Tony Phillips: Above Us Only Sky?
Tony's art trail, 'Above us only sky?', surveys the development of the aeroplane through a series of historical events, from 1903 to the present. Consisting of 19 hand-painted panels and a fresco, the trail removes the aircraft from its mundane present-day context and elevates it as a symbol in a style reflective of religious imagery, allowing for a new kind of objectivity on the subject.
This form also reflects humanity’s increasing preoccupation with, and glorification of technology, and in turn alludes to the duality of human progress - with the aircraft becoming synonymous with both the ecstasy of adventure and the horror of warfare.
The trail, beginning in the Bluecoat courtyard on School Lane, and leading up to the Bombed Out Church and back, seeks to link two vital parts of Liverpool’s heritage: two important institutions in the socio-cultural regeneration of the area, with St Luke’s acting as living testament to the themes revealed in Tony’s images.
The ‘20th Century Chapel’, a series of murals within St Luke’s, depicting the events of the last 120 years, forms part of the trail and builds upon the narrative disclosed by the history of flight.
Follow Tony's map below using the purple arrows to guide you. Make sure to click each location to discover more information regarding each plaque you find!
Location 1: Bluecoat Courtyard
'The first plaque of the trail is based on the famous Wright Brothers who supposedly pioneered the first controlled powered flight in 1903. During the course of my research, I discovered that there is some controversy surrounding this topic because the Brazilians claim that their early aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont led a powered flight before the Wright Brothers. Many also contend that the Wright Brothers’ first flight actually had assisted take off (although according to the dominant history it didn’t).
The plaque itself is one of two that refer to flight in its overall human context. In other words, this plaque relates to man’s dream of conquering the air. This is why I included two human figures within the image, an adult male and a young girl, both of whom are cheering. This is a nod to a famous photograph of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, in which there are two people throwing their hands up and waving their hats. That moment seems to capture the elation people felt towards the first flight.'
1. Title: First Powered flight (Wright Brothers),1903.
Location 2: Lyceum, Bold Street
'This plaque is based on Louis Blériot, a French pioneer who came to fame not just because of a lifetime flying, but because he won a contest hosted by the Daily Mail newspaper which involved him flying across the English channel in the quickest time ever recorded.
I included the Eiffel Tower in this plaque because Paris was at that time a centre for artistic and technological innovation. For example, Dumont, the Brazilian aviator also lived in France and did many of his own experiments there. Robert Delaunay, the French Cubist-style painter of the early 1900s also included many aviation and Eiffel Tower images in his paintings. This, therefore, may also have been at the back of my mind when creating this piece.'
Title: Bleriot, Paris (aviation pioneer),1911 (left side).
3. Title: 'Red Baron' (1st World War), 1918 (right side).
'This painting is based on a German WWI fighter pilot, nicknamed 'The Red Baron' for his military prowess and his bright red plane. Even though it’s a negative image, it also conjures up the romance of battle in the air and the sense of adventure that surrounded flight at the time. It’s a very macho and military image.
The Red Baron is symbolically courageous but in some ways an anti-hero. He has been romanticised as a hero when in reality he was the opposite. Below the plane is a very bleak image of the trenches, black smoke, and the pilot, with his white face, could even be interpreted as the figure of death.'
4. Title: US Navy sea plane, 1920s
'A typical example of what I discovered when researching the range of planes for my exhibition was how many aspects of human life they began to address. This plaque simply highlights the fact that as early as the 1920s, planes were made that could take off and land on water. This changed the nature of the plane itself and is an example of an early airplane absorbing technology in order to address social needs, including engaging in naval practices.
This theme is again related to the armed forces. But sea planes were used for different purposes. It’s shape also interested me and I actually painted it in the same colour as the sea, the plaque itself showing the plane reflecting the blue-green of the waves.'
Location 3: Resurrection, Bold Street
'This plaque is based on a very typical poster from the 1920s. It expresses ideas surrounding the ability to experience the exotic for yourself, something once limited only to rich adventurers.
In this modern age, you could now visit exotic places, which is why I've pictured the plane flying over the pyramids and palm trees. The strongest thing about this poster is that it reflects the elation of the first plaque and highlights the freedom that flight enabled.
The dichotomy of human progress isn’t necessarily visible in this plaque. It's more straightforward and about following your dreams (if you could afford to).
With these initial inventions, people weren’t necessarily aware of the destruction that they could cause, nor thinking about global problems. Such discussions only really seriously began after the Second World War, whereas these images reflect more the joyride of flight.'
