Tony Philpott, 1938-2014
14 February 2014
Generations of Bristol Geography staff and students will learn with sadness of the death in January of Tony Philpott at the age of 75. Emeritus Professor Peter Haggett offers a tribute.
Tony was a member of the University technical staff for 38 years and senior photographer in the Department of Geography for the last three decades. He took early retirement (caused by the onset of Parkinson’s Disease) in 1996.
Robert Anthony Philpott was born in Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol, in 1938. His mother was Kathleen Philpott (nee Bond) and Tony sometimes claimed (accurately) to bemused students to be ‘a grandson of James Bond’. Kathleen was a Bristol University graduate and among the first generation of girls to be housed in the newly-built Manor Hall in Clifton (She was later to play a leading role in the Manor Hall Society, the Alumni Society, and Convocation). Tony attended Badminton School and then Bristol Cathedral School before going on to study at the Bristol Technical College. In 1958 he joined the University as a junior technician in the Department of Pharmacology, working for part of his time at the laboratory housed in Bracken Hill within the old University Botanic Garden.
In 1962 he transferred back to the main University precinct as a member of the Faculty of Arts photographic unit, where he took a special interest in work for the History of Art Department. He also began to act as semi-official photographer to Convocation, a role he retained for many decades. When Graham Hutt, the Department of Geography’s photographer, moved to McMaster University in Canada in 1966, Tony was appointed to the ensuing vacancy by Professor Peel. For the next 30 years, Tony was the senior photographer in the Department. During that time he created thousands of teaching slides for a succession of academic staff and caught the likeness of many hundreds of students and graduate students. His records remain the focus of alumni events in the Department.
In research he co-operated closely with Simon Godden, the senior cartographer, and their joint work for a succession of staff members was to appear in scientific journals and monographs around the world. Tony developed specialisms in underground photographic work in caves as part of the Department’s speleological research and he was a longstanding and highly-valued member of the Mendip Cave Rescue Team. During his period the technologies of both photography and cartography were transformed by the digital revolution and Tony oversaw a smooth transition from optical to computerized photography. In a small department where tasks often had to be spread, he was always willing to pull more than his share of any wider load. For decades he was a leading light of the Department’s skittle team, the ‘Travellers’.
Outside work, Tony had a wide variety of interests. He was a founding member of a university philatelic group and shared his mother’s interests in Bristol, both its archaeology and its history. He was increasingly involved in the affairs of his local church, and as a Scout Master he played a major part in building up and sustaining the Scouting movement in Bristol. His special interest was overseas scouting links, notably with the Baltic states where he forged close links with the Lithuanian Scouts Organization and received one of their highest awards. Despite recurrent health problems, he refused to let these get in the way of his sporting interests. His passion for, and skills in, white-water canoeing and kayaking landed him in many scrapes. As active participation decreased, he continued to serve the sport as a judge at Olympic level at both national and international events.
But by 1996, the progression of his Parkinson’s Disease enforced early retirement. After his mother’s death, Tony moved from the family home in King’s Road to St Monica’s on the Downs. Here he met his increasing frailty with courage and with stoicism. Although often wheelchair-bound he never lost his sense of humour. At our last meeting at St Monica’s he recalled with gusto several Department characters and re-told a sample of those interminable shaggy-dog stories which were his speciality and which enlivened (and lengthened) visits to the Departmental dark room.
Tony was a warm, much-respected colleague whose loyal dedication and skill served the Department and University well. His good humour and ability to see life as a comedy warmed all those lucky enough to know him. He will be remembered with affection and with respect. He was proud that his mother was one of the first recipients of the Convocation Medal for her outstanding services to the University graduate body and asked that his ashes should be buried in the grounds of Manor Hall close to hers.