Tom Phillips and the Art of the Everyday

ABSTRACT     This article examines the work of Tom Phillips, and in particular his interest in photographs and postcards as visual traces of everyday life in Britain, in works such as Benches (1971), 20 Sites n. Years (1973-) and The Postcard Century (2000). Phillips’s photography follows an aesthetic of ‘calculated stylelessness’ which is designed to jolt the viewer out of any easy presumptions about historical change or cultural memory, offering a teasingly intimate insight into everyday life while also rendering it slightly off-centre and out of focus. Similarly, Phillips’s interest in the postcard stems from the fact that its polished commercial artifice is often compromised by its visual naivety, which allows it to feed into unsettling questions of memory and mortality. Phillips’s work as a whole engages with what the French writer Georges Perec calls ‘the infra-ordinary,’ the momentary, fleeting aspects of life that escape analysis or representation.


Tom Phillips is the artist and author of an eclectic body of work in a variety of media including painting, collage, printmaking, tapestry, film, ballet, opera and set design. The work to which he has consistently returned since his career began in the early 1960s, though, has focused on the material and visual traces of everyday life. This article aims to explore this aspect of Phillips’s work, and in particular his thirty-year engagement with photographs and postcards as objects of art. Phillips often mirrors the repetitions and recurrences of daily life by working incrementally, collecting similar materials together or recycling left-over mixed paint to produce a series of works, then meticulously documenting and cross-referencing this development in diaries of activity. His autobiographical concrete poem, Curriculum Vitae (1986-92), connects this element of his work with childhood obsessions, as it recalls the ‘anal diligence’ with which he collected trolleybus numbers and steamed labels from matchbox tops, ‘all strife of art inside a filing clerk’. Phillips also tends to impose particular rules or restrictions on the creative process, in a kind of purposeful extinction of the personality which aims to surrender the art work to the chance encounters of everyday life, as in A Humument (1966-), which employs William Burroughs’s cut-up methods on a long-forgotten Victorian novel, concealing and highlighting certain words to reveal an über-text which is partly constrained by the content of its palimpsest.

Phillips’s work can thus be placed within the context of the many artistic and cultural movements – Dadaist, Surrealist, Situationist and Fluxus – which engage with the everyday, particularly in his use of found poems, ready-made objects and collages of commonplace materials. These movements, though, tended not so much to embrace the ordinariness of everyday life as to make it resonate with new significances through techniques of shock and disruption. Phillips usually avoids the bold, singular statements of the historical avant-garde or the many contemporary artists, such as Tracey Emin or Sarah Lucas, who also work with everyday materials. Some of his works, it is true, can be tied to specific meanings and effects. Brent Cross (1991/92), a crucifix created out of glossy advertisements from Sunday colour supplements and named after a particularly soulless shopping mall off the North Circular Road, reflects on the residual pull of spirituality in the rituals of mass consumerism. Women’s Work (1997), a gigantic patchwork quilt made up of the vividly coloured calling cards left in London telephone booths, suggests a connection between two historically devalued occupations undertaken by women, sewing and prostitution. In the intricately embroidered patterns of Women’s Work, though, parts of words such as ‘spank,’ ‘hot,’ ‘cum’ and ‘babe’ can only just be made out, while Brent Cross’s origins would be unclear without Phillips’s textual commentary. In most of his collages, the material is so reworked that the original impulse or intended effect is unclear. Like much of his work, they are characterized by serendipitous additions, patient accumulation and quiet inquisitiveness. As Phillips says in an interview: ‘Everything I use is almost like dirt off the street … [it] has already, in some way, been accepted by the world … I love the matter of human life.’[1]

Mapping the Invisible City

This random and cumulative approach is particularly evident in 20 sites n. Years, an ongoing photographic project begun in 1973, the development of which Phillips illustrates in a biennial lecture and slide show held at the Tate Gallery. This project is based on the establishment of a series of initial rules which are then rigorously followed, in the hope that it will follow its own momentum and evidence of the everyday will emerge independently of the photographer’s or viewer’s preconceptions. Every year, on a day between May 24th and June 2nd, Phillips takes photographs of the same twenty locations situated around Camberwell and Peckham on the closest walkable route to a circle half a mile in radius from the central point of the house in which he was living at the beginning of the project. Between 10.20am and 5.30pm on the designated day, he walks the circumference of the circle, stopping at the various sites at regular intervals, which are thus photographed at the same time of day each year. He marks each spot with a cross using a car spray aerosol, so that the pictures are always taken from exactly the same position and angle.

While the four sites marking the journey from the centre of the circle to its circumference have personal connections (such as his studio and former home), the other sixteen are simply humdrum locations chosen more or less at random: residential streets, shops, pubs, car parks, bowling greens, housing estates and cinemas. Phillips locates 20 Sites south of the river, in that generally less cosmopolitan and more domesticated area of the capital that the nineteenth-century novelist and historian Walter Besant once referred to as ‘a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history’.[2] The photographs are taken in a particularly downbeat and economically deprived borough, one which is almost literally off the map: Camberwell and Peckham are routinely excluded from the guidebooks, and are not serviced by the London Underground, with all the improved access to jobs, education and leisure that this provides.

