Phillip (Phil) William May

Born Leeds, England 1864
Died London, England 1903

By Lindsay Foyle

In 1885 the editor of The Bulletin, William Traill sailed to London to hire a cartoonist and bring him back to Australia. The cartoonist he found was Phil May. Traill offered him 20 pounds a week. May had been earning eight so on November 11, 1885 May and his wife Lillian, set sail for Australia. They arrived in Sydney early in 1886, and took rooms at the corner of Bathurst and Pitt Streets. Later they moved to a hotel at the corner of Hunter and Castlereagh Streets. On the day May arrived in Sydney the other resident cartoonist working on The Bulletin, Livingston Hopkins, took him around to Julian Ashton's studio where May soon became a frequent visitor. Ashton described him as “very slight and about five feet seven inches in height. His hair was cut straight across his forehead, and he wore very close-fitting garments, giving him somewhat the appearance of a jockey." It was not long before May and Hopkins moved out of The Bulletin office and into a studio together, to escape the noise of the printing press.

May was born at 66 Wallace Street, New Wortley a suburb of Leeds, Yorkshire on April 22, 1864. From the age of 12 he made a living doing many things which could have included acting, scene painting, working in an estate agent's office, dusting pianos, working as a timekeeper in an iron-foundry, working in a solicitor's office and as an artist. The story varied depending on who was doing the telling. His first staff appointment as an artist was on St Stephen's Review 1885.

Early in his stay at The Bulletin, Traill is said to have complained to May saying, "Look here, Hopkins puts a good deal more work into his drawings than you do. Can’t you finish yours up a bit? We are paying you very liberally for the small amount of work you are putting into your drawings." May's response was said to be, "When I can do them with half as much work I shall charge twice as much."

In a more detailed account of his style May said, "Many people have the idea that my work is, as they say, ‘dashed off.’ They think that because, when it is finished, there are so few lines in it. But they are wrong. What reputation I have made I ascribe to very careful preparation of my sketches. First of all, I get the rough idea of the picture. Sometimes it is suggested by a story I have heard, or by something I have seen. Sometimes it occurs to me spontaneously. I sketch a rough outline of the picture I want to draw, and from the general idea of this rough outline I never depart. Then I make several studies from the model in the pose which the picture requires, and redraw my figures from these studies. The next step is to draw the picture completely, carefully putting in every line necessary to fullness of detail; and the last, to select the particular lines that are essential to the effect I want to produce, and take all the others out. That is how it is done."

That is a good story and often repeated, but it might not be the whole story as May once wrote, “Perhaps I should say, that the printing machines of The Bulletin were my real masters. They were utterly unsuitable for the printing of work in which the value of light and shade was pre-eminent, and so I was driven to the resort of expressing what I had to express in the fewest possible lines; but that was only for the first year – after that the printing was beyond reproach.”

In April 1886, not long after May had arrived, Traill left, selling his shares. “On severing his connection with the office,” said Archibald, “Traill handed to every employee two weeks’ wages.” Archibald took over as editor in the small shabby brick building at 24 Pitt Street that was then home to the paper. It was the start of turning The Bulletin from a successful newspaper into the most influential publication in Australia.

Traill died in 1903. There is no record of May's often repeated boast "I never had a drawing lesson in my life" having had anything to do with his departure from The Bulletin. By a strange coincidence, Hopkins also claimed he had never to have had a drawing lesson either.

There were many times when May had to be fished from pubs and other haunts to complete drawings. Once he was locked in his upstairs studio dressed in his underwear not to be released till his drawings had been completed. He climbed out an open window and down a drainpipe and headed for the pub for refreshments before much ink had been put on paper. May stayed at The Bulletin for a little less than three years before heading home. While his drawings were missed from the pages in The Bulletin, there would have been a number of publicans in Sydney who would have missed him too.

May's association with The Bulletin did not end with his return to Europe and he occasionally sent drawings to Sydney for publication, the last arriving in 1894. In Europe he contributed to a number of London publications, which included The St Stephen's Review, The Daily Graphic, Pick-me-up, The Sketch, The Pall Mall Budget, Black and White, The English Illustrated Magazine, The Illustrated London News and The Daily Chronicle.

On one occasion when the family coffers where low May took some drawings into London to sell. While there he met up with a number of old friends and pubs were visited. In fact, many pubs were visited. It was well past midnight when May decided it was time to return home. Sitting in the Hanson cab he had hired for the journey, he got to thinking about the reception he was likely to get when he finally got home. He decided he should buy his wife a gift. Given the lateness of the hour there were no shops open, however he did spot a fishmonger preparing for the next day of business. May stopped the cab and went in inquiring what was for sale. There was nothing but a large eel, left over from the previous day. May bought it and continued on his way. Any joy Lillian may have felt by being presented with such a gift at dawn was soon dissipated. The eel had been wrapped in the drawings May had taken into London to sell.

Eventually, in February 1895 May took a staff position on Punch, where he stayed until his death on August 5, 1903. He was only 39. He was on his deathbed when a friend called and asked, “Is there nothing I can do? Can’t I send you something?” May replied, “Why, certainly, old chap. Send me a wreath.” To another friend - Arthur Morrison - he said, “These doctors are a bit difficult. I’m to stay in bed for my lungs and take outdoor exercise for my liver!”

May died at his home at 5 Melina Place, St John's Wood, London, and was buried in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Crematory at Kensal Rise. At the time Hopkins was making a hurried trip to London to see him. Some say, "he was got by the drink" and during his life he gave "the drink" every opportunity to get him. But officially he died of “phthisis and cirrhosis of the liver, following an attack of congestion of the lungs induced by hereditary weakness, early hardship and careless living.” That is enough to kill anyone.

Phil May entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2010.

Further reading