We recently caught up with member Tom Phillips to discuss some of his memorable portraits. Tom has painted many interesting people; from Samuel Beckett to Salman Rushdie. In 1989, Tom became only the second artist to have a retrospective of his portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.
Painted portraiture is but one of Tom Phillips’ formats. Fifteen years later, at the same gallery, he curated an exhibition of his large collection of postcard photographic portraits from the early part of the last century, under the title ‘We Are The People’.
Tom is an artist who works in an extraordinarily broad range of formats. These include opera (fulfilling roles as wide as composer, librettist and set designer), concrete poetry, ornamental forms of writing, sculpture, and site-specific designs (mosaic, tapestry, wire-frame objects). He has also taken on several roles – critic, curator, committee chairman for the Royal Academy, translator – all of which he has folded back into his art.
“When painting portraits, it’s about the subject’s presence. Because of that, I get to know all of my sitters well, and often I know them in advance.
For instance, when Salman Rushdie asked me to do one of him as in the long intifada lockdown, we used to play ping pong together; and when I completed the portrait of Prof. Peter Goddard at St John’s College Cambridge; we spent the sittings talking about matters I hardly understood, mainly string theory. Dirac was his hero, and the famous Dirac equation dominates the back of the composition. I got to know him very well.
My picture of Samuel Beckett is also a particularly memorable one. To paint him I went to do drawings whilst he was directing Waiting For Godot. I felt a little awkward constantly disturbing him. It was difficult for him to do his work whilst I was doing mine. There was one session where I sat behind him and thought it might be quite good to do his portrait from behind, it would be just as, if not more, distinguishable and Beckett’s majestic ears are seen to good advantage. They are, after all, the most sensitive ears for language alive. He liked the idea; he thought it was funny but also serious in a way.
I did retire from painting portraits for a while because I stopped enjoying them, though, I did recently paint a portrait of someone. It was hard work; perhaps because I was out of practice, or perhaps because my standards have become higher over the years!”
written by Ellie Lachs