Tom was born in England in 1925 and came to Australia in 1928, his family settling on Lake Macquarie in New South Wales. He started painting at the age of 24, inspired by the works of William Dobell, who gave him early encouragement.
A stint in retail display design constituted his only ‘formal’ art training, but exhibiting in Sydney from 1954, he built a strong following and by the late 1950s, he was perhaps the most prominent visual artist in the country. He took out the Muswellbrook Prize, Blake Christus Prize, and Mosman Art Prizes in 1958 (and a score and more over his career).
Patrick White was an admirer and collector (he commissioned a portrait), and opened Tom’s first one-man show at Newcastle in 1959. White owned a number of Tom’s paintings and said they inspired him in the construction of several of his books.
Tom had been a finalist in the 1960 Helena Rubenstein travelling scholarship (won by Charles Blackman) but took out the scholarship in 1961 and his subsequent two years on the road through Europe honed his skills and knowledge. For two decades, Tom taught at leading art schools in Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide – by all accounts, his students loved him.
Tom was, from the first, a modernist and devotee of abstract painting but he was not a mere tachiste. He was particularly interested in solving textural problems, hence his later success with mixed media. Nor was he one who retreated into abstract expressionism to camouflage poor craftsmanship: his figurative work is highly skilled. His detail can also be telling: there is rarely a slapdash quality to his abstract work (compare his Drunken Buddha work to, say, Ian Fairweather’s pieces based on the same novel).
Robert Hughes was originally quite snippy about Tom (as Hughes could be with anyone), opining that his work was akin to “an illiterate with good handwriting.” De mortuis, nil nisi bonum, but Hughes tended to sacrifice patience, contemplation and appreciation upon the altar of a pithy line.
Exhibited and admired in private and corporate collections across the world, only recently (semi) retired at ninety, awarded the Order of Australia Medal for service to the arts in 2006, Tom has had a rich, prolific, crowded life filled with ‘painterliness’. A bon viveur, kind, witty and generous and still going strong (he celebrated his 90th over the June 2015 long weekend), this ‘illiterate’ has written a sterling account of and in his life and art.[May 2016 Update: Unley Council has honoured Tom by appointing him Art Judge for the SALA Festival. The prize is awarded to artists 60 years of age and over, whom Tom regards as spring chickens. We doubt anyone is better placed to assume this position.]