But Phillips’s project is not a sociological investigation of urban decline, even though it mimics the form of the longitudinal study, an attempt to identify the causes of social change through an observation of the same group or situation at regular time intervals. Instead, he uses the fact that these neighbourhoods have not experienced the impact of property developers or the upwardly-mobile middle classes (unlike most areas of London since the 1980s), in order to reflect on important but barely perceptible changes in urban landscapes which are not covered within the existing conceptual frameworks of social science. In some of the sites, the evidence of external events will be seen in the minutiae of private lives: a general election poster, a sticker celebrating the Pope’s visit, bunting for a Silver jubilee party. Other sites will show how daily routines change under the impact of technological or commercial innovation. A milkman delivers bottles in 1981, soon to become an anthropological curiosity; the Peckham Odeon is knocked down, perhaps under pressure from the multiplexes; Giles Gilbert Scott’s classic red telephone box morphs into the more functional glass kiosk of the 1980s; satellite dishes sprout sporadically from roofs. While cars, fashions and street furniture change, though, this project is largely an exercise in sameness and resemblance. In one housing estate, change can only be spotted in tiny, insignificant details: a new drainpipe on one of the houses, a splodge of yellow paint on the road, a piece of tape on an iron railing. If these photographs were not clearly organized as a series with a running commentary from the photographer, it would actually be difficult to work out their chronological sequence. The absence of obvious markers means that the viewer is jolted out of any easy presumptions about historical change or cultural memory. It is only in the form of delicate fluctuations and repositionings that one can see the tectonic plates of social life shifting infinitesimally but unmistakably.

Phillips’s use of arbitrary positions on a map to trace an unconventional route has some similarities with the strategies of the Situationist International in the 1960s. The situationist practice of dérive (or ‘drifting’) involved cutting up existing maps of Paris, reassembling the fragments and then walking the amended routes, so that movement through the city would become an end in itself rather than simply a means of travelling from one commodified space to another. Phillips shares with this group a sense that maps abstract social space, establishing it as a universally measurable and homogeneous concept which, in Michel de Certeau’s words, ‘causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten’.[3] London has two iconographic examples of this: the Underground map, a purely functional design based on an electrical circuit, which famously bears little relation to the street-level city; and the A-Z, which exhaustively chronicles every gasworks, playing field and suburban cul-de-sac, but also widens and highlights the major roads, so that routes through the city are foregrounded over its day-to-day reality. Interestingly, Phillips uses a different map of London to illustrate 20 Sites, in which all the roads are drawn to the correct scale. Like the directionless walking of the Parisian revolutionaries, his project aims to uncover the living and breathing city obscured by geometric abstractions.

Situationism, though, was engaged in the active construction of situations, a reconfiguration of the urban environment which aimed to transform the way it was seen and experienced. Phillips, instead, prefers a kind of studied absorption in the trivial detail that might be overlooked in a more proactive engagement. The difference becomes clear when 20 Sites is compared with Iain Sinclair’s more directly situationist-inspired Lights Out for the Territory (1997), based on a series of aimless walks around London with the photographer Marc Atkins. Like Phillips, Sinclair eschews the tourist and heritage sites and the more fashionable North London villages, focusing instead on the gone-to-seed areas of the East End and South-East London. His declared methods of ‘geomancy’ and ‘psychogeography’ produce a mode of travel that he describes as ‘drifting purposefully,’ often by walking a route produced by inscribing a certain letter on a map. Unlike Phillips’s project, though, Sinclair’s book is an energetic tour de force in which the author uses the weight of his erudition and distinctively browbeating prose style to reveal an intricate maze of force fields, ley-lines and sacred sites linked to legendary London figures such as Dickens, Blake and the Angry Brigade. ‘The notion,’ as Sinclair writes in the introduction, ‘was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking …These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading – a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy.’[4] Phillips’s city does not yield up its secrets, meanings and coincidences so easily. In another series, Mapwalk (1972/73), he draws abstract shapes on a map of South London, inspired by those mainstays of 1970s hippiedom, the huge Nasca land-drawings in Peru and the Glastonbury Zodiac, both of which can only be seen from the sky. While looking for cryptic significance in his own drawings, though, Phillips is honest enough to admit his disappointment: ‘Having thus plotted the symbolic shape I was duty bound to trudge this six-mile sign, only to find that at ground level I apprehended no magical feeling whatsoever.’[5] Phillips, as an artist whose career began seriously in the late 1960s, is clearly engaging here with many of the same cultural reference points as Sinclair, particularly the revolutionary and spiritual possibilities of the counterculture. Ultimately, though, he remains sceptical of any countercultural notion that the veneer of everyday experience can be stripped away to reveal a higher or deeper form of truth.

