Awash with talent: Former prisoner’s soap art finds its way to Cambridge

PUBLISHED: 09:44 16 January 2018 | UPDATED: 09:45 16 January 2018

Tom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith Heppell

Tom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith Heppell

Iliffe Media Ltd

‘The advantage to being in prison is you have months upon months to spend on a single piece of art,” says Tom Phillips.

Tom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith HeppellTom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith Heppell

The stonemason and sculptor was released from prison just before Christmas after serving two and-a-half-years for owning a (then) 98-year-old antique pistol and ammunition. Nerdiness and appreciation of the collector’s value do not count as defence under English law, he says.

Two weeks into his sentence Tom said he found out his wife was pregnant with their first child.

“Your family become a focus in a religious sense,” he said. “You aren’t able to physically see or touch them for long periods of time, so you have to live on photographs and almost a religious belief that you will one day get back to them,” he said.

To help get him through his sentence, Tom focused on sculpture.

Tom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith HeppellTom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith Heppell

“I spent nine months on making a piece out of various types of soap that we were able to scrounge from around the prison, and we had to make our own tools out of matchsticks and bits of broken plastic ruler and stuff like that.”

Soap sculptures are usually as large as the bar they are carved from. After nine months, Tom created Dante’s Fireplace. The work was based on Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell, the bronze doors which were commissioned for an art museum in Paris which never came into being.

In Tom’s piece, the gates see his son as the focal piece, with his family below and figures in the windows representing stories and characters from his time in prison.

The work gained a Platinum Award from the prison arts charity, the Koestler Trust, and was put on display in a London gallery where Stuart Stone, librarian at the University of Cambridge’s Radzinowicz Library at the Institute of Criminology and curator of the library’s permanent collection, bought it.

Tom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith HeppellTom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith Heppell

Stuart said: “It’s a genuinely extraordinary piece. The level of imagination and life involved in it is remarkable.”

Stuart continued: “All the years I’ve been collecting I have never been able to attain something in soap, which is the archetypal material for prison sculpture, so when this came up it was irresistible.”

The library is one of the world’s largest collections of criminology texts and is recognised as a world-class resource. Tom’s piece is now part of its permanent collection.

Tom said: “I’m really happy that they bought it. But the biggest thing for me is, I think, it sold for about £800 and I got about £300 of that. But I’ve worked my whole life and the minute I had a family to provide for I wasn’t able to do anything. At the end of this period I was able to put this money in a savings account for my boy, and my wife and I were able to go to the exhibition together which was really cool. It really kept me from completely losing my head.”

Tom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith HeppellTom Phillips in the Criminology Department of Cambridge University with the sculpture he made from soap while in prison . Picture: Keith Heppell

Although he spent time helping run a mental health charity before prison, Tom taught music while inside and saw firsthand how offenders benefit from the arts. He has released an album with proceeds going to charity.

“What I’m now trying to do is show that transformative prison education is really a force for good,” he concluded. “It can change people’s narrative in their sense of self. It can take people who are literally on the bottom and bring them back into society.”

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