Tom Phillips: A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel Through Illuminated Tweets

Tom Phillips

The leading cultural figure Tom Phillips will be displaying a selection of digital and print works from his project A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. The book is one of the best known and loved 20th Century artists’ books and is regarded as a seminal classic of postmodern art. This is the first UK exhibition of A Humument in seven years, with the exhibition at the Saison Poetry Library being the first to explore the new digital incarnation the project has taken on in recent years.

A Humument is a long-standing and continually evolving artistic work which Phillips first began in 1966 and is still being revised and revisited today. After stating to a friend that the first book he could find for threepence would form the basis of a long-term project, he came across the obscure Victorian novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock in a Peckham Rye junkshop. Inspired by John Cage and William Burroughs’s experiments with chance and cut-up, Phillips then embarked on a reworking of this source material, creating an entirely new version of the original text. By deconstructing the text by obscuring most of the words on the original page and leaving only a few carefully selected words visible, this new ‘treated’ novel can still be read as a narrative but each page can also be read as an individual poem and a piece of visual art.

Phillips has worked on the project for most of his life and is currently on the fifth print edition of A Humument, reworking a selection of around 50 pages for each new edition. Developments in artistic techniques are apparent throughout the different editions – early editions mainly featured simple geometric patterns with hints of colour but later editions of the text see a more developed, complex style emerging  – employing photomontage, intricate illustration and collage on the original pages. Developments in language have also allowed for new meanings to be drawn out of the original Victorian text, with later editions including references to modern technology such as texting and apps, as well as references to contemporary events such as 9/11. Phi llips has accumulated many copies of the original Victorian novel, which are often sent to him by well-wishers. He has stated that A Humument will only be completed once he has reworked all of the pages twice and been throughsix cycles of the project.

In recent years Phillips has embraced technological advances and the new aspect this can bring to the project by creating an interactive app version of A Humument which was released in 2010. The app version features the 367 colour pages of the book, and is regularly updated with the new pages as they are created. Phillips is also particularly interested in the element of chance that technology can bring to the project; with the app offering an ‘oracle feature’ that when selected, randomly twins two pages together, investing them with new meaning when read together and which can offer playful direction, advice or warning to the reader.

Phillips has created a USB version of A Humument which features over 100 of the newest pages that when played, twins two pages side by side and is accompanied with an audio reading by the artist which brings out the poetic, lyrical quality of the text. Both of these digital evolutions of the project will be on display in the exhibition, with a wall-mounted iPad featuring the app that visitors can browse and a screen displaying the USB version. All five print editions of A Humument, including rare early edition, will also be available to view. The exhibition also offers a rare opportunity to see examples of the work in progress, with some of the pages of the book shown from their early workings to completed versions.

There will be examples of other applications of A Humument, including a skull completely covered in tiny slices of A Humument text, and libretto of the Phillips’s opera, Irma, the plot of which was inspired by the project.

Phillips uses social networking sites as a platform to display his poetry. Every tweet he has ever written is in the form of rhyming couplets and his tweets can be read as miniature poems in themselves. A selection of these Illuminated Tweets – some created especially for the exhibition – will also be on display.

Two events will be running to coincide with the exhibition, an opening event where Tom Phillips will read from A Humument and an intimate group reading of the text. For full listings, please see below.

Tom Phillips was born in 1937 in South London where he still lives and works. As an internationally established artist and prominent Royal Academician he is represented in museum collections worldwide. He is best known for his book A Humument and his work on Dante’s Inferno, which he translated and illustrated (as co-director of the TV version he won the Italia Prize). Major retrospectives of his paintings have been held on both sides of the Atlantic including National Portrait Gallery, Yale Center, Royal Academy, Musee d’Art Moderne and, in 2013, A Humument was showcased at MassMoCA in the exhibition Life’s Work. More information about the artist can be found at


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