20 Sites is similarly resistant to interpretation, largely because when change occurs within the project, it often seems pointless, ‘as if there are spots in suburbia where the world feels an itch and needs to scratch itself’.[6] Benches, paving stones and flower beds disappear and then return in slightly different places, while some streets seem to be used as practice areas for road diggers or sign erectors. Phillips speculates that, if 20 Sites is typical of the country as a whole, then a lot of people ‘are involved in totally random and arbitrary activity. They seem to cancel out each other’s work in a long dance of job protection’.[7] The main reason that this project seems so formless and directionless is that Phillips does not impose any obvious authorial meaning on it, and will not use the smoothness and coherence of narrative to pull the viewer past recalcitrant details. Like the I-Spy Books, those monuments to trivia which have sent many a postwar British schoolchild on the useless quest for a ‘no loading’ sign or a mini-roundabout, Phillips’s search for mundane detail in the urban landscape generates its own logic.

Memory and the Infra-Ordinary

Given this essentially accepting relationship to the everyday, Phillips’s work might be more usefully compared not with the situationists but with the writings of Georges Perec. Many of Perec’s stories and essays engage in encyclopaedic listings of places, objects, sensations and feelings. In Espèces d’espaces (Species of Spaces, 1974), Perec makes a series of inventories of his bedroom, apartment, building and neighbourhood, and encourages his readers to think critically about how streets are named, houses are numbered and cars are parked: ‘You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.’ The aim of these apparently futile exercises is to provide privileged access to what Perec calls ‘the infra-ordinary,’ the sphere of existence that lies beneath notice or comment, and within which ‘we sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep’.[8] In order to access this sphere, though, the world has to be observed as neutrally and contemplatively as possible, without pretensions or prejudgements. In a bureaucratic, achievement-oriented culture which emphasizes the selection and hierarchizing of particular areas of experience, these kinds of behaviour tend to be dismissed as the anal fixations of ‘nerds’ and ‘anoraks’. Perec aims to look behind the deceptive blandness of such activities, pointing to their productive relationship with the momentary, fleeting aspects of life that ordinarily escape analysis or representation.

Both Phillips and Perec focus on the apparent inconsequentiality of lived experience in order to make the everyday at least intermittently visible. The everyday, as de Certeau writes, is something that ‘escap[es] the imaginary totalizations produced by the eye’ because it has ‘a certain strangeness that does not surface, or whose surface is only its upper limit, outlining itself against the visible’.[9] For Perec, the everyday is invisible because it is associated with habitual and routine activities which are undertaken thoughtlessly and automatically; because its very repetitiveness means that it has developed powerfully negative associations with banality and boredom; and because it forms part of the fleeting, ephemeral nature of modern life, a continuous flow which cannot be easily apprehended. For theorists like de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre, the everyday is also invisible because it is excluded from conventional systems of knowledge. Lefebvre suggests that the everyday forms a kind of connecting thread of non-scholarly knowledge which has the potential to show how these discrete, disciplinary systems of thought are ultimately interrelated. Everyday life is ‘defined by “what is left over” after all distinct, superior, specialized, structured activities have been singled out by analysis,’ and is ‘profoundly related to all activities, and encompasses them with all their differences and their conflicts’.[10]

As Laurie Langbauer and others have pointed out, Lefebvre and de Certeau risk essentializing the everyday by interpreting it as a homogeneous totality which also remains diffuse, ungraspable and unknowable. For Langbauer, the everyday is a rhetorical construction, conjured up ‘like a charm’ in order to provide us with the illusion of unmediated access to the real.[11] As she points out, one of the problems with this formulation is that it envisages the everyday as both an indefinable essence and an identifiable concept which can be made the subject of a science. In Phillips’s work, though, there are no such scientific or totalizing pretensions, since it always filters the everyday through textual fragments or visual representations which deal only with specifics such as the movement of pedestrians, the different patterns of street signs and advertisements, the ebb and flow of traffic and so on. While Phillips says that 20 sites ‘combines the quotidian with the mystical in an unlooked for alchemy of chance,’[12] there is no suggestion of a magical transfiguration or altered state of consciousness which reveals the normally unseen but essential unity of all things. The project is more fragmentary than this, simply witnessing how much of lived experience is invested not in words, narratives or knowledges but in routines and practices that evade the languages designed to name them.

Photography has a potentially closer relationship than other visual forms to these aspects of the infra-ordinary, because of what Walter Benjamin calls its ‘unconscious optics,’ its ability ‘to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyse the associative mechanisms in the beholder’.[13] For Benjamin, photography succeeds in uncovering elements of experience that are overlooked by the fallible human eye. The partial autonomy of the photograph from the objectives of its maker means that, unlike painting, it cannot always be made sense of within generic or narrative conventions. No matter how posed or artful the camera shot is, it will still reveal contingent elements which are not part of the compositional strategies of the photographer. Photography thus makes visible ‘the physiognomic aspects of visual worlds which dwell in the smallest things, meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams’.[14] While in its mass-produced forms, photography clearly forms part of a spectacularized culture emphasizing the celebrated and the extraordinary, its ability to operate independently of human intention means that it also reveals elements which are normally concealed by such a culture.

