An intellectual with heart
The first exhibition for 20 years devoted to the painter, printmaker and designer reminds Peyton Skipwith of the range and richness of his work
Julian Trevelyan, like his distinguished forebears, combined erudition with a strongly developed social conscience, a mix to which he added a unique artistic vision that was first fostered at Bedales. He went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read english Literature, but abandoned this for art, moving to Paris in 1931.
at Cambridge, Trevelyan had made friends with Kathleen raine, Humphrey Jennings, Malcolm Lowry and William empson and, later, through Lowry, he met Tom Harrison, one of the founders of Mass Observation, a socially conscious scheme to record the lives of workers in selected industrial communities.
in Paris, he studied etching with Stanley William Hayter, who inculcated in him his theory that ‘the etching plate was itself a mode of enquiry’ and that the techniques employed were as important as the oucome.
Hayter also introduced him to Surrealism.
Paris in the early 1930s was a heady mix for an intellectually curious and talented young man; he met many of the greats, including Miró, Max ernst, Picasso, Kokoschka and, perhaps most importantly, alexander Calder—‘a big lovable american schoolboy… who had never quite grown up’. (it was Trevelyan who suggested the term ‘mobiles‘ to describe Calder’s strangely balanced hanging constructions.)
With his eager and enquiring mind, he absorbed and used all these influences and would continue throughout his life to be something of a sponge.
Walking round this exhibition is to encounter echoes, not only of Calder, but also of Klee, Piper, Chagall, Derain, Hitchens, Christopher Wood, the nicholsons and others, including much younger artists, particularly David Hockney, whom he taught at the royal College. However, by some chemistry of his own, these works emerge not as pastiches but uniquely as Trevelyans.
This transmogrification can be explained in part by an inherent playfulness that tempted him to pick up ideas and play with them for the sheer fun of seeing what they had to offer. A gentle humour pervades almost all his art in whatever medium—paint, pen and ink, watercolour, etching, photography or collage—but what unifies it is the fact that, au fond, he was intellectually a cartographer.
The curators, Ariane Bankes and James Scott, have subtly emphasised this quality by juxtaposing two works at the entrance to the exhibition: a large map of an imaginary town, Hurtenham, drawn at the age of seven, and a 1988 oil of pottery kilns at Stoke-on-trent.
Philip Trevelyan recalls his stepmother, Mary Fedden, commenting on his father’s uncanny knack of capturing the exact feel of places they visited and writes that he regards his father’s work as an ‘accumulation of observations, feelings and questions’ and ‘his choice of subject and focus’ as ‘an unusual and personal way of looking at the world’.
A world he loved to explore and chart in much the same spirit with which he had mapped the streets of Hurtenham.
This idiosyncratic quality came strongly to the fore during the late 1930s, when Trevelyan was working with Harrison and Humphrey Spender in Bolton on Mass Observation, as well as on visits to Stoke-on-trent and Ashington Colliery.
‘Ever since I was a small boy,’ he wrote, ‘I’ve preferred painting factory chimneys and smoke… the more chimneys and smoke, in fact, the better.’
The chimneys in one of his gritty photographs, Industrial
Wasteland, find echoes not only in his stark pen drawings and doom-laden oils, but in seductively beautiful collages such as Bolton 1,000,000 Volts and the disturbingly Surrealist Rubbish May Be Shot Here.
His overflowing suitcase of assorted materials for collage, which apparently accompanied him around the streets of Bolton, is included in the exhibition, as is his Hughes & Kimber printing press. The latter became his saviour in 1963, the year he became Head of Printing at the Royal College of Art, when, due to a brain infection, he was, for a period, unable to paint.
A student at the time was the artist/printmaker Norman Ackroyd (some of whose own superb etchings are displayed elsewhere at Pallant House), who describes his teaching as having been a ‘continuous osmosis of encouragement, enthusiasm and joy… To take risks and make mistakes in front of one’s students, rather than regurgitate the textbook techniques, requires a self-confidence and generosity of spirit above the call of duty’.
For 55 years, Trevelyan lived at Durham Wharf, Hammersmith, painting this tidal stretch of the Thames again and again in all its changing moods from a flood of jetsam to ‘a trickle between acres of mud’. Latterly, it was also beneath the Heathrow flightpath, as graphically expressed in his 1971 etching
Home Waters, one of the many recurring fluvial images that punctuate this fascinatingly diverse exhibition.
‘Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World’ is at Pallant House Gallery, 8–9 North Pallant, Chichester, West Sussex, until February 10, 2019 (01243 774557; www.pallant.org.uk) Next week Anglo-saxon Kingdoms at the British Library
‘An inherent playfulness tempted him to pick up ideas’
Trevelyan was always attracted to factory chimneys—‘the more chimneys and smoke, in fact, the better’—as in The Potteries (1938)
Seductive beauty and social commentary: Trevelyan’s 1937 collage Bolton, 1,000,000 Volts
Self-portrait with Mary (1960) shows Trevelyan with his wife, fellow artist Mary Fedden