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 writes: ‘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. Since then, the artist has been working towards a complete revision of his original, adding new pages in successive editions. That process is now finished. The 50th anniversary edition presents, for the first time, an entirely new and complete version of A Humument. It also brings 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.