The foregrounding of these unconscious elements means that, despite its arrangement in a chronological sequence, the cumulative effect of 20 Sites n. Years is to disrupt any suggestion of a narrative line. This distinguishes it from the many photographic collections of British towns and cities which unproblematically attempt to show ‘the way we were’. In one recent example of this genre, the popular historian Philip Ziegler provides a book-length commentary on the photographs in the Francis Frith collection, the huge archive of over a quarter of a million shots of everyday life in Britain, founded by the pioneering Victorian photographer and carried on by his successors. This collection, supplemented by a contemporary photographic postscript for Ziegler’s book, consists of a series of near-identical viewpoints of streets, buildings and beauty spots at different time intervals, from 1860 to the present day. Unlike 20 Sites, though, this project employs much longer time-lapses, lasting several decades, between each photograph, which means that it tends to emphasize more sweeping changes. The tone of Ziegler’s book is set within its opening sentences:

If Rip Van Winkle – or Van Smith, or Jones, or Frith – had laid down to sleep one summer afternoon in 1860 in the shade of a tree a mile or so west of the little hamlet of Harlington and had woken in 1999, he would have found himself perilously close to the runway at Heathrow Airport. Everything he saw would have been not merely strange but incomprehensible.[15]

Ziegler goes on to describe a world transformed beyond recognition by horseless carriages, flying machines, motorways, expanding cities and suburbs, and mass tourism. Perhaps because of the coffee-table format of the book as a visual tour d’horizon of Britain over the last century-and-a-half, Ziegler tends to judge these changes by aesthetic standards, often suggesting that they have made Britain an uglier place.[16] This nostalgic effect is heightened by changes in photographic technologies, as brown-toned or black-and-white photographs give way to the much sharper, glossier images of the present day. In such a context, as John Roberts puts it, ‘the “moment” of the photograph is forever drifting into the homogeneous time of the time of the spectacle … [it] easily becomes a signifier of “pastness,” a phantasmagoria of times past.’[17] This nostalgia for a world lost forever by the relentless tide of change is reflected in the prices paid for postcards at flea markets and collector’s fairs. Photographs of still extant churches, stately homes and public buildings are much less valuable than those of old street scenes which have since been transformed by the bulldozer and the urban planner.[18]

Ziegler’s book reflects a heritage mentality which owes its emotional appeal to the fact that it is linked to the potentially personal resonances of the everyday rather than the more generalized abstractions of patriotism, class deference or the monarchy. As critics such as Patrick Wright and Raphael Samuel have shown, the increased visibility and importance of the heritage industry from the 1980s onwards was partly a result of the extension of its repertoire beyond the establishment culture of the cathedral, stately home or art gallery, and towards a new concern with the materials of everyday life. For Samuel, heritage is ‘a nomadic term which travels easily, and puts down roots – or bivouacs – in seemingly quite unpromising terrain’.[19] The effect is to privatize and personalize the past, and to tap into a powerful reservoir of individualized nostalgia which can be linked to broader anxieties about modernization, urbanization and social change in the postwar era.[20]

In 20 Sites n. Years, Phillips deliberately seeks to counter this nostalgia effect. For one thing, there is no possibility of technological change giving an aura of pastness to the older photographs. He stipulates that the same type of colour film should always be used, even specifying that it should be stockpiled if it seems in danger of being discontinued. By zooming in on detail and slowing the chronology down, he also suggests that the past cannot be located in a stable and secure place which is sharply differentiated from the present. In the everyday life revealed in 20 Sites, history is not localizable in this way because it is embedded not simply in change but in repetition and routine, in what de Certeau calls ‘hollow places in which a past sleeps … in which ancient revolutions slumber’.[21] By recording the recent past in microscopic detail, 20 Sites thus succeeds in denaturalizing the suburban or municipal normality of the present. It produces not a nostalgic contemplation on the passing of time but a critical reflection on the historical reasons for everyday activity, the way that, as Fernand Braudel puts it, ‘the obstinate presence of the past greedily and steadily swallows up the fragile lifetime of men’.[22]

Phillips’s photographs make these processes visible because they break some of the cardinal rules of ‘good’ photography. The subject matter has not been selected or arranged in any way, so the compositions are untidy and lopsided; there are several points of interest, with no attempt to hierarchize them; individual figures are often moving out of shot and looking out of rather than into the picture. The people who enter the frame are determined not by the whim of the photographer but by the rhythms and rituals of the day: a retired woman walking her dog in mid-morning; a man walking past at lunchtime eating a burger; a boy returning from school in mid-afternoon; groups of men and women filing home at the end of the working day. These people are rarely aware that they are being photographed, and are often at the edges of the pictures, obstructed by objects or slightly out of focus. The deliberate artlessness of the photographs points to their artificiality, and suggests that they do not represent a self-contained universe: life goes on outside the frame. As John Berger has written, photographs mislead us into thinking that they preserve memories when in fact they substitute for them, by ‘offer[ing] appearances – with all the credibility and gravity we normally lend to appearances – prised away from their meaning’.[23] Phillips’s photographs do not give this kind of authority to the appearance of the photograph, because their studied amateurishness means that they never suggest that the story they tell is coherent and complete. The effect is to disperse the past from a fixed and measurable point, to suggest that it cannot be unproblematically captured within the frame of a photograph.

