This self-portrait was painted in 1958 when Peter Phillips was a nineteen-year-old student at Birmingham College of Art, which he attended from 1955-9. Written verso is the title, Dawn, Noon and Night. Phillips, who was born in Birmingham in 1939, exhibited in 1959 for the first time in a ‘Young Contemporaries’ exhibition. So this early self-portrayal shows the artist before he attended the Royal College of Art in London from 1959-62 (a heady, experimental time when fellow students included David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield), and before he had developed a reputation as an uncompromising Pop Artist.
The foreground still-life here of stoneware jar filled with dried or dying flowers, white jar and somewhat streaky, stained bottle on a chequered table-cloth, is contrary to his urbane 60s style. John McEwen has written:
‘Peter Phillips’s pictures first caught my attention in the Sixties because they were so totally to do with city life – not a blade of grass to be seen, everything unapologetically man-made; pin-ball machines, pin-ups, the stuff of an ordinary day and ordinary experience.’
The imagery of ‘ordinary experience’ in this self-portrait precedes his depictions of ‘city life’. Yet this somewhat Kitchen Sink-style ensemble is painted with real flair.
However, the conjunction here of still-life and the artist’s bemused-looking face hints at the kind of intuitive collagist approach characterising his later Pop Art paintings. His face is apparently free-floating against a pitch black background – the oval contour around his chest partly suggesting a mirror reflection, a picture on the wall or even the artist oddly looking out through some kind of port-hole. In 1982, Phillips said:
‘There is no such thing as nonsense. One “dreams” into a painting… this inexplicable feeling that one has, and a sudden, spur of the moment decision, are very important.’
The rather dull flowers may seem at odds with youthful grace and precocity but the picture’s radiating blackness perhaps suggests awareness of mortality.
In the November 1965 issue of Studio International is a photo of Phillips (Beatles-lookalike in a black polo-neck sweater) seen peering through a star form created by manipulated backs of framed canvases. In his 1958 self-portrait, his even more boyish features are in strong relief against the outlying blackness and the table-cloth’s dazzling proto-Op Art pattern.