In 1966 the artist Tom Phillips set himself a task: to find a second-hand book for threepence and alter every page, by painting, collage or cut-up techniques, to create an entirely new version. He found his threepenny novel in a junk shop on Peckham Rye, south London. It was A Human Document (1892), an obscure Victorian romance by W.H. Mallock.
Tom Phillips wrote: ‘I took a forgotten novel found by chance. I mined, and undermined its text to make it yield alternative stories, erotic incidents and surreal catastrophes, which lurked within its wall of words. I replaced with visual images the text I’d stripped away. A Humument began to tell, amongst other memories, dreams and reflections, the sad story of Bill Toge, one of love’s casualties.’
First published in 1973, A Humument – as Phillips titled his altered book – quickly established itself as a cult classic. From there, the artist worked towards a complete revision of his original, adding new pages in successive editions. The 50th anniversary edition presented, for the first time, an entirely new and complete version of A Humument. It also brought this half-century-long endeavour to a close.
Listen to Tom Phillips read the whole of the sixth and final version of A Humument in this audio extract.