Liverpool by Tony Phillips

Posted on: 30 October 2020 by Amanda Draper, Curator of Art & Exhibitions in 2020

A young girl with brown skin and dark brown shoulder-length curly hair looks up at a stone sculpture of a lion lying on a plinth with its head raised and its paws near the girl’s head. The girl wears a jacket of pale greeny-yellow with white sleeves.  Behind them are buildings jumbled upwards.  This is a detail of the picture below.
‘Tony Phillips: Liverpool (detail)’

A young girl looks up at one of the famous stone lions outside St George’s Hall in Liverpool. How does she and the lion represent our city’s past and hopes for the future? Let’s look closer at this painting by Liverpool-born artist Tony Phillips and find out more.

 This is the enlarged version of the image above. Either side of the lion are the upright posts of bus stops.  Behind the lion, to the left are historic buildings and to the right are high-rise tower blocks, all seem to be heaped on top of one another. Beneath the lion and the girl is a red brick wall and beneath that dirty water of a river; a thick chain comes out of the wall.

Tony Phillips: Liverpool, 1995 (oil on canvas, 157.3cm x 121cm)


Origins of the painting

The painting was created as one of a group of three works each depicting a major international city: Paris, New York and, of course, Liverpool. The trio were devised for a touring exhibition curated by the city’s Bluecoat Gallery in 1995 called ‘The City’. ‘Liverpool’ was purchased from the artist in 2006 for the University of Liverpool’s permanent art collection.

The composition of the painting is ingenious and allows the artist to introduce an historical narrative alongside socio-political themes, a recurring aspect of his work. The upper part of the composition is divided into three sections, separated by the vertical poles of bus-stops that perhaps signal the city’s long historical journey. To the left we see grand buildings representing the city’s wealth with tiny red-brick terraced housing and industrial buildings of its Victorian past crammed together at the top. To the right we see those red-brick Victorian building in ruins as concrete high-rise blocks clamber upwards representing the present as an unstable dystopian jumble.
 This is a detail from the top left corner of the painting above and shows grand, historic buildings with red brick buildings like terraced houses above them all in a jumble.
 Detail of top left of painting showing Victorian red brick buildings
This is a detail from the top right corner of the  main painting. It shows red brick buildings in ruins at the bottom and above that are modern high-rise flats all in a jumble.
Detail of top right of painting showing modern high-rise buildings.

The Girl and the Lion

The central section featuring the young girl and the lion is the real focus of our attention. Tony Phillips describes what he is depicting:
The work features a mixed-race child (typical of the Liverpool I grew up in during the 1950s) confronting the majesty of one of the lions that adorn the square in front of St George’s Hall. The power of the stone sculpture embodies the might of British Empire, establishing an authority over the bemused child, at once threatening and paternalistic.
The lion itself seems benign, even friendly, if somewhat pockmarked and worn with the faintest touch of green moss dusting its nose. But it’s the sheer scale and mass of the sculpture in comparison the delicacy of the young girl that makes a clearly uneven pairing. Tony further explains how for him the lion is a symbol of the “hierarchical order of the environment in which she is growing up”. However, the lion is just an immobile stone statue, whatever its emblematic significance, whereas the child is a human being with the opportunity to make a difference to the future. For Tony, “the confrontation is a momentary phase in the formation of the human she will become”.
A photo of two grey stone male lions lying prone on plinths. The one nearest is turned slightly towards the viewer and the one further away is side on. In the background are the pillars of St George’s Hall. On the right is a black lamp-post with globe light at the top. There is a pavement running up in a diagonal cross the bottom right corner of the photo with two black bollards near the lamp-post
Stone Lions guarding the Plateau, St George's Hall (©Karl and Ali, licensed under Creative Commons). They are by sculptor William Grinsell Nicholl (1796 – 1871) and date from 1855. The Hall itself opened the previous year.

Dock Wall

Underneath the stone lion and the young girl, propping everything up, is the sea wall and barnacle-encrusted chains of Liverpool Docks. For Tony, the dock wall symbolises the history of the city and how it was founded. He tells us:
Here the sweat and toil of thousands of labourers, dockworkers, seafarers, entwined with the suffering of slave transportation is silently etched, relics of chains, detritus from vessels, semi-obscured under the surface of the River Mersey – dull remnants of their own sad history.

Tony returned to the dock wall in his 2003 etchings Architecture I, II and III which are part of a series of twelve etchings called Liverpool – Growth of a City, again in the University’s art collection. Architecture II (below) shows the city during the height of the industrial revolution, with grand civic and commercial buildings appearing to be shored up by the dock wall running along the bottom quarter of the composition, preventing them from tumbling into the Mersey. The city’s debt to its labouring classes and the slave trade is made apparent in the image as figures haul carts laden with goods up the streets, while others load and unload boats. The buildings are crammed with enslaved Black figures in shackles and chains, making a clear reference to the origins of the wealth that created the structures.
A complex composition showing historic buildings in black and white. They are all at different angles and look as though they are falling over. In between are figures carrying things and pulling loaded carts. Three-quarters of the way down there is an intermittent harbour wall running across the image and beneath that is water with ships and boats on it.
Detail from Architecture II: Cotton, Negroes, Labour 1750s - 1850s
Detail of the image above showing three historic buildings, with parts of other buildings around the edge. In the three whole buildings are Black figures standing sideways to the viewer. They are enslaved people shackled together and in chains. Beneath the houses are parts of a harbour wall & beneath that is water with boats. People are in the streets carrying things or pulling loaded carts.
Close-up detail from Architecture II showing enslaved people in buildings

About the artist

Tony Phillips is an artist whose work illustrates how important the past is to the present and the long shadows it casts over us all. Born in Liverpool in 1952, he graduated from Lancaster College of Art in 1972 where he specialised in mural painting and relief sculpture. As Tony developed and honed his artistic techniques, his work has often taken the form of a series, incorporating social and political themes within an historical narrative. Tony has exhibited widely across Britain and internationally.

