Phil (Philip William) May (1864-1903)
Artist in black-and-white, Caricaturist, Humorist

Phil MayPhil May’s short life was one of extremes. From the depths of poverty and hardship he worked his way up to success and fame, only to plunge down again into illness and self-destruction. Gifted, funny, colourful, outrageous, he was loved and celebrated, not least in his home town of Leeds.

He was born in 1864 at 66 Wallace Street, Wortley, the seventh of the eight children of Philip May and his wife Sarah. Phil’s father was an unsettled, feckless character, who had tried his hand unsuccessfully at several jobs, finishing up in Leeds. He died when Phil was only nine, leaving the family in poverty. Phil had little schooling, and at twelve had to earn his way. He tried various office jobs until he found a niche at the Grand Theatre, helping to paint the scenery. He had loved drawing since childhood and made extra money selling caricatures of the actors, some published in local papers. At fifteen he joined a touring theatrical company, playing small parts on stage and illustrating the programmes and posters.  

By 1882 he had given up acting and was back in Leeds, helping to design costumes and paint scenery at the Grand. But he was irresistibly drawn to the brilliant life of London. Off he went with scarcely enough money for the fare. He slept rough on the Embankment or in Covent Garden, begging or scavenging for food, while he hawked his drawings around to periodicals and papers. His health suffered, but finally his luck turned. He began to sell his work, win commissions, and establish a reputation as a brilliant cartoonist. In 1885, only 21, he was offered a plum job in Australia as cartoonist for the Sydney Bulletin, and, after some haggling, decided to accept.

He did not travel alone. While working at the Grand in Leeds he had begun a passionate affair with the young wife of the owner of the eating house opposite, where he used to have lunch - Sarah Farrar, always called Lil. When he left for London, she followed, abandoning her husband and child. An expensive divorce followed. They married in Australia, a strong partnership which lasted all his life.

His three years in Australia were productive and successful. He moved on to study art in Rome and Paris, conscious of his lack of formal artistic training. He did study, but above all enjoyed the vibrant, bohemian city life. Finally he decided to return to London, where his sketches and cartoons were selling well. A turning-point came with his illustrations for a series of magazine articles called The Parson and the Painter, later (1891) published as a book. It became a best-seller, and established him as a master of graphic humour, with a genius for economy of line, brilliant character sketches, and whimsical comedy.

In 1892 he launched his own publication, Phil May’s Summer Annual, full of his humorous drawings alongside articles by well-known authors – ‘brimful of fun for the holidays’. His Winter Annual (‘fun, frolic, and fancy’) followed. Fifteen of these annuals were eventually published, each eagerly awaited, together with other collections of his work, notably Phil May’s Guttersnipes – his sympathies lay with the under-dogs in society and the life of the streets. Meanwhile he was contributing regularly to the popular humorous weekly Punch, and in 1895 was invited to join their staff, a considerable honour. His future seemed assured – but as fast as the money came in, it was squandered.

Phil May self sketchHis gaunt figure, sporting riding gear, long check overcoat, and a large cigar, was always to be seen around town, especially at his favourite drinking place, Romano’s in the Strand; constantly accompanied by a circle of friends, artists and writers, but also by a host of hangers-on who sponged on him and encouraged his drinking and wild exploits. Once near starvation himself, his purse was open for all – including cronies who exploited his generosity. In spite of the efforts of his friends and loyal wife, he drank too much whisky, smoked too many cigars, and cared nothing for his already damaged health, which slowly deteriorated. He weighed only five stone when he died on 5 August 1903, aged 39.

His death was greatly mourned in Leeds, where his family still lived and he had often visited. Money was collected for a memorial, and in 1910 a plaque by the Leeds sculptor Caldwell Spruce was unveiled at 66 Wallace Street. When the house was demolished in the 1960s the plaque was reportedly moved to the City Art Gallery, which holds a large collection of his drawings. Many others are in national collections. The plaque read: Phil May - the great black and white artist - ‘A fellow of infinite jest’.

Eveleigh Bradford
December 2013