A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel

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A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel By Tom PhillipsDescribed as ‘A Treated Victorian Novel‘, ‘A Humument‘ is the creation of artist Tom Phillips, and he has been working on it for around forty years. I first became aware of him when I was an art student at Manchester Polytechnic and became interested in creating visual art that relied on words taken out of context. Phillips was certainly an influence on me, but I’m afraid all but two of the lecturers on my course steered clear of me and apparently did not understand what I was trying to do. The fact the Phillips’s work has prevailed gives me a little faith in myself, but that is another story. My brother is one of the few people who remembers my artwork, so when he came across a copy of the fourth edition of ‘A Humument‘ at the Pallant House Art Gallery in Chichester about a year ago, he bought it for me as a birthday present. I was delighted.

Phillips has taken a Victorian novel originally entitled ‘A Human Document’ by W. H. Mallock and transformed each page into a miniature work of art, selecting certain parts of the text and then using various media such as collage, watercolour or gouache over the top of the remainder of the text to create images and ‘poems’ that are in turn beautiful, funny, erotic, bizarre, intricate, … the list goes on. You can get an inkling of what is involved from the image on the front cover, but this is just one of more than three hundred and sixty pages that are each unique and display a myriad of styles. If the front cover whets your appetite, you can see the individual pages at www.humument.com .

The work began about forty years ago: having the germ of the idea, Phillips explains (in the introduction which appears at the end of his book) that he decided he would use the first book he could find at the price of threepence. This was pre-decimalisation, and threepence is equivalent to the grand price of one and a quarter pence in today’s money. The book he found was Mallock’s ‘A Human Document’, which was originally published in 1892. Phillips describes Mallock as ‘a snob and a racist’, but found that the novel suited his purpose because of its ‘rich and lush’ vocabulary. The title ‘A Humument’ was arrived at by ‘folding one page over and flattening it on the page beneath’. The pages of ‘A Humument‘ do not follow the same chronological order as those of ‘A Human Document’. Phillips has created his own element of narrative which centres around the character of Bill Toge, but of course this hero can only appear on pages of the original novel that contain the words ‘together’ or ‘altogether’, as these are the only words from which his surname can be made. The main female character is Irma, and she is apparently featuring increasingly more than Bill in more recent editions of ‘A Humument’.

“There is so much to fascinate here that it’s difficult for me to pick out my real favourites.”

The narrative, however, does not seem to be the main focus of this work of art. For me, it is something you can dip into, marvelling at the images and colours, sometimes laughing out loud at the fragments of texts, or just getting lost in the combination of the two. As you can perhaps see from the front cover, words and phrases from different lines of text are connected by the ‘rivers’ on the page. This creates random shapes that almost seem that they might have ‘grown’ by themselves on the page. Sometimes the chosen words form a new, readable sentence such as ‘even the music rose to go;’ (p.288), or simply a phrase such as ‘The theatre never again’ accompanied on page 87 by numerous encircled dots, the rest of the page being covered in a pale dull green wash. Many of the pages are so beautiful or unusual that you could just consider them visually; some are definitely figurative, others purely abstract. Any two facing pages often display very contrasting styles: page 266, for example, takes on the format of a comic strip with images of a blonde woman, a forest and a sunset, whilst page 267 looks like a cross-section through soil. It’s almost as though you have a whole art gallery at your fingertips to wander through.

There is so much to fascinate here that it’s difficult for me to pick out my real favourites. Would it be the delicate pastel shades and curving lines on page 119 with its poetic ‘slowly open his mouth and sing my last book of surprises’, or the subtle pinks and brownish-greys of page 208, suggesting a shadowy figure in a dark, flooded street with vehicles approaching: ‘laden with London at six, or two, he dressed to face the blank wild time of London lit up’? I don’t even know that I have any favourites – there is little that I dislike at all in the book.

Tom Phillips is constantly replacing pages of the book and intends to reach a stage where the final work is completely different from the first edition that was published in 1970. The edition I have reviewed here is the fourth one; earlier editions are still available on Amazon Marketplace, although high prices are being asked for the first and second editions. Any revisions that have been made since the publication of the fourth edition can be seen at the website. I encourage you to take a look.

A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by Tom Phillips

Paperback, 367 pages, Published by Thames and Hudson, 4th Revised Edition (April 2005)

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Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (A)
by Tom Phillips

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Written by frangliz