Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/May, Philip William
MAY, PHILIP WILLIAM, called Phil May (1864–1903), humorous draughtsman, born at 66 Wallace Street, New Wortley, Leeds, on 22 April 1864, was seventh child of Philip William May, an engineer. His father's father was Charles May, squire of Whittington, near Chesterfield, a sportsman and amateur caricaturist. His mother's father was Eugene Macarthy (1788-1866), an Irish actor and for a while manager of Drury Lane Theatre. An elder sister of his mother, Maria (1812-1870), was an actress of repute, and married Robert William Honner [q. v.], manager of the Sadler's Wells and Surrey Theatres. Charles May being a friend of George Stephenson, his son Philip (the artist's father) was admitted as a pupil to Stephenson's locomotive works at Newcastle-on-Tyne, but failed to succeed in business on his own account, with the result that his family were in very needy circumstances. Phil May was sent to St. George's School, Leeds, but left very early. His own wish was to be a jockey; but when still quite a child he was employed as timekeeper in a foundry, and at twelve years of ago had began to help the scone painter and make himself generally useful at the Leeds theatre. Subsequently he joined a touring company as an actor, his first appearance being at the Spa Theatre, Scarborough. He played among other parts Francois in 'Richelieu' and the cat in 'Dick Whittington.' In his fifteenth year he sot out for London to earn his fortune, suffering there great hardships. Part of tho return journey he performed on foot. In Leeds again, he took to drawing in earnest, contributed to a paper called 'Yorkshire Gossip,' and designed pantomime costumes. At the age of nineteen he married Sarah Elizabeth Emerson.
In 1883, after more London poverty. May drew a caricature of Irving, Bancroft, and Toole leaving a Garrick Club supper, which was published by a print-seller in the Charing Cross Road. The print caught the eye of Lionel Brough, the actor, who bought the original (cf. The Bancrofts: Recollections of Sixty Years, 1909, p. 330, with reproduction). Replicas were subsequently acquired by King Edward VII, Sir Arthur Pinero, and Sir Squire Bancroft. Brough recommended May to the editor of 'Society.' For 'Society' he did some work, and then passed to 'St. Stephen's Review,' of which paper he was the artistic mainstay until a break down of health made it advisable to go to Australia, where he had an offer of 20l. a week from the 'Sydney Bulletin.' He left London in 1885 and remained in Australia until 1888, completing altogether some 900 drawings for the 'Bulletin.' For a while after leaving that paper he remained in Melbourne practising painting, and then settled in Paris to study art as seriously as he was able. Returning to live in London in 1892, he resumed his labours on 'St. Stephen's Review,' to which from Paris he had contributed his first widely successful work, the illustrations to 'The Parson and the Painter,' published as a book in 1891. In 1892 appeared the first 'Phil May's Winter Annual,' destined to be continued until 1903, containing some thirty to fifty drawings by himself, with miscellaneous literary matter. There were fifteen issues in all (three being called 'Summer Annual'), and these shilling books probably did as much to make the artist's reputation as a humorist as any of Ins journalistic drawings. His first important newspaper connection was with the 'Daily Graphic,' for which paper he started on a tour of the world, which however came to an abrupt close in Chicago, and he returned to London in 1893, never to leave it again. There followed very busy period, during which he contributed not only to the 'Daily Graphic' and 'Graphic' but, among other illustrated papers, to the 'Sketch' and 'Pick-me-up,' and steadily acquired a name for comic delineations of low life such as none could challenge. In 1805 there appeared 'Phil May's Sketch Book: Fifty Cartoons,' and in 1890 his 'Guttersnipes: Fifty Original Sketches,' containing some of his most vivid and characteristic work, on the strength of which he was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. In the same year he succeeded to a chair at the 'Punch' Table, Although he retained it until his death the traditions of the paper were a little cramping to one so essentially Bohemian as 1m9, while some of his contributions to it, such as the illustrations to the 'Essence of Parliament' (reissued in Lucy's 'Balfourian Parliament,' 1906), must be considered a misapplication of his genius. Portraits were not his forte, and any time which he spent on drawing from photographs was lost. In 1897 appeared 'Phil May's Graphic Pictures' and also 'The ZZG., or Zig-Zag Guide. Round and about the beautiful and bold Kentish coast. Described by F. G Bumand and illustrated by Phil May,' to which the artist contributed 139 illustrations; in 1899 followed both 'Fifty hitherto unpublished Pen and Ink Sketches' and the 'Phil May Album, collected by Augustus M. Moore,' with a biographical preface.