History of the Benin Bronzes Series

Although Tony uses a broad range of media he is perhaps best known for his etching which he developed during the 1980s. One of his most famous works is his History of the Benin Bronzes series of 1984, which illustrates twelve episodes from the capture of beautiful, elaborate bronze and brass sculptural art from Benin city (now part of Nigeria) in West Africa by British forces in 1897, and their subsequent dispersal to the British Museum and other Western institutions. The series acts as a commentary on British imperialism, but also on the disparity between the way the West perceived African peoples as ‘primitive’, and therefore self-justified their subjugation, and yet put their cultural artefacts on display as something to be admired. In the tenth etching from the series, The Gallery (shown below), two of the sculptures are shown looking trapped under glass; displayed for the pleasure of museum visitors but completely divorced from their cultural and historical context. One looks out at the viewer as though calling for help. Editions of this print series can be found in several public collections including the V&A and Arts Council.  The Benin Bronzes themselves remain contentious with ongoing calls for their repatriation.
This is a black and white image. A White man and woman are looking at an ornate sculpture of an African person’s head which is in a glass case. The head is facing the viewer and wears a cap with tassels hanging across its forehead. Behind the couple is another sculpture of an African person’s head in a glass case. It is wearing a high conical hat that points forward at the top
The Gallery, no 10 in the History of the Benin Bronzes series (Image courtesy of Gallery Oldham)

Liverpool – Growth of a City

The University is fortunate to have Tony’s Liverpool – Growth of a City series of etchings that demonstrate his unusual ‘single plate’ etching technique particularly well. He uses one plate, creates an image on it, then runs off a number of prints from it to create the edition.
This is a black and white image of an alleyway between two rows of terraced buildings. A lamppost is to the right of the alley with part of a three-storey building behind it. On the left-hand corner of the alley is a man sitting on the pavement against a wall He wears a hat, jacket, trousers and shoes. In the background is a tall building with a statue of Britannia on it.
Height of Empire I, 1890s
He then re-works the same plate to create a second image by keeping the basic background scene but with some additions; retaining some figures while scoring out others or adding new ones.
This is the same alley forty years later. It has become dirty with rubbish. A man is still sitting on the corner and next to him are three more men standing against the wall. They are wearing flat caps, jackets and trousers. A figure looks out of the first floor window of the building on the right.
Unemployment, 1930s
He then runs prints from this version before returning to rework the plate a third time.
This is the same alley as above another 20 years later. The alley is now strewn with rubbish and there is just one man standing next to the wall. He is wearing a hat, jacket and trousers but is untidy and he gesticulates with his left hand. He is pointing towards the three-story building where there is somebody sitting on the door step.

When the Boat comes in, 1950s
Tony will do this over and over with the same plate until the series he envisaged is complete. What he achieves is the impression of a build-up of history materialising as the series progresses. There are ghosts of the past and the accretion of history perceived through layers.
This is the alley in the 1960s. It is dirty and dark with a build-up of old discarded furniture. A man walks towards the left of the image with a young fashionable woman either side of him.  Another woman is sat on railings outside the house on the right of the alley and more figures are in the doorway. There is barbed wire coiled along the top of the wall and high-rise buildings in the distance
When the Ship comes in, 1960s
What we see in this six-print section of the Liverpool – Growth of a City series is a back alley in the multi-cultural Liverpool 8 area and how it changes from the 1890s to the 1980s as the city’s economic fortunes rise and fall, and the impact this has on the working-class people who live there. The immediate street-scene remains basically the same, but we see the city rise up in the background to a claustrophobic degree and detritus accumulate as the years go by.
This picture shows the alley in the 1970s, now full of discarded bin bags and graffiti. Against the wall to the left sits a young man and standing next to him are a young woman, a tall man and a young boy.  On the right there is a figure in the alley and another in the doorway of the house. In the background there are high-rise buildings with the Radio City Tower in the middle.
Unemployment, 1970s
This last image of the alley is set in the 1980s. The picture is now very dark with shadowy figures. The seated man and three standing figures from the previous picture still appear but are like ghosts on the left of the alley. On the right, a policeman runs towards them with a raised baton. In the distance flames and smoke come from a building on fire.  The house on the right is boarded up.
Inner City, 1980s
The six prints culminate with the city aflame during the unrest of the 1980s.
Both this series of etchings, and the painting of Liverpool we began with, offer a recognition of the city’s turbulent history and the blood, sweat and tears on which it was built. But there is also optimism for the future. Of the painting, Tony concludes:

[It is] in fact a tribute to a seafaring town, strife and suffering built upon a river engenders the growth of buildings – municipal wealth on one side, working-class estate on the other. The Liverpudlian child the unique spirit of mixed-race post war Britain.

Further information:

See more of Tony Phillips’ paintings on Art UK

Future Tony Phillips projects at The Bluecoat


For more information about the transatlantic slave trade:


1. Six of Tony Phillips’ etchings for the Liverpool – Growth of a City series are displayed in the University’s Harold Cohen Library. They and the other works by the artist in the University’s collection are available to view by appointment.

2. The University of Liverpool was founded in 1881.  We are aware that, as a civic institution created in one of the centres of Britain’s eighteenth and nineteenth century economy, and a seaport, the legacies of slavery and colonialism form part of our story.  We are about to enter into a period of reflection through which we will consider, in consultation with our members and local communities, how we might appropriately recognise