I have just heard the very sad news that Tom Phillips, the polymathic painter and much else, has died – as I understand it, very peacefully after all his systems had begun to pack up. He was 85.
I always admired him. He was one of the first artists I got to know in the mid-1970s and he became one of my trustees at the National Portrait Gallery where he was an incredible fount of knowledge about sitters, including especially musicians, as he was nearly equally knowledgeable about music as he was about art.
He read English at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, where he was an honorary fellow, and then went to Camberwell School of Art, where he did evening classes with Frank Auerbach. While teaching at Ipswich School of Art, he met Brian Eno and, in the 1960s, he was involved in a great number of avant garde musical events of one sort or another, including writing an opera and showing his paintings at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.
This is what he looked like in 1976, which is more or less when I first met him (copyright NPG):-
By the time I got to the NPG in 1994, he was already very well established as a portrait painter, one of the best, partly because he had such wide-ranging intellectual interests. For example, he painted Iris Murdoch for the NPG which I hope I am allowed to reproduce (copyright NPG):-
He was asked to paint my portrait for the NPG and so my first year at the National Gallery involved going for early morning sittings once a week in his studio in Peckham, an experience which was filmed by Bruno Wollheim and documented in the attached article (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jan/14/art).
He was also a big figure at the Royal Academy as a long-standing chairman of its Exhibitions Committee, invaluable for his encyclopedic knowledge and himself curator of the 1995 exhibition Africa: The Art of a Continent:-
He was an important artist from the 1960s who was a big figure in his time, but has not been nearly so visible in the last two decades. He deserves a proper retrospective.
This is how I remember him in his studio, surrounded by objects with a little kitchen off it where we would stop at half-time during the sittings and chat:-
Farewell, Tom !