The Postcard Vision

Phillips’s career-long interest in postcards emerges out of many of the same preoccupations which inspired 20 Sites n. Years. He has used postcards in numerous paintings, collages and prints, and more recently in The Postcard Century, a mammoth anthology that narrates a quirky and fragmentary history of the twentieth century through 2000 cards and their messages. This interest aligns Phillips with a tradition in British Pop Art represented by the work of figures such as Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, Joe Tilson and Malcolm Morley. Their use of the postcard is part of a broader engagement with popular ephemera, such as travel brochures, comics, magazines, advertising graphics and commercial packaging. Morley’s painting New York City Postcard (1971), for example, mimics the multiview genre of card which, under the heading ‘Greetings from …,’ splices together several well-known sites, such as the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Times Square. Morley uses the form of the postcard to explore the ways in which visual reality is always already mediated by a cliché-ridden and throwaway culture. Hamilton has a more nuanced interest in both the aesthetics of the postcard and its ability to capture random arrangements of people. In works such as the Whitley Bay series (1965-6) and Trafalgar Square (1965-7), he magnifies small areas of postcards, and then alters these sections with the overpainting, tinting and colour reversals which are themselves common techniques of postcard production. Sightseers and holidaymakers are thus reduced to abstracted smudges and specks, identifiable only by the relationships between them. Phillips shares the Pop Artists’ interest in commercial printing techniques and in the aesthetics of unlikely objects such as promotional cards for airlines and hotel chains. But his approach is less deadpan, often exploring in more detail what is hinted at in Hamilton’s work: the existential significances that lie buried beneath the postcard’s glossy finish. For Phillips, the postcard’s status as polished commercial artifice is always complicated by its ability to capture the fleeting and otherwise unnoticed elements of everyday life, and to feed into unsettling questions of memory and mortality.

Phillips has produced a series of paintings, for example, which duplicate, enlarge and subtly modify postcards incorporating municipal park benches. The first and most well-known of these is Benches (1971), the material for which has been reworked and adapted in a number of other works including Ma Vlast (1972) and The Flower Before the Bench (1973-74). Benches interlaces a number of apparently insignificant details from similar postcards of people sitting or strolling in parks in Battersea, Harrogate, Bournemouth and Brighton. It employs two common motifs from Phillips’s early work: Farbenverzeichnis (colour indexes or catalogues) which stretch out the colours used in each postcard in barcode-like stripes, and which actually make up more of the painting than the images on which they are based; and stencilled letters, which are mainly used here to transcribe each postcard’s serial number, publisher and place of printing. These techniques of stencilling and colour-indexing imitate the industrial processes of postcard production and other forms of commercial printing.

But Benches is more than simply an exercise in colour coordination or jokey pedantry. The main focus of the painting is the people who inhabit the parks, and who are often at the margins of the original postcards but are placed in the centre of Phillips’s work. Unlike the more posed shots of family albums, these postcards bring unsuspecting strangers together, forcing them into a relationship with each other at a moment frozen in time for public consumption.[24] Phillips reinforces this sense of accidental community by formulating a hypothetical notion that all the photographs were taken at the same time, employing the comic-strip writers’ standby, ‘Meanwhile …’ and using the coloured stripes to link the different images together abstractly. As Maurice Blanchot writes, one of the reasons that the everyday evades analysis or perception is that it is ‘without a subject,’ so that when we live the everyday ‘it is anyone, anyone whatsoever, who does so’.[25] The subjectlessness of these postcards gives a sense of both commonality and isolation: of a civic life suggested by benches, paths, well-kept lawns and other public amenities, but also of countless isolated, anonymous and interchangeable selves moving within it, what de Certeau calls ‘a multitude of quantified heroes who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets’.[26]

These postcards seem to capture a particular and irretrievable moment in other people’s lives precisely because they are not located within an abstracted and timeless tourist utopia. In fact, the painting as a whole is an extended reflection on the relationship between postcard reality and the more mundane images of everyday life on which it is based. Phillips notes elsewhere that postcard images tend to ‘deceitfully inhabit their own eternal summer’ and, once the tinting process has done its worst, have a much higher proportion than in real life of brightly-coloured clothes and cars with the shiny newness of die-cast models.[27] In the postcards used in Benches, though, this artificial sunniness comes up against the blandness and uniformity of the public parks, their carefully arranged flower beds, neatly trimmed foliage and ubiquitous concrete. One clearly sees not an idealized spectacle but a random moment of the everyday, in which the faceless individuals in the postcards could easily be replaced by other people. Benches in public parks also suggest the passing of time and mortality, since many of them are dedicated ‘in loving memory’ to people who have died, recalling a favourite shared beauty spot or walk. Reminding us that the people pictured in postcards are sometimes dead by the time the card is purchased, Phillips describes Benches as ‘a plea against dying’[28] and includes a stencilled quote at the bottom of the painting from Isaiah, Chapter 40: ‘All Flesh is as Grass … the Grass Withereth’.

