Miami to house most of his work. The following year saw the completion of the privately printed edition of A Humument, which had been published in ten sections since 1971.
In 1978 Brian Eno produced a recording of Irma for Obscure Records directed by Gavin Bryars with a cast including Howard Skempton and Phillips himself. Phillips began contributing regular reviews to the Times Literary Supplement (now TLS). At the beginning of the 1980s he designed a series of tapestries for his old Oxford college and he returned to portraiture with a Portrait of Pella Erskine-Tulloch (the bookbinder who bound Phillips' favourite version of A Humument in three volumes). Erskine-Tulloch would become the subject of a series of weekly sittings which he described as "Pella on Sunday". He had moved out of the family home at 102 Grove Lane and moved back into his studio at 57 Talfourd Road in Peckham. A man with a great pleasure in habit, he would lunch every Tuesday in the Choumert Café on Choumert Road. His private limited edition of his own translation of Dante's Inferno illustrated with his prints was published in 1983 and in 1984 he was elected a Royal Academician. Peter Greenaway and Phillips co-directed A TV Dante with John Gielgud and Bob Peck, which was broadcast on Channel 4 television in 1986. During this time he also collaborated with Malcolm Bradbury, Adrian Mitchell, Jake Auerbach, Richard Minsky and Heather McHugh.
At the beginning of the 1990s Phillips painted portraits of the Monty Python team and produced a glass screen and paintings for The Ivy restaurant in London. He illustrated Plato's Symposium for the Folio Society (for whom he would illustrate Waiting for Godot in 1999), completed his Curriculum Vitae series of paintings and saw a new Works and Texts book published. In 1994 he went to Harvard as Artist in Residence at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and published Merely Connect, which he had written with Salman Rushdie during a series of portrait sittings. With the move to a new studio in Bellenden Road and a change of ownership of the Choumert Café, Phillips began to lunch regularly opposite his studio at the Crossroads Café, where he could be found reading literary magazines through his blue-rimmed spectacles.
He curated the 1995 exhibition Africa: the Art of a Continent for the Royal Academy and became their Chairman of Exhibitions. Phillips began to move into new areas in the mid-1990s: stage design, The Postcard Century for Thames & Hudson (building on his passion for postcards), quilting, mud drawings and wire structures. All his old projects continued and he began illustrating Ulysses. He also translated the libretto of Otello while he was designing the English National Opera production. In 1998 Largo Records released Six of Hearts, a CD of Phillips' songs and other music written since 1992 but this went out of print when the label failed in 2002.
By the late 1990s Phillips was an establishment figure in most aspects of the arts. He became a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, an Honorary Fellow of the London Institute, an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and a Trustee of the British Museum. He celebrated his fiftieth birthday by playing a game of cricket with many of his friends at the Kennington Oval cricket ground. In 1995, he married the writer Fiona Maddocks, Music Critic of The Observer.
In 2000 he designed lampposts, pavements, gates and arches for Southwark Council's Peckham Renewal Project. Antony Gormley, whose workshop adjoins Phillips' studio in Bellenden Road, Peckham, designed bollards for the same project and the work of both artists adorns that street.
In 2006 Phillips exhibited six works in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition amongst them Colour Sudoku, furthermore, held a Micro-Retrospective (9 February - 23 April 2006) at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
His best known work is A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. One day, Phillips went to a bookseller's with the express intention of buying a cheap book to use as the basis of an art project. He randomly purchased a novel called A Human Document by Victorian author William Hurrell Mallock, and began a long project of creating art from its pages. He paints, collages or draws over the pages, leaving some of the text peeking through in serpentine bubble shapes, creating a "found" text with its own story, different from the original. Characters from Mallock's novel appear in the new story, but the protagonist is a new character named "Bill Toge", whose surname can only appear on pages which originally contained words like "together" or "altogether". Toge's story is a meditation on unrequited love and the struggle to create and appreciate art.
Several editions of A Humument have been published over the years, with more and more pages being revised each time. The project is ongoing, and future editions are expected.
Phillips has used the same technique (always with the Mallock source material) in many of his other works, including the illustration of his own translation of Dante's Inferno, (published in 1985). He is also fond of re-using images from postcards (which he avidly collects) as well as drawing stencil-style lettering, freehand. The melding of visual art with textual content is a hallmark of Phillips's work.
He also paints portraits (his portrait of Dame Iris Murdoch is well known) and murals, and creates installation art and sculpture. He is a member of the Royal Academy (since 1989) and, in 2003 designed a Royal Mint commemorative five-pound coin for the 50th anniversary of the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He is an opera fan, and has composed an opera, Irma, using the Humument source material for the libretto. He also wrote the libretto for Heart of Darkness, a chamber opera with music by Tarik O'Regan currently in development with American Opera Projects.
Phillips engages in other projects that challenge the viewer's perceptions of art, such as his ongoing project 20 Sites n Years, in which he photographs the same 20 spots in his studio's neighborhood, once a year. As the years go by, the viewer watches the neighborhood gradually change. Similarly, Phillips has done a series of paintings called Terminal Greys, consisting of simple cross-hatched bars of murky, grayish paint composed from the leftovers on his palette at the end of each work day. Since there are no aesthetic judgments on the artist's part in the creation of these works, they are virtually mechanical; the "art" could be said to lie in the conception of the work and not in the accidental "grey rainbow" appearance of the result.
Phillips has provided cover art for music albums including Starless and Bible Black by King Crimson (1974), Another Green World by Brian Eno (1975), and one of the sixteen portraits that form Peter Blake's design for Face Dances by The Who (1981). His cover art for Dark Star's Twenty Twenty Sound used the same technique as The Humument, but using the album's lyrics as the source material.
He has also produced books about art including Music In Art and a study of African art.