Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

A Humument. A treated Victorian novel, by Tom Phillips RA

9780500289990A coda to this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy was a final room wholly devoted to the project of almost 50 years (and counting) by Tom Phillips RA, entitled A Humument. I did absolutely no homework at all for the exhibition, and was rewarded by this wonder – much more than I deserved. On the walls were the 367 pages of a novel, each page reworked by the artist. To find out what was special about them it was necessary to get very close, as each was a unique and minutely detailed spectacle. One wall had a display of a number of the pages showing the evolution of the project, from the unaltered page of the book, through an earlier version, to the current (fifth) edition. The murky depths of my memory told me that I had heard of this work of art, but had never paid any attention to it. I was completely fascinated by the exhibit, but as I could not spend as many hours with it as I really wished (eventually I’d have been slung out at closing time) I had to buy the book.

The author-artist rather took the wind out of the sails of any review I planned to write with his Author’s Preface:

Hoping that the reader would want to meet the book head on, I have put the introduction at the end.

So I have to try and say enough to entice you to take a look, without depriving you as a potential reader of that element of surprise and wonder. I think that the detail that is repeated on the cover flap is probably fair game, but I do commend the whole introduction (after experiencing the book of course) and its commentary on the development of A Humument. Tom Phillips set himself the challenge of finding a secondhand book for threepence and making it the basis for a work of art. In 1966 he found a copy of W H Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document for the correct sum on a secondhand stall in Peckham Rye. The first ‘edition’ appeared in 1973; the latest (fifth) edition in 2012. His title revealed itself when a fortuitous fold of paper transformed Mallock’s title into A Humument. Mallock and his novel were mostly forgotten by the time Tom Phillips bought his source book, and have not really been revived even by this. Mallock’s world view and the plot of his novel are almost entirely irrelevant to the enjoyment of A Humument; Tom Phillips’s Introduction (at the end) covers them for the curious, and I think one can assume that approaching the project without that knowledge is the artist’s intention.

His approach to each page is to uncover some of the text and hide the rest. The text he reveals in little bubbles joined together by tracks and channels and rivulets between the lines and words. This can form a tiny poem, or a joke, or a spark of insight, or, bizarrely, in the case of the pages where the word ‘together’ or ‘altogether’ appears, a step in the enigmatic narrative of one Bill Toge, unhappy in love. The remaining text is lightly obscured, or completely hidden, by painting, drawing, hatching or collage (or in one case, burning). The visual treatment can be figurative, abstract or decorative, always inspired by the text revealed. Sections hang together like a narrative, or are deliciously random. The alternative stories are witty, tragic, surreal, erotic, enigmatic.

It is a book to enjoy in whatever way you like. It is a pleasure to skip to favourite pages, either for the wit of the words or the depth and beauty of the surrounding visual treatment or both, or else to turn the pages like a novel. It is also, very much to my taste, a wild adventure with typography. I love the way that the artist has found a hidden text on every page, and I adore the way it is revealed, by lifting it out with a delicate line around it, connected to the other parts of the message by following the rivulets of white space between lines and words, sometimes opening up lakes and open spaces on the page, like a map. It serves only to remind me how beautiful any printed page can be (even if part of a cheap mass market edition as the source book was).

A Humument can only rarely be experienced in a gallery – but that I believe is not where it is at its best. It is far better enjoyed as a book, to linger over favourite texts and images, to turn one page and find a surprise (or even a shock) overleaf. Not just a book these days, but an App too, for iPad and iPhone (like Hockney, Phillips seems to have embraced with gusto the potential of the iPad for the artist). It is an utter delight.

Tom Phillips RA: A Humument. A treated Victorian novel. Fifth edition London: Thames & Hudson, 2012. 367 pages.
ISBN 9780500289990
Available also as an iPad/iPhone App.

To get a flavour of A Humument, visit Tom Phillips’s web pages for the project, where there is a slideshow of 50 images, and the chance to cheat and read his introduction before reading the book.

Afterword: I’m sure in this piece I have implied, if not exactly said in so many words ‘W H Mallock? Whoever heard of him?’ Well, I should know better, because quite by chance I’ve rediscovered that last year Bookfox Kate wrote an approving and affectionate piece on his early satire Every Man His Own Poet of 1872. Do read it, as it puts him in a rather good light. Vulpes Libris and its astonishing breadth of content never ceases to amaze me, and I’m a Bookfox!

One comment on “A Humument. A treated Victorian novel, by Tom Phillips RA

  1. Christine Harding
    August 21, 2015

    That’s a wonderful review. It certainly enticed me! I’ve just spent ages browsing through Tom Phillips’ web pages, looking at the images and reading his introduction, and I’m intrigued by whole concept – the idea; its execution; the breadth of his knowledge; the way he expresses himself visually and verbally. And I love the way he uses words in the text to tell new stories, as well as creating pictures. I want that book!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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