5. Title: Imperial Airways, 1920s (left side).
6. Title: Amelia Earhart, 1932 (right side).
'This plaque gave me the opportunity to focus on issues that have since become very important. It was good to see that as early as the late-1920s there was a female pioneer at the forefront of conquering the airways and setting new world records. Amelia Earhart, for instance, was the first woman to cross the Atlantic solo.
This period witnessed many records being broken and boundaries crossed, so it was good to be able to refer to just one person here. Many of my artworks try to look at the overarching social context and are not usually about individuals, so it was nice to be able to make an exception here.
This is one of the only portraits I included in the whole sequence, and I felt it necessary to re-write history in a way that highlights what women have achieved.'
Location 4: Bold Street Coffee, Bold Street
7. Title: Air Hostess, 1930s (left side).
'This image illustrates the move towards the passenger airline travel we recognise today. In the very early days of flight, the idea of the hostess was absolutely new.
This period also saw the furnishing of cabins with the kind of comforts we had come to expect in our homes (like railways did in the Victorian period).
A number of airlines I researched for the 1960s and 70s plaques used air hostesses standing outside the airplane in uniform, as a promotional device when new aircraft were launched.
Air hostesses were included in glitzy promotional posters and glossy magazines, but the image of the air hostess was also a reference to a new type of job, a new career path and a new 'character' for the 20th century, which became a well-recognised figure.'
8. Title: Continental Airways Poster, 1930s.
'This plaque is based on a poster called ‘As The Crow Flies’, so the image is based on a bird - an artist’s licence graphic reproduction of an airplane, for the sake of equating flight to being as free as a bird.
By that time, transatlantic flights were becoming more common. I therefore decided to place images of New York on one side of the plaque and London on the other, with an obvious ocean in between.'
Location 5: St Luke's Bombed Out Church, Leece Street
9. Title: WWII Bombers (British and German), 1941.
'Originally, I was going to use just one bomber here but then it made much more sense to feature two, both going in opposite directions. Rather than showing the planes dropping bombs or a city below on fire, I decided to depict this as the moment before any bombing has actually happened.
The planes are circled with a halo/sun image, and this unites the planes. You can just about see the pilots and this painting captures the moment where the figures inside the planes share a common history, destiny and role. These factors are much more important than their being on different sides of this military divide.
It only occurred to me afterwards how this plaque reflects the truce statue in the Bombed Out Church’s grounds. I have, however, made this truce through my painting and the pilots aren’t necessarily conscious of each other. Below is a city with a small building that looks like St Luke’s with chimneys and rooftops.'
Location 6: Wood Street
10. Title: Atomic Bomb, 1945.
'This plaque is pretty self-evident. For me, it has a really biting irony because it’s just two objects, the airplane and the mushroom cloud.
A cloud itself is constantly changing and, even though this one has been produced by humans, it's almost like it's producing a natural beauty that synchronises with all the cloud formations around it.
It is comparable to a beautiful flower. The city below is just about recognisable as a Japanese city.'
11. Title: BOAC Jetliner, 1950s.
'This image takes us into the 1950s, moving onto the theme of jet travel, which was another major technological advancement of this period.
This is the first jet in the sequence and examines the era of post-war transatlantic travel when more middle-class people were able to visit faraway places – a time when air transport became established for the wider public.'
Location 7: Seel Street Facade (next to Alma de Cuba) and Seel Street Carpark
12. 'Laika', 1957.
'This plaque examines the Soviet Union sending a dog, Laika, into space. Early on, when looking at historical events for the trail, this one stood out because of the irony that the first eyes to look back on the Earth were not human, but those of an animal sent into space by man - although the animal probably couldn’t see Earth!
In my first images for this work, I formed a black cloud around the world, as if the atom bomb that had dropped just over ten years prior was still lingering. In a way, the animal had escaped the man-made mess down below.
There is something fascinating about this event, which was so politicised during the tensions of the Cold War and the 'space race' between the Soviet Union and the West. Although this plaque is a slight step away from aviation, I couldn’t not include it because it was such an important milestone.
This painting is on a listed building, whose owners Frenson are committed to maintaining it and were working on it just before I began painting. One of the workers began chipping away, trying to discover its past and uncovered some lettering on the building, revealing that it had once been a veterinary surgery - what a coincidence!
