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Letters to Michael | Introduction

My father Charles Phillipson would have been amazed and delighted to learn that his series of letters to me, written when I was a small boy, were to be published. No such thought would have occurred to him during the long period of their gestation and delivery.

When I started school in 1944, he had already made me a small book, containing playful drawings of the alphabet’s upper- and lower-case forms, to encourage my reading. He continued this process some months later through the sequence of letters pub­lished here, which begin on Saturday, 10 February 1945 and end on Wednesday, 29 October 1947. Developed as intimate gifts to me, they affirmed his love and revealed his way of engaging with my world.

His chosen format, established in the first letter, was main­tained throughout the sequence (apart from four letters posted from the south coast during a period of convalescence). In each he gave equal space to text and drawing, and in the early letters he drew my attention to both spelling and writing’s reliance on ‘silent’ letters by underlinings. Each letter also bore a stamp on its front, often reflecting the content of the letter, and these stamps made the letters seem to me ‘real’ letters.

Rereading them now I find my father’s letters perform a kind of historical and celebratory remembrance. Many remind me of fam­ily incidents, people and places with which I was already familiar: happenings from that morning, yesterday or long ago. Others adopt a more instructional tone, pointing me towards the appearance of unfamiliar things and the activity of drawing itself. Whatever the theme, it was Charles’s ‘touch’ and his imagination’s slightly aslant

light that revealed their point. Like the Pied Piper’s irresistible sounds, he hoped they would draw me into his idiosyncratic vision. He trusted his drawings to deliver whatever imagination and mem­ory offered, and he resisted the temptation to overwork them.

This liveliness hadn’t suddenly appeared out of nothing. Charles was born in 1904, one of four children. The family lived close to Manchester’s centre where he went to school. His prodigious drawing throughout childhood was fostered by attending evening classes three nights a week, from the age of 12 well into the 1920s, at the Manchester School of Art. Some of these classes were also attended by L. S. Lowry. On leaving school at 14 he was taken on by an established printer in Granby Row. The office looked out across the city’s rooftops. I still have some of his small studies, both drawings and water-colours, of Manchester’s then chimney- marked skyline and the surrounding busy streets. Work at the printer’s gave Charles a grounding in all the current commercial printing processes and opportunities for developing his drawing and lettering skills, and outside work he was already exploring the range of painting and drawing media.

Eventually the family moved out of the city centre to Sale Moor. The greener suburb offered Charles the subjects that were to define his painting’s focus – wild and cultivated nature, flowers, public transport and people’s everyday activities. Much of his spare time was spent, with pen, pencil or brush, exploring the surrounding countryside. His sketchbooks record walking holi­days in Wales, Scotland and the Lake District. By now he had moved to the publicity department of an electrical switchgear company, Ferguson Pailin, in Openshaw. His humour and love of language came together in much of his publicity work which was characterized by his frequent translations of wordplays into visual terms. Several such drawings, skilfully avoiding the conventions of caricature and cartoon, were published in the Associated Electrical Industries trade journal.

In the mid-1930s Charles moved to become head of publicity at The Renold and Coventry Chain Company in Burnage, and in 1937 he married Marjorie, who lived the other side of the garden hedge. They moved to Heald Green, a village at the then outer edge of Manchester’s southern suburbs. Burnage was a brief train journey from the village station.

Almost immediately, tragedy struck. Charles was diagnosed with progressive and untreatable multiple sclerosis. The war soon followed – as did I, a shared Anderson shelter in the garden, an air-raid siren established in the village at Beech House, and bar­rage balloons that were visible from the train to Burnage. The letters were not far behind. Fortunately, VE Day and VJ Day came too, with street parties to mark them, held right outside our house. And with the end of the war the black-out curtains and night-lights disappeared.

The first sixty or so letters arrived almost daily and had a diary-like quality about them. Subsequent letters, with a few breaks, came weekly. All were written on 8” x 5” sheets torn from a pad of office scrap paper. Such pads, their sheets routinely destined for the waste-paper basket, would have sat on every Renold desk. No time for preparatory sketches! Using his fountain pen filled with blue-black ink Charles dashed off the letters during tea- or lunch­breaks. My mother, recognizing their uniqueness, saved them all. On the pages that follow, though much travelled and slightly crumpled, they now re-emerge, still bursting with life. (Following the sequence published here he also produced a few further letters at irregular intervals. However, they were done on larger sheets and lacked both a fold and a drawn stamp.)

My father was made redundant in 1955 and from then on received only a small disability pension. But despite the inexorable progress of his disease, he never stopped painting and drawing. After the war he exhibited in the Manchester Academy’s annual shows in the City Art Gallery, and occasionally my parents’ ground floor became an open-house gallery filled with oils, water­colours, pastels and pencil drawings. Some sales at these shows (at giveaway prices) brought other rewards. His freelance illustration work in the late ’50s and early ’60s included two series of textbooks for Evans Brothers, a London-based educational publisher. The attentiveness, precision and detail required in these projects were delightfully enhanced by my father’s singular imagination and style. From the late 1930s until his death he also produced our annual family Christmas cards. And, every year without fail, both my mother and I received personalized birthday and Christmas cards. For these, in contrast to the letters, he was able to use quality paper and vibrant colours but, like the letters, they too were characterized by his inimitable humour. My father died at home in 1974.

Extract from Letters to Michael © The Estate of Charles Phillipson 2021

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