Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Philip Core

This self portrait of a somewhat intense and guarded young man is Philip Core (1951-1989), an American by birth who spent most of his life in the UK, an artist whose enormous potential was never quite realised. He grew up in New Orleans and was sent to school first at the military academy there and then from 1963 to ultra-conservative Middlesex School at Concord, Massachussets. These bastions of discipline and tradition must have had a hard time coping with this intransigent and subversive pupil despite his obvious brilliance. He moved further from home still to attend Harvard where he won every prize going in the fields of art and literature and, after a year or so in Paris working with Philippe Jullian on his book The Symbolists, came back to Harvard to complete an honours thesis on Belgian symbolist Fernand Khnopff. He graduated cum laude in 1973. George Melly says of him at this time he was, "an exaggerated child of that extraordinary decade, he made experimental films, bought and designed for a New York boutique, illustrated rather outrĂ© books published in limited editions, and worked  on an extreme persona. He was untypical only in his lack of interest in  drugs. As someone for whom hallucinatory powers were already part of his  armoury, and for whom work is of primary importance, chemical stimulae appeared not only unnecessary, but a threat to creation."

After Harvard he attended the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, and then the Academia degli Belli  Arti in Florence before in 1975 coming to London where he settled permanently, still only in his mid-twenties. It was a fairly grim time, economically, to be attempting to make a living as an unsupported artist. A lot of the financial slack must have been taken up with his work for gay magazines and publishers who soon noticed the homoerotic charge present in most of this young artists work. He was also able to support himself simply from his encyclopedic knowledge of the bye-ways of twentieth century culture. Articulate and knowledgeable he was a perfect contributor on radio and made several contributions to the Radio 4 programme Kaleidoscope. He was also brought into journalism by James Fergusson, the editor of The Independent who commissioned Core to write obituaries on the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe  and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He was also the photography critic for the same paper.

There were a few exhibitions and some rather nice commissions: he painted a mural for the Ritz hotel depicting a range of guests over the 75 year history of the hotel; the cast of the TV adaptation of Brideshead had him paint a huge collage of all the characters in the story to be presented to the director.

Core lived in a flat in Elephant and Castle that was painted completely black. He wore his hair bleached blond, possibly in conscious tribute to Andy Warhol, and in 1985 the Gay Mens' Press published a book of his paintings of the last ten years. He ought to have matured at this point, created a few acknowledged masterpieces, become a cult underground figure and eventually an elder statesman of his generation. Instead, he became one of the first to be diagnosed with AIDS in the UK at a time when the disease was hardly known here. He died in November 1989 at the Westminster Hospital in London.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has recognised Core with an entry and they quote a note he wrote about himself in the catalogue of an exhibition at the Waterman's Art Centre:

"I am not a great artist, only someone who loves painting, drawing and making things with his hands above all else; someone who has, by some curious gift of heredity, become possessed of articulacy and intransigence in equal degree; someone who knows what they love and feels no shame about it."

Core needs a fuller and more sustained biographical treatment. I would very much like to hear from anyone who knew him. [Thank you to John Coulthart for help in gathering together the information for this post]


Brian Busby said...

Indeed, Core does warrant fully biographical treatment. I first became aware of his work through the illustrations he did for John Glassco's The Temple of Pederasty (North Hollywood: Hanover House, 1970). I came to know a bit about his life in researching my biography of Glassco,A Gentleman of Pleasure (McGill-Queen's UP, 2011). The book contains a fair bit about their working relationship and quotes from correspondence. Several dozen letters from Core are held amongst Glassco's papers in Ottawa at Library and Archives Canada. I'm fortunate in having been granted access (and copies), including the correspondence that is still under seal. Also amongst the papers are unused illustrations Core drew for Glassco's Squire Hardman (one of which has since been published in A Gentleman of Pleasure). It's long been a dream of mine to reissue this long poem in an illustrated edition.

Brian Busby said...

Fully? Damn that spellcheck. I meant "fuller".

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