Artist Phyllis Todd settled in the Oval in 1988 and, as she tells Vauxhall History’s Ross Davies, she found Vauxhall to have a wealth of interesting buildings. But, adds Phyllis, it is also a townscape changing so fast that she was inspired to create an artistic record.
Having ‘captured’ Vauxhall’s Fentiman Road in miniature – her Stripe works are 40x50cm – as well as neighbouring Oval and Kennington, Phyllis has now set her sights on Brixton Road, Camberwell Road and Stockwell.
I started doing stripe paintings after a clear-out. I couldn’t bear to discard all of my sketches and ideas. I also have a collection of bags, wrappings, origami papers and fabrics saved from my family and travels. Initially the stripes were about different papers and fabrics. Then I realised they were a perfect way to record a journey or a holiday, like a storyboard. One of the first stripes I did featured a 1950s tissue paper wrapping for an apple from British Columbia, which my mother had kept to wrap Christmas decorations in. The apple was eaten long ago but the wrapping is now conserved for ever.
That led me to make the stripes of the area where I live. The area was changing so fast I felt the need to record what was there at that moment. I had often made sketches of buildings nearby, but nothing really developed from that until I realised the stripe format would be a perfect way to present the townscape. I work on Khadi rag paper because it’s strong, then I lay down strips of crumpled-up, smoothed-out tissue paper so I have the lines to paint my images on. I like to work on a texture.
During Lockdown in 2020 I did three paintings starting with particular fabrics; African, Japanese and some scraps of silk from some of my mother’s dresses. With these it seemed appropriate to work on the spaces in between.
I was born on 4 November 1952 in Manila in the Philippines. My father, Alfred Phillips Thomson, born in Renfrew, Scotland, was an engineer and joined Shell at the start of Second World War. He met my mother, Louise May Rittal, who was from Columbus, Ohio, when she was sent by the US government to work with the Aid Programme in the Philippines after the War. When I was four months old, we moved to Puerto Rico then to Pulau Bukom, an island just off Singapore, then Pulau Sambu, Indonesia and subsequently to Dacca, East Pakistan, now Dhaka, Bangladesh.
My older sister Penny and I had been going to school in Singapore but when we moved to Indonesia the daily boat commute was not practical so we were sent to St Leonards in St Andrews, Fife. In 1963, on a visit during the holidays to see our parents in Kathmandu, Penny and I were given scrapbooks. Penny produced a beautifully written account, whereas mine was drawings with notes.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school so I went to secretarial college in Edinburgh. However, my luck changed when, in a queue for tickets for a show at the Edinburgh Festival, I overheard a conversation about the Foundation Course at Carlisle College of Art and immediately rang my mother about it. I started there in September 1971. My eyes were opened. I loved everything, particularly pottery and textiles. From there I went to Kingston College of Art to do a degree course in interior design.
After Kingston I returned to Edinburgh and worked as a freelance designer. Most of my work was drawing up plans to squeeze bathrooms into tenement flats, many of which did not have an inside toilet. The plans had to be approved by the Council Building Control and I grew to hate the paternalistic attitude of the staff there.
I started painting and making cards for sale and then had the chance to move back to London, and did a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in Art at Reading University, which qualified me to get a job teaching pottery and art at Chatham School for Girls in Kent (which is no longer in existence).
I loved my job and had great colleagues but after I married David Todd in 1986 and had my first child, Oscar, the following year I couldn’t bear the thought of paying most of my salary to a childminder and giving my energy to other people’s children rather than my own, so I resigned. We had been living near Bexley in Kent which was equidistant to Chatham for me and the City for David but as I no longer needed to commute we moved to Hanover Gardens, Oval in 1988.
I started to attend life drawing classes at Morley College in Waterloo, where there was a crèche for students’ children (we had another son, Tristram, in 1989). Once the boys were both at school I had time, at last, to paint. I exhibited regularly, often jointly, and usually sold. During the 2000s I had various opportunities to use empty retail spaces as galleries, which I shared with other artists. A shop on Marylebone High Street and a year in the Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly, were particularly successful. I sold a lot of gesture figure drawings (a quick drawing which aims to capture the feeling, energy, movement or action of the pose) and Scottish landscapes.
The people who have had most influence on my development were initially my parents. My mother taught me to knit and sew and my father taught me welding and how to draw up building plans. A tutor at Carlisle taught me about colour and mixing tones and hues, and the fine art tutor at Kingston taught me perspective drawing. On Fridays I would go to the V&A to do pen and ink drawings of the back stairs – challenging for me, but very rewarding.
I love Chinese and Asian art, ethnic textile designs, Japanese origami, mulberry and other papers. There’s always something I need or want to do. Lately I tear up my old paintings and use them to make cards to give to my friends.
I plan to do some more local stripes, Vauxhall, Brixton Road, Camberwell Road and Stockwell all have a wealth of interesting buildings and spaces. The explosion of high rise blocks around the Vauxhall area makes me want to celebrate the old buildings even more. I feel a certain pressure to produce more stripes of the local areas because they are popular at the moment. I want to use my sketches and photos for a couple of paintings. I’ve designed a few Christmas card ideas for 2022 and I need to rework one of my early stripes. I’d like to do some abstract painting, maybe starting with collage. It’s good to empty the mind and just paint. I like to work on a few pieces at the same time. When things aren’t working with one or I’m fed up I can work on something else.
Usually I exhibit at Urban Art in Brixton in July and Lambeth Open Studios in October, both organised by Tim Sutton. It’s nice meeting people who like your work and it’s great to sell direct to the buyer. It makes it all worthwhile.
Phyllis Todd can be contacted through her website phyllistodd.co.uk.