A Portrait Project: Tom Phillips Paints Sir Nicholas Goodison

Tom Philips

It started life as a preliminary sketch for the portrait that Tom Phillips was painting for the Stock Exchange in 1991-2. The sessions with Tom were long and numerous. They took place on Saturdays in his home studio in Peckham. They were long because we had much to talk about – English literature, music, opera, especially Wagner, his collections of African art and his buying expeditions with David Attenborough, British painting and sculpture, cricket, his own many arts and skills, the Royal Academy, and much else.

He painted the oil sketch, a preliminary study, on the easel from life. He didn’t like the result, and despite an earlier agreement that he would give the preliminary sketches to me, he declined to give it to me, with the other sketch – a more preliminary sketch in charcoal and pastel.

The finished portrait for the Exchange hangs somewhere in the Exchange’s new offices in Paternoster Square. I think it is the only informal portrait and the only landscape portrait in the Exchange’s collection of past Chairmen, who sit in suits in chairs. The design of the portrait arose by default – no-one at the Exchange told Tom what they wanted. He asked me what he should do, and I said that he was the artist, he should do what he thought best. So he painted what he saw, a Saturday morning version of the subject. Thank goodness – those portraits of worthy gentlemen in suits sitting in chairs don’t excite me. The background is most of Paul Nash’s Landscape of the Vernal Equinox of 1943. We were talking towards the end of the sittings about the excellence of much British 20th century painting and the lack of critical and public appreciation. We got onto Paul Nash and agreed that he was one of the best painters of his generation, indeed of the 20th century. ‘Which is your favourite painting?’ said Tom. ‘The Landscape of the Vernal Equinox,’ said I. ‘Where is it?’ ‘Beyond reach because the Queen Mother owns it.’ ‘You shall have it,’ said Tom, and there it is.

The finished portrait for the Stock Exchange figured prominently in the photograph of Tom in his studio in The Independent on 7 October 1992, illustrating an article on him by Susannah Frankel. I mention this because Tom’s website gives the date of the portrait as ‘c.1996’, but my memory is that it was earlier, and the Independent article seems to confirm it. So the first version of the oil sketch must be 1991.

Tom abandoned the sketch, propping it against the skirting-board of his studio. It was still there when I called to see him some years later.

About eighteen months ago I ran into David Scholey, then Chairman of the National Portrait Gallery, of which Tom was also a Trustee. He asked if I had seen the marvellous portrait of me in Tom’s studio. He wanted the National Art Collections Fund to give it to the National Portrait Gallery. What did I think? I could hardly demur, and I wondered what painting he was talking about. It couldn’t be the poor sketch propped against the skirting board. Had Tom done something new?

It was some time before the National Art Collections Fund heard of the proposition. I eventually discovered that he hadn’t painted a new portrait at all, but had mosaicised the sketch. I think he did it in the context of the commission that he has been working on in Westminster Cathedral, where he has made mosaics for the Chapel of Holy Souls – a portrait of Cardinal Newman (not yet there) and panels commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first London performance of Elgar’s moving setting of Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius, which Elgar himself conducted in the cathedral. I see that Ernst Vegelin’s summary for the NACF says that Tom used the sketch to ‘develop’ the mosaic technique as a preparation for the portrait of Newman. If this is so, it rather a happy thought. Anyway, the result was extraordinary. He turned a poor sketch into rather a good one. It is another example of Tom’s passion for pattern and texture. The colour of the eyes is wrong, but that is called absent artist’s license. Mary Yule at the National Art Collections Fund later told me that the National Portrait Gallery preferred not to accept the gift because Tom was still a Trustee. She started thinking, with the Committee of the Fund, of which other collection the National Art Collections Fund should give the portrait to. I am delighted that the NACF Committee chose the Courtauld.


Tom Phillips. Portrait of Sir Nicholas Goodison with a detail of Paul Nash’s Landscape of the Vernal Equinox of 1943, The Stock Exchange
Tom Phillips Sir Nicholas Goodison, sketch