On the few occasions that the postcard has been the subject of cultural criticism, this relationship to history and memory has not been emphasized. More usually, the postcard has been interpreted as an example of the ‘tourist gaze,’ a kind of active vision which developed with new forms of travel based on eyewitness observation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and which seeks to appropriate exotic cultures for cultural or economic capital.[29] Susan Stewart, for example, has seen the holiday souvenir, such as the postcard, as an attempt to connect the original tourist experience with its visual trace, in a way that actually replaces the lived experience of another culture with the impersonal contexts of mass consumption. While the postcard is a commercially produced image of an already culturally significant site, tourist etiquette demands that it is bought within the ‘authentic’ context of the site itself, is rendered personal by the inscription of handwriting on the back and is posted to a ‘significant other’ for whom the card is ‘the receipt, the ticket stub, that validates the experience of the site, which we now can name as the site of the subject himself or herself’.[30] In other words, the postcard goes through a series of elaborate rituals of sending and receipt in order to disguise its close relationship to consumerism and cultural imperialism.

This reproduction of touristic clichés as a way of stereotyping and appropriating other cultures is clearly an important function of the postcard. In his essay, ‘The Postcard Vision,’ Phillips pithily identifies a number of generic categories of card, including ‘pastoral/historical; carless technicolor tudor with erased telegraph wires’ and ‘national cliché compendium; kilted bagpiper in the heather seen through thistles with inset of haggis’.[31] In each year covered in The Postcard Century, Phillips includes a postcard of Piccadilly Circus in which it is normally represented by out-of-date neon signs, double-decker buses with back platforms, smiling bobbies on the beat and rent-a-punks. Postcards thus become a resource for what Jonathan Culler calls those ‘unsung armies of semioticians, the tourists,’ who are ‘interested in everything as a sign of itself … of Frenchness, typical Italian behaviour, exemplary Oriental scenes, typical American thruways, traditional English pubs’.[32]  Phillips is also interested in the way that postcards are treated and tinted in order to gloss over some inconvenient reality, most commonly by superimposing clear blue skies or dramatic sunsets. In a series of paintings and bas-reliefs of Union Jacks (1974), he examines the ways in which flags are retouched in postcards in order to make them flap about in actually non-existent breezes, and imagines the contorted shapes and patterns these altered flags would assume if they were flattened out. The world inhabited within the frame of a postcard, he suggests, is one in which holidaymakers are always bathed in bright sunlight or frolic in impossibly white snow, and national flags stand stiffly to attention.

But there is a strange tension in the postcard between its readiness to recycle banalities and its visual naivety. Despite its artificiality, the postcard does sometimes provide partial access to an everyday life in which ‘neglected places are celebrated and unsung people memorialized’.[33] This is partly because their touristic subjects are so diverse, from the Taj Mahal to the Blinking Owl Bar at Butlin’s Clacton, and partly because these sightseeing cards are supplemented by other kinds of card commemorating a huge range of subjects such as new types of fashion, transport, commerce and technology. Since British postcards are often cheaply and locally produced, their impulse to romanticize and prettify their subject matter is also sometimes undermined by cheap lithography or inept composition, framing and lighting, an aesthetic of ‘calculated stylelessness’ which also influenced the conception of 20 Sites n. Years.[34] Such postcards often have distracting, cluttered backgrounds, with uninteresting, dead-centre views taken from too far away. The tinter’s or retoucher’s art is sometimes shoddily applied, producing not a dream-like fantasy world but a surreal, luminous version of everyday life. In this parallel universe of the postcard, yellow buses circulate around green Eroses in Piccadilly Circus, and day-trippers paddle in grey seas under orange skies. Strange objects are foregrounded over the intended subject matter, so that the viewer’s attention is drawn not to the sanctioned site of a famous building, beach or promenade but to a brightly-coloured litter bin, traffic cone or Belisha Beacon. Most importantly, postcards are full of randomly selected and unwitting individuals who ‘indulge in unconsidered practices and are not noticed by the Blind Photographer’.[35] Like the photographs in 20 Sites n. Years, the postcard’s combination of obvious artificiality and aleatoric aesthetics seems to provide a teasingly intimate insight into everyday life while also rendering it slightly off-centre and out of focus. 

