The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
Home > On-line Edition > Biography

Philip William May, 1864-1903

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 1864.04.24
Place of Birth: 66 Wallace Street, New Wortley, Leeds
Date of Death: 1903.08.05
Place of Death: Medina Place, St John's Wood, London


Philip ('Phil') William May was a draftsman, caricaturist and illustrator. He was seventh child of Philip William May, an engineer, and his mother, the daughter of the Irish actor Eugene Macarthy, who was manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1883 he married Sarah Elizabeth Emerson.


May was a cartoonist, greatly influenced by Edward Linley Sambourne, whose work was admired by JW. He began his career as a scene painter, actor and pantomime costume designer, and contributed drawings to the Yorkshire Gossip, before he was 'discovered' by the actor Lionel Brough and worked for Society and St Stephen's Review. In Australia from 1885 to 1888 he contributed to the Sydney Bulletin. He then moved to Paris to study art. By 1890 he had returned to London and was anxious to join JW's Chelsea Arts Club (#09323). He was elected in 1891. In 1891/1892 he drew a caricature of an elf-like Ruskin stamping on JW's head, entitled, 'On the Brain - Mr Whistler' which was published in Pick-Me-Up on 9 January 1892. In 1892 in Paris JW and his wife Beatrix bought May's The Parson and the Painter (1892). Beatrix described it as 'an interesting work' (#10963). May himself bought a couple of lithographs by JW from the Fine Art Society in 1895.

From 1892 to 1903 May produced Phil May's Winter Annual, which established his reputation as a caricaturist of Bohemian life and urban culture. He also worked for the Daily Graphic, Graphic, Illustrated London News, Sketch, Punch, English Illustrated Magazine and Pick-Me-Up. In 1895 he published Phil May's Sketch Book: Fifty Cartoons and in 1896 Guttersnipes: Fifty Original Sketches.

In 1896 May was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and was appointed Chair of Punch. By the mid to late 1890s JW and May had become good friends (see #08512). Both were members of the Society of Illustrators. In 1895 both men were asked to contribute to the Society's London Garland (#04574). JW declared: 'I take great delight in Phil May - Certainly his work interests me far more than that of any man since Charles Keene - from whom he is quite distinct' (#02993). According to JW, modern black and white could be summed up by Phil May's name. A cartoon portrait by 'Spy' appeared in Vanity Fair in 1895.


Phil May's Sketches from Punch, London, 1903; Phil May's Picture Book, preface by G. R. Halkett, London, 1903; Phil May's Medley, London, 1904, Phil May's Folio of Caricature Drawings and Sketches, London, 1904; Phil May in Australia, London, 1904; The Phil May Folio, London, 1904; E. V. L., 'Philip William May', 1912, Dictionary of National Biography Online, Oxford, 1997 (accessed 24 March 2004); Thorpe, J., Phil May: Master-Draughtsman and Humorist 1864-1903, London, 1932; Robertson, A., Drawings by Phil May, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Gallery, 1975; De Freitas, Leo John, 'Phil May', Grove Dictionary of Art Online, Oxford, 2003, (accessed 24 March 2004).