This was also the only image painted directly onto a building in situ, so this was an excellent surprise for me. I had to do the whole painting in just one day.'
13. Concorde, 1960s (left side).
'Concorde is a flagship image from the 1960s and 70s. The inspiration for this image is taken from a poster that unites the British and French flags, expressing how the Concorde was an Anglo-French project.
This was the first super jet made for passengers and highlights the extent to which air travel and technology in general had developed by this decade.'
14. Moon Landing, 1969 (middle).
'This is another example of space flight that I felt impelled to include. The age-old dreams of flying and reaching the moon are twins, even though the technology and expertise are different.
This image shows the first manned American moon landing craft, though I have not painted the crew. It was enjoyable to focus on painting a detailed starry sky.'
15. Vietnam, 1970s (right side).
'This image is adjacent to the moon landing plaque and includes war iconography such as flames and smoke. This was the era of highly destructive jet warfare, laying the groundwork for subsequent decades of warfare.
These three plaques are conceived as a 1960s trilogy. The central one is reaching the moon. On one side is the luxury travel and nationalism of the Concorde but on the other side is this emotive American bombing of Vietnam.'
*UNFORTUNATELY, THIS PLAQUE IS NOW COVERED BY STREET ART BUT IT CAN STILL BE VIEWED ON OUR WEBSITE. A COPY IS ALSO ON DISPLAY WITHIN THE 20TH CENTURY CHAPEL INSTALLATION AT THE BOMBED OUT CHURCH*
Location 8: Concert Street (Einsteins)
16. Jumbo 747, 1970s.
'Researching images of aeroplanes, I discovered the graphic technique called 'the cutaway'. These became increasingly popular as jets got to a certain size, allowing people to see the whole range of equipment and technology housed inside planes. Once I saw these sliced-down façades I wanted to include that imagery on one of the plaques.
Due to the amount of detail, this had to be a larger plaque. It’s a recognition of human achievement, without any social comment. The plaque reflects how far we can go in making something look so complex and intricate, but also so huge, yet which can still fly - highlighting human fascination with such technology.
Location 9: Level, Fleet Street.
17. Vulcan Fighter, 1980s.
'This plaque explores a patriotic idea of flight. The type of bombers depicted became many governments’ most expensive individual pieces of hardware, and a symbol of protection and defence.
In this image, a camouflaged plane is flying over a green planet. It’s as if the military aircraft is pretending to be like the planet but, in a way, its actual destination is outright destruction of the planet and its ecosystems.'
18. Red Arrow, 1990s.
'This image further explores patriotism, and its focus is on fascination. For the first time on the trail since the very first plaque, we see a child pointing upwards.
It suggests that, no matter what the story is, aeroplanes will always be of interest because of the essence of adventure and achievement that they represent.
This fascination with flight is also shown through display and performance - as I discovered throughout my research into how we present and continue to re-present our achievements.'
19. Private Jet, 2000s.
'This plaque is reflective of today’s inequalities where, if you’ve got money there’s a whole other world out there, with large corporations and super-rich individuals demonstrating their wealth through private jets. While Concorde was once considered a luxury, having your own private jet with your own pilot is now the ultimate expression of status and privilege.
So, while the first plaque featuring the Wright Brothers represents a celebration of freedom, over a century on, moves towards greater freedom are only for those who can afford it.'
Location 10: Bluecoat, College Lane Entrance
20. Military Drone (Above Us Only Sky?), 2020s.
'The drone itself looks very menacing, despite obviously not having a conscience - there’s no human in there risking their life, it’s all done through controls. The image is, like many drones, white and clinical-looking, despite white also being the symbol of holiness, a ‘virginal’ colour.
This image goes beyond the initial ideas of flight and shows the dichotomy between the Western and ‘non-Western’ world. Those in the latter are always considered secondary and have been on the receiving end of most recent wars. This plaque gave me the opportunity to reflect the glaring inequality in access to a reasonable standard of living.
This is the ‘end of the story’ - the story of the role of aircraft cast in a negative image. The viewers, who were originally waving in awe at the aircraft, are now cast as speculators. It questions whether these onlookers are going to be the next target and victims of this technology.
The question mark at the end of ‘above us only sky?’ ties the story of the Bombed Out Church back again to the trail. The ‘sky above us’ here is because the church was bombed. The conquering of the airways brought an ethereal wonder, the liberating feeling of freedom experienced in a plane. But this process of technological innovation has equally resulted in destruction.'
This project was made possible with support from: