Tag Archives: Tom Phillips

May Day celebrations

by Bethany Goodman

Happy May Day to those who celebrate, and well done if you’re still awake from May-eve yesterday.

May Day has a rich history in Oxford, with Magdalen College Choir playing a particularly large part in the day’s proceedings if you’re dedicated enough to make it into town for the 6am start.

Celebrations have happened across the country for centuries, with standard festivities including the anointing of a May Queen, maypole dancing and Morris dancing.

The artist Tom Phillips had an abiding interest in photographic postcards, collecting around 50,000 of them from junk shops and flea markets and painstakingly categorising and sorting them by theme. This rich collection is now in the Bodleian (catalogue online soon) and one box, ‘Patriotic & Fete: May Queen’, presents a view of the enduring nostalgia of May Day. It especially captures the role of children in the celebrations, from a particularly young Queen (where is her Regent!), to a proud note highlighting the dedication of a group of children to their contribution in the festivities.

Figure 1 The May Queen (MS. 19966/73)

Figure 2 Maypole dancing (MS. 19966/73)


Tom Phillips archive

The archive of the English artist Tom Phillips is now open for research!

Tom Phillips (1937-) is an English painter, printmaker, illustrator, sculptor, translator, composer, librettist and set designer. He studied English literature at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, and was taught by Frank Auerbach while studying at Camberwell School of Art from 1961 to 1963.

During his early career, Phillips taught art and art history at Ipswich, Bath and Wolverhampton art schools, where his students included the musician Brian Eno, and he also had early success as a working artist and composer, holding his first solo show in 1965. A notable portrait artist, one of his subjects is the former Bodley’s Librarian Reg Carr, while his portrait of the author Dame Iris Murdoch hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Phillips’ other art works include tapestries for St. Catherine’s college, Oxford, sculpture for the Imperial War Museum, and commissions for churches, including both Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. His musical works include the opera Irma (1970) and translating and designing Otello for the English National Opera in 1998.

Mainly showcasing his work as a writer, curator and book illustrator, the Phillips archive also reflects his time spent as exhibitions committee chairman for the Royal Academy (1985-2007) and as a trustee at both the British Museum (1999-2006) and the National Portrait Gallery. He has been involved in various curatorial projects and the archive includes correspondence, notes and draft and proof catalogues for those exhibitions. In 2004 he curated the National Portrait Gallery exhibition We Are The People, based upon his collection of postcard portraits from the early 20th century, following his book on the subject, The Postcard Century (2000).

He was also chief curator for 1995s Africa: The Art of a Continent exhibition at the Royal Academy, at the time (and possibly still) the largest exhibition of African art ever mounted in the UK. The notebooks and draft essays in the archive also express his ongoing, deep interest in African art, and include his working papers for his book on African goldweights. Also prominent in the archive are the working papers for other books like Music In Art (1997); drafts of articles, lectures, reviews, and blogs on diverse artistic and musical topics; and his collection of small press publications (posters, pamphlets and other ephemera), some designed by Phillips, including his unpublished work Imaginary Postcards (1975).

Phillips is also a translator and book maker. His longest-running project is his treated version of W.H. Mallock’s novel  A Human Document (1892), which he has altered with drawing, painting and collage and published in various forms as  A Humument (1966-). His archive at the Bodleian is more notable, however, for his translated and illustrated version of Dante’s Inferno and papers relating to his work on the subsequent televised version, A TV Dante, (originally commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK and directed by Peter Greenaway). The archive also includes translations of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’.

The archive will be relevant to researchers interested in Tom Phillips himself, in modern British art history, in art-book making and, in the musical field, for the draft libretti for Otello, Magic Flute and Heart of Darkness.