Tom Phillips was born in London in 1937. He attended St Catherine’s College, Oxford in 1957, where he read English and at the same time studied drawing at the Ruskin School. In 1961 he went to Camberwell School of Art where his chief source of inspiration was Frank Auerbach. He went on to teach at Bath Academy of Art, Ipswich (where he taught Brian Eno) and Wolverhampton Art College between 1965 and 1972.
Phillips’s first solo show was in 1965 at the Artists International Association Gallery in London, followed by an exhibition at the Angela Flowers Gallery in 1970. He won first prize at The John Moores Liverpool Exhibition in 1969 and subsequently went on to exhibit in many solo and group exhibitions around the world. Two early exhibitions of particular significance were the 1973 showing of 'A Humument' in its entirety at the ICA, London and the 1975 retrospective at the Kunsthalle in Basel. In 1989 he had a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (which holds a number of portraits by Tom Phillips including his portrait of Dame Iris Murdoch) and in 1993 a major exhibition of his work was held at the Royal Academy of Arts. To celebrate his 60th birthday in 1997, retrospectives of his work were held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the South London Gallery. More recently in 2001 an exhibition of his drawings was held at the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth.
Phillips was Vice-Chair of the Copyright Council from 1985 to 1989. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1989 and was Chairman of the Royal Academy’s Exhibitions Committee from 1995 to 2007. He curated the Royal Academy’s exhibition 'Africa: The Art of a Continent' (1995) which subsequently travelled to the Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He was appointed a Member of the Royal Society of Painter Etchers and Engravers in 1987 and an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1999. He is an Honorary Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, Leeds University (Bretton Hall) and the London Institute as well as an Honorary Member of the Royal Institute. He served as a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery (1998 - 2006 ) and a Trustee of the British Museum (1999 - 2006). Phillips was made a Commander of the British Empire for services to the Arts in the 2002 Birthday Honours list.