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Julian Trevelyan, ‘The Absentee Pig’

by Liz Walker, Volunteer Guide

It is hard to imagine any painter, other than JulianTrevelyan (1910-1988), painting 'The Absentee Pig'. It has an originality and quirkiness, combined with a feeling of enchantment which is almost child-like in its exuberance. He wrote: “I had been looking at some Russian engravings of debtors escaping from creditors through chimneys. I painted several canvasses on the same theme. One, I remember, was called 'Poet escaping the Call-up'. I was then rather influenced by Chagall. I suppose the idea behind this painting is no more than that a pig in his sty longs for freedom, and that this is a kind of dream of his.”

In fact, the painting is rather more than this, for Trevelyan was a remarkable man - gregarious, enthusiastic and with a gift for friendship. But he was also capable of a deep despair and depression and such a time was when 'The Absentee Pig' was painted. By the outbreak of the Second World War, Trevelyan had managed to pack more into his 29 years than most people pack into a lifetime. At Cambridge, he became interested in Surrealism, eventually deciding to abandon university and move to Paris to become an artist. Here, he enrolled in S.W. Hayter's Atelier 17, where he learnt the techniques of etching, and met Miro, Max Ernst, Giacometti, and Picasso.

He returned to London in 1934, buying Durham Wharf on the Thames the following year which remained his home and inspiration for the rest of his life. He shared it first with Ursula Mommens, the potter and then with his second wife, Mary Fedden, whom he married in 1951. In 1936, he exhibited at the International Surreal Exhibition, and a year later he became involved with Mass Observation, painting industrial scenes in Bolton and the Potteries. He said of this period that he 'found' himself as a painter, and was able to leave the “various clichés of Surrealism and Abstraction” and “to paint the things I cared about in the way I felt them”.

When war broke out he joined the Industrial Camouflage Unit and served as a camouflage officer with the Royal Engineers. Trevelyan was ideal for the job as it required imagination, ingenuity, originality -the pill box made to look like a ruined cottage, the lorry transformed into a tank. But in truth, it was an alien way of life; he came from a pacifist background and had a detestation of things military. It was in this spirit, surely, that he painted 'The Absentee Pig', for it was not only the pig that longed for freedom but he himself who longed to be free of the army and its constraints.

Shortly afterwards, he was invalided out of the army and was able to pick up the threads of his former life. As a painter, etcher and lecturer he continued to give lasting pleasure and delight to all those who saw his work.