Postcards and Boredom 

As Martin Parr’s recent anthology of ‘boring postcards’ demonstrates, the postcard as a form has consistently shifted and extended definitions of the noteworthy and picturesque. His collection is made up of cards, produced mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, of motorway service areas, shopping precincts, high-rise flats, airport terminals, power stations, underpasses and caravan parks.[36] At first sight, it is hard to imagine what anyone could have found visually arresting about the Arndale Centre in Crossgates, the Fortes Excelsior Motor Lodge near Pontefract or the M1 near Newport Pagnell. The success of Parr’s anthology, and that of the German and American versions he has also produced, partly connects with the broader cultural trend of recycling the bad design and fashion mistakes of the recent past as tongue-in-cheek kitsch. But this is one of the least interesting ways of reading boring postcards. These pictures also trace a cultural history of postwar Britain and its competing conceptions of modernity. They reveal that contemporary examples of the depressingly humdrum, such as tower blocks and motorways, were seen only a few decades ago as a liberation from the stale traditions of nineteenth-century architecture and as avatars of a brave new world of concrete and glass, well worth a daytrip and a commemorative postcard. As Phillips reproduces many of Parr’s cards and their equally unexciting cousins in his own anthology, he reminds us that ‘boring’ postcards are often the most fascinating of all, because in refusing to conform to conventional notions of the scenic, they provide traces of the everyday, a kind of ‘visionary distillation … of life’s absolutes’.[37]

Such pictures seem ‘boring’ because we are not used to reading them within the visual codes of the picturesque, which stylize and pattern experience and sift out discomposing elements. For Blanchot, the capacity of the everyday to remain unformulated and resistant to knowledge is partly weakened by this experience of boredom. The value of boredom, or perhaps what is too easily dismissed as boredom in an event-oriented culture, is that it represents ‘the everyday become manifest: as a consequence of having lost its essential – constitutive – trait of being unperceived’.[38] In these anonymous and run-of-the-mill settings, we can see people getting on with the daily activities which, for all their dullness and predictability, they regard as important and worthwhile. One of the more touching postcards in Parr’s collection is a picture of Reighton Sands Holiday Village, on which someone has scribbled in blue biro, ‘our caravan,’ with an arrow pointing to one of about fifty completely indistinguishable trailers. These examples qualify Stewart’s argument that the main function of the postcard is to demonstrate the sender’s sophistication and cosmopolitanism by reclaiming exotic life experiences; instead they seem to speak to a deep-seated need to have one’s own everyday activities registered as valuable, and approved and authenticated by others.

Unlike Parr, Phillips includes the handwritten messages on the backs of postcards as an integral part of The Postcard Century, often combining them with his own comments about the message or image as an insight into social or cultural history. As Naomi Schor points out, early postcards used to include space for the message on the front along with the image. From 1902 onwards, however, the back of the British postcard was divided into two to give space for both the address and message. The effect of confining the handwritten message to the back was to invert the hierarchy which had traditionally made the message more important than the picture: ‘The gradual promotion of the iconic face of the illustrated postcard to primacy can be considered a sign of the rise of the culture of the image; it does not, however, signify that the message side of the card is of any lesser interest.’[39] As Jacques Derrida has written, the postcard message owes its ambiguity to the fact that it is both a public and private event, circulating ‘like an open but illegible letter’.[40] On the one hand, the message is written casually and can be viewed by anybody; on the other hand, the sender often writes in private codes and assumes certain forms of knowledge which can only be understood by the sendee. The messages collected together in The Postcard Century are what Derrida calls ‘miserable scraps … small dots lost over our immense territory … infinitely small in a book infinitely big’[41]; they consist of a series of juxtaposed images and snippets of information whose relationship is often unclear, and which barely hint at the much larger world of contentment, passion, frustration or misery behind them. The vast majority of the messages are written in a nondescript, semi-public style, which is fixed by the generic and spatial restrictions of the format. But they also gesture towards the broader life story and social context of which they form a minuscule part. The senders of cards do not produce the expected or ‘appropriate’ responses to historical events, as their everyday concerns intrude on more obviously era-defining moments. Phillips’s decision to juxtapose the messages with the frontal images thus highlights what Derrida sees as one of the main sources of confusion and misreading in postcards: the often ambiguous relationship between the recto and verso side. ‘I have been gardening all this week,’ declares one 1911 card which carries a photograph of a condemned criminal in an electric chair.[42] Another message from Berlin in January 1990, on the back of a postcard bearing a two-week-old photograph of revellers celebrating the collapse of the wall, complains to the sendee that it is ‘definite thermal undies weather’.[43]

As The Postcard Century makes clear, there is no limit to the number of subjects that end up being written about on the backs of cards, so that, examined collectively, they do become a kind of intimate if incomplete everyday history of the century: servants and itinerant workers try to keep in touch with their dispersed families; soldiers on active service write of their bewilderment at the anonymity and impersonality of the war machine; the growing student population of the postwar period complains collectively to its parents about homesickness, nightmare houseshares and poverty; those who have reached exotic climes through the rise of jet travel and the package tour write home with more prosaic information about feeding cats, dogs and children, and disposing of sausages left absent-mindedly in fridges. As with many of the postcard fronts, the messages also reveal that boredom and banality are historically relative terms, which serves to foreground those elements of the everyday that now tend to be taken wearily for granted. In the 1940s and 1950s, for example, people write to family and friends excited by the delights of new towns, the novelty of in-flight meals or their first experience with a duvet. A typical postcard message in the early 1960s simply brings news of the writer’s exciting trip along the M1 and the pot of tea enjoyed at the new bridge-type restaurant at Scratchwood Services. This capacity of the postcard messages to personalize historical experience is mirrored by their images. The postcard, as Phillips writes, ‘bumps into history as a ball on a pin-table hits or misses, by hazard’.[44] Its images are often of subtle shifts in everyday environments – endless rows of interwar suburban semis, newly pedestrianized town centres and concretized shopping precincts – which belie any attempt to reduce history to a series of iconic moments. As Phillips notes drily of a postcard of the main shopping thoroughfare in Wolverhampton in 1968: ‘The sixties did not pass that way.’[45]

