Is the tide turning for Julian Trevelyan?
Can a new show revive the reputation of an artist who taught Hockney and mingled with Miró, asks Lucy Davies
Until he was six, the first thing Philip Trevelyan would see when he awoke each morning were wriggles of light on the ceiling: reflections from the surface of the Thames. His childhood home was so close to the river that, when the tide was exceptionally high, water would creep in through the cracks between the floorboards and set the rugs afloat.
Philip’s bedroom, wedged into the eaves in a sort of minstrels’ gallery, gave him a view of the room below, in which his parents, the artist Julian Trevelyan (19101988) and the potter Ursula Darwin (1908-2010), slept, lived and worked. A mobile by Julian’s good friend, Alexander Calder, spun in the draught.
At night, if his parents were having a party – and they often were, Julian being, by his own admission, “a bitter-ender” – Philip would look down on to the chattering, smoke-wreathed head of Dylan Thomas, say, or Stanley Spencer. By the mid-Fifties, when he was older (his father had by then remarried, to the artist Mary Fedden, but Philip visited often), he was allowed to join in and, like many a teenager before and since, took to swigging dregs from half-empty glasses.
On a brisk autumn afternoon, I meet Philip – now 75, and a farmer and film-maker – by his childhood home, a collection of small sheds on the Thames near Chiswick. It is a ghost of its former self. Paint is peeling from the peacock-blue doors and windows. The Calder mobile fell down in 2012, spookily soon after Mary died, having outlived Julian by 24 years.
Tall and softly spoken, Philip leads us inside to the motley collection of sofas and chairs that surround a wood-burning stove. Though it has been relieved of its most precious contents (in 2016, a sale was held at Sotheby’s of 90 of Julian’s and Mary’s works, plus some by friends such as Picasso and Henry Moore), Durham Wharf is otherwise untouched since they died. The living room still houses the bed they slept in, their knickknacks and books, a large dining table and Mary’s piano. In the quiet, the room exhales a dusty, turpentine-scented breath, proof of the paintings that were once created here. Of these, more than 100, alongside etchings, letters and sketchbooks, are being exhibited at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, the first time that Julian’s work has been shown in 20 years.
“His life is a bit of a story,” Philip, says, modestly, of a man who, among other things, was a founding member of the British surrealists, helped to gather information for the Mass Observation social anthropology surveys of the late Thirties, experimented with the drug mescaline, supported the Pitmen painters, and taught fledgling artists such as David Hockney and Norman Ackroyd at the Royal College of Art. In Montparnasse, Julian mingled with Picasso, Miró, Calder and Kokoshka, in a scene that he described in his memoir as an “international riff-raff of writers, painters, tarts and scroungers, all speaking together in bad French, [who] floated through the cafes”.
Throughout it all, Julian worked feverishly on his own art, too: undulating landscapes, both real and imagined, painted and etched. Though he spent months at a time in the Middle East, Africa or the Mediterranean, Durham Wharf was the home to which he always returned with joy.
When Julian discovered the property in 1935, it was half derelict, but “the tide was up and gulls flew screaming round us while tugs and sailing dinghies
He belonged to ‘an international riff-raff of writers, painters, tarts and scroungers’