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May, Philip William (Phil) (1864–1903)

by H. P. Heseltine

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Philip William (Phil) May (1864-1903), black and white artist, was born on 27 April 1864 at New Wortley, Leeds, England, second son of Philip May (d.1873), brassfounder, and his wife Sarah Jane (d.1912), née Macarthy. His grandfather, Charles Hugh May, was a landowner and squire of Whittington, Derbyshire. His father had been apprenticed to the engineers, George and Robert Stephenson, and his mother came from a family with theatrical connexions.

Phil was educated in Leeds at St George's School in 1872-75, the Oxford Lane School in 1876-77 and the Park Lane Board School in 1877. At 13 he was forced by his father's reduced finances to work in a solicitor's office which he soon found uncongenial. He also worked for an estate agent, in a music store and as time-keeper in an ironfoundry. At 14 he was invited to do some drawings for the Yorkshire Gossip, a short-lived comic weekly, and later for the Yorkshire Busy Bee. In 1877 he joined a touring theatrical company managed by Fred Stimpson. His main duty was to provide six posters at 12s. a week. He also had to play small parts and made his first professional appearance at the Spa Theatre, Scarborough. In 1883 he was again in Leeds designing costumes for the Christmas pantomime at the Grand Theatre.

Early in 1884 May went to London where he led a precarious and impoverished existence. On 21 April the proprietor of a photo shop near Charing Cross published a print of May's drawing of the actors Irving, Toole, and Bancroft; the winter number of Society carried a double page drawing by May, entitled 'The Seven Ages of Society'. Disheartened by his lack of success May had returned to Leeds when William Allison, editor of the St Stephen's Review, commissioned him to illustrate the special Christmas number. From the spring number of 1885 the magazine regularly used illustrations, and May was taken on to the staff at £8 a week. About this time he married Lilian, widow of Charles Farrer. May's drawings were appearing in the Penny Illustrated Paper, the Pictorial World and the St Stephen's Review when in the autumn he met W. H. Traill, who was seeking new artists in England for the Sydney Bulletin. May accepted a contract for £20 a week and sailed with his wife in the Orient, reaching Sydney on 29 December.

In Sydney May manifested a Bohemian pattern of life with many friends in theatrical and artistic circles. His drawings first appeared in the Bulletin in January 1886 and continued regularly until late in 1888 and spasmodically thereafter until 1894. Many were of a political character, often aimed at such well-known personalities as John Robertson, Henry Parkes and George Reid. Others depended on the observation of social types, as in the series entitled 'Things We See When We Go Out without our Gun'. At their best they combined satire, sympathy and accurate detail. Altogether May produced over 800 drawings for the Bulletin.

May's Australian sojourn was no more than a transitory episode. In late 1888 his contract with the Bulletin expired and he decided to return to England despite offers of a renewed contract at a substantially increased salary. With his fare subsidized by £1000 from Theodore Fink of Melbourne, May and his wife sailed in the Orizaba, disembarking at Naples. After a brief stay in Rome he returned to England but soon moved to Paris, where he shared a studio with Henry Thompson, and numbered among his friends William Rothenstein, Charles Conder, and John Longstaff. He settled in London in 1890 and renewed connexion with the St Stephen's Review. Probably his importance for it were the illustrations to the series, 'The Parson and the Painter'; in 1891 they were published in book form and the rapid sale of 30,000 copies assured May's fame and reputation.

May's first drawings for the weekly Graphic had already appeared on 12 November 1890. On 10 October 1891 it printed his sketch of Arthur Roberts in Joan of Arc at the Gaiety Theatre, and in 1893 sent May and E. S. Grew on a world tour to make travel notes and sketches. But May refused to travel beyond Chicago and returned to London on 6 May. In February 1895 he joined Punch and by 1896 was its chief pictorial humorist.

May firmly established himself as the leading black and white artist and his work appeared in most of the illustrated publications. In a number of interviews he ascribed the development of his style to the inadequacies of the Bulletin's printing machines; A. G. Stephens contested the justice of these comments, but in Australia May first developed the economic and vigorous mastery of penmanship which was his special trademark, and black and white pen drawing remained his real métier. In 1892 some of his work was collected in the first Phil May's Illustrated Winter Annual. Through thirteen winter editions and three extra summer numbers, the annuals appeared until 1905. In 1895 he published Phil May's Sketch Book, in 1896 Phil May's Guttersnipes, in 1897 Phil May's A.B.C., and in 1904 the album, Phil May in Australia, appeared with an introduction by A. G. Stephens.

In January 1903 May fell ill and died childless of phthisis on 5 August at his home in Melina Place, St John's Wood. On his deathbed he was given the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Buried in the cemetery of St Mary's Church, Kensal Green, he was survived by his wife who later remarried.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. Thorpe, Phil May: Master-Draughtsman & Humorist, 1864-1903 (Lond, 1932)
  • Town and Country Journal, 12 Aug 1903
  • newspaper cuttings and notes under Phil May (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

H. P. Heseltine, 'May, Philip William (Phil) (1864–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/may-philip-william-phil-4178/text6711, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 28 May 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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