Phillips’s work of collecting, assembling and commenting on commonplace objects, particularly photographs and postcards, points to a complicated relationship between everyday life and its visual representation. On the one hand, it suggests that the nuances of daily existence are often hidden behind conventions or truisms: the ‘wish you were here/never a dull moment’ evasions of postcard language; the utopianized images of the tourist industry; the picture-perfect compositions of professional photography. On the other hand, Phillips’s iterative methods and deliberately pedestrian subject matter can point to the asymmetries and fault-lines behind these conventions, providing access to the authentic boredom of everyday lives. Although there is often humour to be derived from this mundanity, there is also something strangely compelling and moving about the commitment of individuals to the trivial details of their lives and their wish to have these details acknowledged and recorded. Phillips’s work always suggests that meaning is buried in the smallest of words, gestures and actions, even if this meaning is only ever available in oblique and incoherent forms.


[1] Phillips quoted in Susannah Frankel, ‘Donnish Quixote’, Guardian, 1 November 1997.

[2] Andrew Gumbel, London, London: Cadogan, 1995, p. 424.

[3] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984, p. 97.

[4] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory: Nine Excursions in The Secret History of London, London: Granta Books, 1997, p. 1.

[5] Phillips, Works and Texts, London: Thames and Hudson, 1992, p. 136.

[6] Ibid., p. 140.

[7] Ibid., p. 152.

[8] Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. John Sturrock, London: Penguin, 1999, pp. 50, 210.

[9] De Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, p. 93.

[10] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume One, trans. John Moore, London: Verso, 1991, p. 97.

[11] Laurie Langbauer, Novels of Everyday Life: The Series in English Fiction, 1850-1930, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 234.

[12] Phillips, Works and Texts, p. 140.

[13] Walter Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, London: NLB, 1979, p. 256.

[14] Ibid., p. 243.

[15] Philip Ziegler, Britain Then and Now, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999, p. 16.

[16] Ibid., p. 21.

[17] John Roberts, The Art of Interruption: Realism, Photography and the Everyday, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998, pp. 133-4.

[18] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, Volume One: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, London: Verso, 1994, p. 355.

[19] Ibid., p. 205.

[20] Patrick Wright, On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Culture, London: Verso, 1985, pp. 21-22.

[21] De Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, p. 108.

[22] Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, trans. Siân Reynolds, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992, p. 28.

[23] John Berger, ‘Uses of Photography’, in About Looking, London: Writers and Readers, 1980, p. 51.

[24] Tom Phillips, Works. Texts. To 1974, Stuttgart: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 1983, p. 141.

[25] Maurice Blanchot, ‘Everyday Speech’, Yale French Studies, no. 73, 1987, p. 18.

[26] De Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, p. v.

[27] Tom Phillips, The Postcard Century: 2000 Cards and Their Messages, London: Thames and Hudson, 2000, p. 43; Phillips, Works. Texts. To 1974, p. 232.

[28] Phillips, Works. Texts. To 1974, pp. 232, 150.

[29] John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, London: Sage, 1990, pp. 1-4.

[30] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 135, 138.

[31] Phillips, Works. Texts. To 1974, p. 231.

[32] Jonathan Culler, ‘The Semiotics Of Tourism’, in Framing The Sign: Criticism And Its Institutions, Oxford: Blackwell, 1988, p. 155.

[33] Phillips, The Postcard Century, p. 24.

[34] Phillips, Works and Texts, p. 46.

[35] Phillips, Works. Texts. To 1974, p. 232.

[36] Martin Parr, Boring Postcards, London: Phaidon, 1999.

[37] Phillips, The Postcard Century, p. 319.

[38] Blanchot, ‘Everyday Speech’, p. 16.

[39] Naomi Schor, ‘Cartes Postales: Representing Paris 1900’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 18, no. 2, Winter 1992, pp. 212-13.

[40] Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 12-13.

[41] Ibid., p. 26.

[42] Phillips, The Postcard Century, p. 79.

[43] Ibid., p. 393.

[44] Ibid., p. 5.

[45] Ibid., p. 307.

2 thoughts on “Tom Phillips and the Art of the Everyday

  1. Dear Joe, I would like to use your artikel for a school project about Tom Phillips, and therefor I’m using the Harvard Guidelines for sourcing. I was wondering when you wrote this artikel about Tom Phillips. Kind regards.


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