MAY, Philip William (1864-1903)

MAY, Philip William (1864-1903)
always known as Phil May
the son of Philip May, was born at Wortley near Leeds on 22 April 1864. His grandfather, a country gentleman of means, had some talent as a draughtsman and was fond of making caricatures. He was friendly with George Stephenson, the well-known engineer, and apprenticed his son, Philip, to him. Later on Philip May went into business as a brass founder with little success, and died when his son Phil May was nine years old. His widow, who came of good Irish stock, was the daughter of Eugene Macarthy at one time manager of Drury Lane Theatre. She was left in very poor circumstances and the family had a great struggle to exist. Phil May had little schooling, became office boy in a solicitor's office when 12 years old, and had a variety of occupations until he joined a theatrical company, playing small parts and doing sketches for the show bills. He had always been fond of drawing and when only 14 years old had drawings accepted for the Yorkshire Gossip. In 1883 he found his way to London, went through many hardships, and though he had a few sketches accepted, had to return to Leeds in 1884 in bad health. At the end of that year he did a remarkable page of caricatures of well-known personages for the Christmas number of Society, and in the spring of 1885 he obtained a place on the staff of the St Stephen's Review. He was doing well enough to be able to decline an offer of £15 a week made by W. H. Traill (q.v.), manager of the Sydney Bulletin. The offer was raised to £20 a week, and May, realizing that the climate would be good for his health, accepted it and sailed for Australia at the end of 1885.
It has often been said that the mechanical weaknesses of the Bulletin printing press led to May's economy of line, but a glance at May's earlier work will show that that is not quite the whole truth. However, the variety and mass of May's work in the Bulletin, he did about 800 drawings during the less than three years that he was on the staff, no doubt gave him great practice in eliminating the unnecessary. It was a wonderful opportunity for a young man of 21, and though in later years May's work may have gained in refinement, it is doubtful whether it ever became more vigorous or more truly comic. After leaving the Bulletin he stayed for a little while in Melbourne but left Australia about the end of 1888. He lived for some time in Rome and Paris with the intention of studying painting, but returned to London about 1890. He continued to send occasional sketches to the Bulletin until 1894, and in London his work was appearing in the St Stephen's Review, the Graphic, Pick-me-up, and in 1893, Punch. His drawings for The Parson and the Painter, which had appeared in the St Stephen's Review, were published in book form in 1891, and in 1892 Phil May's Summer Annual and Phil May's Winter Annual first appeared. Fifteen of these annuals were eventually published, full of excellent drawings from May's pen. In 1896 he became a regular member of the staff of Punch and so remained until his death. He still continued to contribute to other periodicals such as the Sketch and the Graphic, and towards the end of his life did some beautiful work in pencil, lightly coloured. He died after a long illness on 5 August 1903. He had married at the age of 21 a young widow of great charm and personality, Mrs Charles Farrer, who survived him without issue.
Phil May was slightly above medium height, gaunt, with a profile reminiscent of that of Pope Leo XIII. A born story-teller with an unfailing sense of humour, he was the typical good companion, beloved by hosts of friends and sponged upon by troops of parasites. All the efforts of his best friends and his loyal wife could not prevent him from being continually fleeced and imposed upon. May could never forget he had been once near starvation himself, and his purse was open for all in need. He drank too much for his own good in his later years, but, however careless he may have been about his health, he was never careless in his drawing, and at his death was recognized as one of the great masters of line drawing. Examples of his work will be found at the leading Australian galleries, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British Museum. In addition to his Summer and Winter Annuals various collections were published, including Phil May's Sketch Book (1895), Phil May's Guttersnipes (1896), Phil May's Graphic Pictures and Phil May's A. B. C. (1897), Phil May's Album (1899), Phil May, Sketches from Punch (1903). Publications after his death included Phil May in Australia (1904), The Phil May Folio (1904), and Humorists of the Pencil, Phil May (1908).
A. G. Stephens, Introduction to Phil May in Australia; James Thorpe, Phil May; Introduction The Phil May Folio; Wm Moore, The Story of Australian Art.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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