Tom Phillips



Not on display

Tom Phillips born 1937
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 1219 × 2762 mm
frame: 1382 × 2928 × 51 mm
Purchased 1971

Catalogue entry

Tom Phillips b. 1937

T01327 Benches 1970–71

Not inscribed.
Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 108¿ (122 x 275).
Purchased from the artist through Angela Flowers Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1971.
Exh: Angela Flowers Gallery, October 1971 (no number, repr.).
Repr: Richard Morphet, ‘Commentary’, in Studio International, CLXXX1I, 1971, p. 198, as ‘Benches I, II, III’.

The painting comprises three canvases, each 48 x 36 (122 x 91.4), separated by small gaps of equal width. The following notes are based on a fifty-page account of the origins and intentions of T01327 (including photographs and diagrams) prepared by the artist in 1971 in three copies, one of which is in the Tate Gallery.

The artist chose the images for the three panels from picture postcards which either he had purchased or had been sent to him. The images of the left and right canvases come from two postcards, taken on different occasions, of the same location in Battersea Park, London; the six images on the central panel are of six different British parks. The common feature of all the scenes is a park bench, and the general theme of the picture is mortality.

Phillips was prompted to paint the picture after he bought in February 1970 the postcard of Battersca Park from which he derived the image for the first canvas, that on the left. In the foreground of the card was a park bench on which a group of seven people were seated. Phillips wrote that this card ‘spoke to me directly of a subject I had long wanted to tackle, that of mortality. Stark light fused the group while better delineating its members in their isolation; and separateness. They were the assembled cast of a tragedy and/or its spectators: the ironic brightness of council flowers and the drab gaiety of the surrounding concrete parkland reinforced these impressions.’

He thought, however, that although the image on the postcard was self-sufficient for a painting about mortality, yet it was not self-explanatory. He decided that he required further images to secure the theme: ‘the supporting evidence should come from outside, from different people in different places who yet shared a phase of fate and were simultaneously condemned to act it forever and repeatedly on the surface of a postcard’.

In March 1970 the artist purchased a postcard of Central Gardens, Bournemouth, and received one of Prospect Gardens, Harrogate. He bought another card of Central Gardens, Bournemouth in May 1970, a card of Old Steine Gardens, Brighton in June, and one of Pare Cefn On, Llanishen (Cardiff) in August. In September he found a postcard of the same bench in Battersea Park as appeared on the first card, photographed from the same angle and in the same season, but in a different year, the bench also being deserted. In November 1970, he acquired the final postcard for the central panel; it shows The Rest Gardens, Fisherman’s Walk, Southbourne.

The six images from the postcards were arranged in the following order on the central panel:
top left: The Terrace, Prospect Gardens, Harrogate.
top right: Central Gardens, Bournemouth.
centre left: The Rest Gardens, Southbourne.
centre right: Central Gardens, Bournemouth (second purchase).
bottom left: Old Steine Gardens, Brighton.
bottom right: Parc Cefn On, Llanishen.

Phillips wrote that the unifying motif of the work, benches (as the stationary vehicles of mortality), emerged very slowly. Certainly he had not selected the motif by July 1970: however by October, the picture was described as ‘Benches’. He believes that the acquisition of the cards of the Brighton and Cardiff parks must have determined the motif. In mid-August the picture was called ‘Battersea Park; Bench Sadness’.

Phillips wrote of his search for the emblem of mortality: ‘At this time I was also studying Emblem books of the 16th/17th centuries. (I had had a copy of Quarles since 1964 but had recently acquired Alciati and a facsimile of the Minerva Britannica of Peacham as well as borrowed copies of Whitney and Withers). Thus the search was now not so much for images of the topos “mortality” but rather for its emblem; where ever I found mortality I found benches.

‘Admittedly other emblems suggested themselves: litter bins seemed also present on most such cards but were absent from the excerpt on canvas A (the Battersea Park bench with people) and absent from the Brighton card, which in another respect was such a potent icon.’

‘Much later in the painting of the picture it occurred to me why the association of benches with mortality was strong in my mind: my brother had told me (when I was about twelve) that the bench in front of Ashton’s, the S.E. London undertakers, had been put there in order that old people might sit down to rest on it, and, dying there, provide trade. It was also on a park bench on Clapham Common that I spent much of the dismal day on which my father died.’

At an early stage in the development of the painting the artist decided to postulate that the photographs of the various places had all been taken at the same moment in time, that moment being the instant represented in the postcard of Battersea Park used for the first canvas. He therefore decided to use the term ‘Meanwhile’ to link the Battersea Park image to the others. At this stage he was planning only a diptych. The discovery of the second postcard of Battersea Park prompted him to paint a triptych; the image on the third canvas represented ‘The Same, a year later’.

Beneath the title on the left hand canvas is inscribed ‘For all flesh is as grass, the grass withereth’; this is a contracted version of I Peter i. 24,’ For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man is as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.’ Beneath the group of images on the central canvas, the postcard manufacturers’ reference numbers as printed on the postcards are inscribed beside the postcards’ identifying captions.

