Sometimes referred to as the ‘grandfather of British illustration’, Phil May was one of the most influential black-and-white artists of his generation. Earthy, street-wise, and redolent of the music hall, his work is the antithesis of that of Aubrey Beardsley.
Phil May was born in New Wortley, Leeds on 22 April 1864. His father, an unsuccessful brass founder from landowning stock, died when May was only nine years old, leaving him to struggle for survival. His schooling was terminated four years later and he had to take various jobs in offices and warehouses. His mother had strong theatrical contacts, and he eventually found work as an assistant scene painter at the Grand Theatre.
At the same time, he made his first periodical contributions to the Yorkshire Gossip, a newspaper that lasted just a fortnight. Then, in 1879, May joined the touring theatrical company with which he remained for three years. Playing small parts, he also made caricatures of his fellow actors, some of which were used for advertising posters while others were sold at a shilling each. The work of this period bears the influence of Linley Sambourne, Caran d’Ache and Carlo Pellegrini (‘Ape’).
May said of his early days: ‘I never had a drawing lesson in my life, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t draw ... When I was sixteen I made up my mind to come to London ... I had no friends and no introductions ... But in six months, I worked for Society, the Penny Illustrated, St Stephen’s Review and the Pictorial World’ (quoted in William Feaver, Masters of Caricature. From Hogarth and Gillray to Scarfe and Levine, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981, page 117). While deputising for Matt Morgan, the political cartoonist of the St Stephen’s Review, he was spotted by an Australian talent scout and offered a contract with the Sydney Bulletin. He sailed in November 1885, and so entered the period in which he developed his professionalism; he completed nearly 900 drawings, cartoons, caricatures and joke illustrations while working on the newspaper.
May returned to England in 1888 by way of Europe, visiting Naples and Rome and studying briefly in Paris. There he met with Charles Conder, whom he had known in Australia, and shared a studio with William Rothenstein. He arrived in London, penniless and in need of work, at an opportune moment. In his absence, the majority of British magazines had begun to make use of photomechanical methods of reproduction and were able to include an increased number of drawn illustrations. New talent was much sought after. He renewed his connection with the St Stephen’s Review and in 1890 began to illustrate its comic serial ‘Parson and Painter’. This account of London social events seen through the eyes of a country parson and his artist nephew was an overnight success; May was immediately employed by the newly-founded Daily Graphic and sent to Chicago to cover its World Fair. And then, when published in book form in 1891, Parson and Painter sold out in its first edition of 30,000 copies, making Phil May a household name. He launched his own annual, which ran until 1905, and in 1895 joined the staff of Punch. He was elected to the membership of the New English Art Club (1894-97), the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (1897) and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In 1896, he might have been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy had his sponsor Lord Leighton not died.
May had much admiration for the recently deceased Punch artist, Charles Keene whom he dubbed ‘the daddy of the lot of us’ (quoted in Thorpe 1948, page 31), but even in his captionless drawings, May was intrinsically the funnier of the two. In turn, he himself was sometimes called ‘the grandfather of British Illustration’ and was very influential upon the next generation of draughtsmen, especially such colleagues of the London Sketch Club as Bert Thomas and Frank Reynolds. They learned both from his stylistic qualities and from his approach to society, which was coloured by a lack of snobbishness best exemplified by his Guttersnipes (1896).
Apparently spontaneous, May’s economical ink drawings were in fact the product of a careful refining process which began with detailed studies and ended with a few lines; Whistler is believed to have said that ‘black-and-white art is summed up in two words – Phil May’. Yet May also used wash with extreme subtlety, and showed himself to be an exquisite colourist in his European studies (he had returned to Rome in 1892 and also stayed in Holland, on the last occasion just a few months before his death).
The Holland Park studio from which May worked gave a clear indication of his flamboyant, bohemian character. It was decorated in the style japonais, with prints by Hokusai, but was further embellished by hanging plaster limbs. It was a fashionable surrounding, for May had established himself as a star, but nevertheless he remained perpetually ‘hard up’. Genial and generous to both friends and spongers, he was also an alcoholic. As a result, he died at home, at Melina Place, St John’s Wood, of cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis on 5 August 1903 at the age of 39. The Leicester Galleries held a memorial show of his work in October 1903 as its opening exhibition.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the V&A; Leeds Art Gallery; and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the National Library of Australia (Canberra).
Further reading: David Cuppleditch, Phil May. The Artist and His Wit, London: Fortune Press, 1981; Leo John De Freitas, ‘May, Phil(ip William) (b New Wortley, Leeds, 22 April 1864; d London, 5 Aug 1903)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 20, pages 880-881; Simon Houfe, ‘May, Philip William [Phil] (1864-1903)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 37, pages 556-558; Simon Houfe, Phil May. His Life and Work, 1864-1903, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002; James Thorpe, Phil May, London: Art and Technics, 1948