Dancing With Lolita: A Conceptual Cover by Tom Phillips

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Editor’s note: Lolita: Story of a Cover Girl was mentioned in the Sunday September 22 New York Times Book Review.

The artist Tom Phillips is a painter, poet, composer, creator of series, illuminator, maker of books, illustrator and gloss of Dante’s Inferno, postcard collector, recovering stencil addict, and discoverer of the secret and the magical and the enduring amongst the most quotidian and ephemeral. One of Phillips’ most engaging practices is that of isolating fragments of text or images from artworks, postcards, books and from them creating startlingly original, expressive, and intellectual work. I was first introduced to Phillips’ through his Inferno and soon thereafter his ‘treated’ novel A Humument. The latter (an ongoing work begun 47 years ago and enjoying its fifth incarnation, or six if you count the iPhone/iPad app) is only the most well-known, but there are many examples of this mode of creation, most poignantly (for me) the series After Ter Borch in which he painted what by any standards is a rather uneventful section of the Dutch artist’s painting The Concert and elevated it to a powerful abstraction; and another series,The Flower Before the Bench, which could be viewed as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of his work Benches, but what is in reality a form of transubstantiation in which representation is miraculously abstracted into pure color and form and then back again into representation.

Tom Phillips has designed book covers and his work has also appeared on album covers, notably King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black (a cover I cannot see without hearing Richard Burton intoning the opening lines to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood) and Brian Eno’s Another Green World (a detail from his painting After Raphael). Eno’s own processes owe a great debt to Phillips, and no wonder: Eno was his ‘best student’ and Phillips obviously taught him well. To listen to Tom Phillips discuss his daily use of A Humument as an oracle along the lines of the I Ching, and to read his A Postcard Vision, is to experience the uncanny source of Eno’s various predilections and processes, not to mention his Oblique Strategies cards.

Two years ago, while working on, I approached Phillips about providing a conceptual cover to be included in Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design that I co-edited with Yuri Leving. Let it simply be said that I missed the opportunity to include it in the book, but for his part Phillips actually did create a cover, and now this cover is available as a large limited edition print.


Tom Phillips had this to say about his cover:

I have a huge collection of photographic postcards from before World War II and I am currently publishing some of them in a series of books for the Bodleian Library under various headings (Bicycles, Hats, Walls, Weddings etc). When you mentioned Lolita I went to the file of ‘Girls’ but not one of the five hundred or so really spoke her name. I was stuck. Then I tried other headings and there she was under ‘Dance’ and Humbert Humbert with her. Unlike the film Lolita she is the right sort of age, or slightly under, perhaps eleven rather than twelve. But I love the dance itself which has both a touch of lepidoptery and a charged proximity/separateness of the dancers. All no doubt innocent enough in that distant period, yet answering the question ’Lolita?’ emphatically for me. There was no point in looking for another image. Sultry colours in the slightly Russian border finished the job. She is creeping out of the chrysalis and he is tiptoeing into the trap. What I like about the privately produced cards I collect is their implications of possible narrative. Here Nabokov’s book takes up one such story.


For more interesting facts about the art, design and history of Nabokov’s Lolita and an array of conceptual covers from designers around the world, check out Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl. Available in MyDesignShop.