Within a few weeks of finding the initial image, Phillips was able to decide on a format. ‘The format chosen resulted from a decision already made that the painting of Image 1 would conform to a system and that its procedures would be externalised in the form of a catalogue of the colours used in order of their use, as I had done in some previous works (‘Consider our Haven: Supplement’, ‘Thesis as Object with Scholarly Apparatus’); the only difference here being that I wanted to make this abstract and procedural section significantly larger than the figurative image, in order to give sonic priority to the process. This priority is only one of area since the colours, although they are ingredient to the image, are antagonistic to it in their solidity, clarity and verticality; they serve to emphasise the atmospheric frieze they both support and bear down upon. The brashness and contrast of the stripes also makes the image seem more harmonious and unified than it would appear on its own and makes it have, despite its bright flowers, a more sombre and tragic mood.

‘I decided to use separate canvases; partly because of confined studio space, partly because the picture was being already thought of as compartmentalised (a technique which also related to the postcard), and partly because of the flexibility of being able to add more units if necessary; in the background also was the fact that large canvases are particularly white and terrifying, and Adrian Berg’s maxim that one should “never paint a picture that won’t fit into a London taxi”’.

‘The actual width of the canvas to be ordered was determined by deciding that the excerpt from the Battersea Park postcard would stand a magnification of times ten: allowing for some margin either side this gave a convenient width of 34 in. This magnification would make the image 8¾ in. high. Thus the second canvas could contain six images of this same height surrounded by their individual colour charts and leaving a space for a text at the bottom which would also be 8¾ in. high. The overall height of each of the sections of canvas B would then be 11½ in. and this height was consequently introduced into canvas A as the distance between the bottom of the image and the bottom of the striped area: the top of the image to the top of the striped area would then be the same measurement as from the top of the image to the bottom of the space left for lettering. All the proportions within the picture arc inter-related in this way.’

The artist was undecided for a while as to whether the stripes in the central canvas should run vertically or horizontally.

The widths of stripes in the picture was evolved as in other works, from a system of coin-tossing, whereby a flick of a coin would determine either one unit width, or part of a width: he chose a unit to be a ¼ in., and thus, a width might be only a ¼ in., if the particular face of a coin turned up singly: alternatively, if a coin turned the same face consecutively for a series of turns the width would comprise as many units as there were similar turns. In the first canvas, there were 67 intervals ranging from ¼ to 2¼ in.

‘I estimated that seven colour-mixes should suffice to paint image 1 together with an underpainting to give weight to the pigment. (The postcard after all only uses four, plus the white of the paper: I intended to apply the white rather than use the colour of the primed canvas).’ A similar process was followed for painting the stripes of the central canvas.

He wrote of painting the third canvas, whose image, the second view of Battersea, was found after most of the others: ‘I decided to imitate exactly the format of the first canvas, and divide this canvas (the third canvas) in the same sections and intervals so that it could be painted simultaneously with the first canvas. I determined also that no reference at all should be made to the image on the third canvas when choosing the colours to use in the first canvas, so that the image on the third canvas is painted entirely in terms of the colours needed for the image on the first canvas. This meant that the third canvas had to catch up with the first canvas: the first ten stripes were painted (and the image with them) in an imitation as close as I could get to the first ten colours of the first canvas. Thereafter the first canvas and the third canvas were painted in tandem, each mix being used for both panels: the more “approximate” look of the image on the third canvas arises from its being painted in colours impertinent to it. This is more noticeable in some sections than in others.

‘A curious chicken/egg situation subsisted in this picture and others with regard to the relation of stripes to image. The image generates the colours to fill the stripes; the stripes condition the procedure of the painting of the image. The reason for the existence of more stripes than the number of colours necessary for the image is that a great number of stripes be generated for use in the studio, some to make pictures entirely composed of stripes and some to make other images. On balance the stripes have the upper hand and it is the painting of the image that is forced to he extended, artificialised, broken into sections and to be executed in inappropriate colours.’

Phillips began work on the canvases in April 1970; for the next five months his work was interrupted, but from the end of August he painted almost continuously until the work was completed on 16 April 1971.

A major source of the painting’s imagery was Dante’s Divine Comedy. ‘The quotation that had been present from the early days of the planning of the picture . . . was Eliot’s famous rendering (The Waste Land, 1.63) of Inferno 55–57 ... “I had not thought death had undone so many.’” The main section of Phillips’s notes ends: ‘What I most wanted the picture to do is what art has always set out to do, to help people see the world; art continues as its main function (perhaps even more emphatically in the 20th century, or with justified urgency) to lead people to see more of the world, more in the world; the natural and the man-made, the spaces even that lie between things in the world, “the atomic facts” (Wittgenstein) one by one.

‘From this picture people may look at postcards (and back to things), may look at benches, may examine the actions they perform and the ritual places of these actions and come to view them as metaphors.’

‘From these notes it may seem that the painting has a pessimistic intention: the opposite is the case. It is a plea against dying, especially that premature death of the spirit that can afflict those who were never invited to have a life of the imagination. There is no cynicism present.

‘It hopes to invoke a summoning of the will, in the spirit of Dylan Thomas’s

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.

You might like