Phil May once stated that all he knew about drawing had come from Edward Linley Sambourne [q. v. Suppl. II]. Although the initial line work of the two men is very similar, the difference in the completed drawings is wide. Sambourne progressed by multiplying strokes; May by the process of omitting them. Phil May struck out fine after line until only the eesentials remained. His usual method for his 'Punch' contributions was to draw more or less fully in pencil and then work over this with pen and ink. with the utmost economy of stroke, and finally rub out the pencil But latterly he often omitted the pencil foundation. Those who attended his lectures, which he illustrated as he talked, or were present at Savage Club entertainments at which he acted as 'lightning cartoonist,' say that the rapidity and sureness of his hand were miraculous. May's line at its best may be said to be alive. It is certain that no English draughtsman has ever attained greater vigour or vivacity in black and white. In this frugal and decisive medium he drew thousands of droll and cynical scenes of Bohemian and street life, becoming thereby as pre-eminently the people's illustrator of the end of the Victorian period as Keene had been during its middle years and Leech during its earlier ones. None could set down London street types, whether of Seven Dials or the Strand, with greater fidelity and brilliance. Critics and artists alike united to praise him. Whistler once remarked that modern black and white could be summed up in two words—Phil May.
In private life May was a man of much humour and a curious amiability and gentleness, qualities which unhappily carried with them a defect of weakness that made him the victim both of sociability and of impecunious friends. He earned large sums but was too easily relieved of them. His 'Punch' editor, Sir Francis Burnand, tells a story illustrative at once both of his generosity and of his inherent sweetness, to the effect that on being asked at a club for a loan of 60l, May produced all he had—namely half that amount—and then abstained from the club for some time for fear of meeting the borrower, because he felt that 'he still owed him 25l.'
Before his health finally broke May had been a sedulous horseman. He was greatly interested in boxing, although rather as a spectator than a participator, and another of Ms hobbies was the composition of lyrics, usually of a sentimental order, some of which were set to music. Not long before his death he made a serious arrangement to return to the stage, as Pistol, in a revival of 'Henry V'; but his appearance did not extend beyond one or two rehearsals taken with impossible levity. A full-length portrait of May in hunting costume by J. J. Shannon was exhibited at the Academy of 1901, so realistic in character as to distress many who saw it and were unaware of May's besetting weakness. A cartoon portrait by 'Spy' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1895. He also introduced himself in his pictures probably more frequently than any other artist, often with a whimsical and half-pathetic sidelong glance at his foibles. He died on 6 Aug. 1903 at his home in Medina Place, St. John's Wood, and was buried at Kensal Green. His widow, who received a civil list pension of 100l. a year, married again and died in 1910. He left no family.
After his death there were published further collections of published and unpublished sketches in 'Phil May's Sketches from Punch,' 1903, his 'Picture Book,' 1903, with a biographical and critical preface by G. R. Halkett; his 'Medley,' 1904, his 'Folio of Caricature Drawings and Sketches,' 1904, with a biography, and in the same year 'Phil May in Australia,' with both an excellent biography and iconography. On 25 June 1910 a mural tablet subscribed for by the public was unveiled on the house in Leeds where he was born, recording the circumstance and calling him 'the great black and white artist' and 'a fellow of infinite jest.'
[The Times, 6 August 1903; biographical prefaces to Phil May in Australia, Bulletin Office, Sydney, 1904, and The Phil May Folio, London, 1904; James Glover, Jimmy Glover: his book, 1911 (with portrait of May by himself, Leeds, 1880); private information.]