Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and his World
[ Artist in Focus )
Co-curator of the first comprehensive retrospective exhibition of the artist Julian Trevelyan in over 20 years, Ariane Bankes charts the artist’s life as a surrealist, traveller and painter of everyday life.
The exhibition Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and his World took place at Pallant House Gallery in 2018.
Julian Trevelyan (1910–88) was a far more substantial artist than has hitherto been properly recognised or celebrated. Painter, etcher, lithographer, sometime sculptor, and designer of his own striking book jackets – for he wrote several books as well – across these media he created an important and original body of work that touched on Expressionism and Surrealism in the 1930s and was indebted to European modernism, yet was entirely his own. He developed this by ceaseless experimentation throughout his life. In his early twenties he abandoned his degree course at Cambridge to pursue the life of the artist in Paris, where he worked alongside many of the great artists of the day, Alexander Calder, André Masson, Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti among them, absorbing their spirit of innovation and their restless desire to present the world anew. Until his final year he was creating images that startle in their vivid contemporaneity: the machinery of the modern world fascinated him to the last.
Holy Ganges is currently on display in our exhibition Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking.
Trevelyan was predisposed to engage with the intellectual currents of his time by an insatiable curiosity and a cultured family background. His father Robert (brother of the historian G.M. Trevelyan) was a poet, classicist and bibliophile on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group. Throughout his childhood Julian would have heard the passionate discussions of his father’s friends, philosophers Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, art historian Bernard Berenson, and writers Desmond MacCarthy and Lytton Strachey among them.
Although the Trevelyan family lived in rural Surrey, Julian was fascinated from an early age by engines and mechanical engineering. Fortuitously, his grandparents lived at Wallington Hall in Northumberland and on regular family visits on the Great Northern Railway he would be transfixed by the gritty urban landscapes of Doncaster, Durham and Newcastle through which they passed: rows of terraced houses, belching chimneys, factories, cranes, engines and bridges that conjured up another world. Between the ages of nine and twelve, Julian invented and mapped an entire industrial northern town which he called Hurtenham, then created a guide to the town and a magazine to follow the fortunes of its inhabitants. Never has this wonderfully complex and detailed town plan and its accompanying guide been displayed in public, until now.
Going up to Trinity College, Cambridge to read English Literature, Julian, ever gregarious, spent his time in the company of precociously talented peers – Jacob Bronowski, Malcolm Lowry, Kathleen Raine and Humphrey Jennings – many of whom became friends for life. This lively and avant-garde group were all involved in the literary review Experiment, founded in 1928 by William Empson, who would go on to publish his seminal work of criticism Seven Types of Ambiguity in 1930. Experiment celebrated ‘ambiguity’ and the idea of the savage, untutored eye untethered to reason that was central to the Surrealist movement developing in Paris under the watchful eye of André Breton. It was to pursue the tantalising potential offered by the Surrealist method, and what he saw as his true calling as an artist, that Julian left Cambridge’s hive of poetry, debate and politics in 1931 to launch himself as a painter in Paris.
To Julian, Paris in the 1930s ‘felt as though it were the workshop where the future of painting was being beaten out’. This was where he flexed his muscles as an artist, pursuing a growing interest in the subconscious mind in Surrealist works that veered between the playful and the menacing. Riot in the Studio depicts the merry mayhem of dancing forms unleashed from the constraints of figuration, and the haunting Figure (After Piero della Francesca) derived from a vision he recorded during an early love affair. Many of his works from this period were executed both in oil and as prints; the medium of etching allowed him to parse the many influences crowding in on him into a linear mode of expression. In his series of dream cities such as Palace of Dreams or Babylon, precarious scaffolds painted, etched or incised on slate, evoke the work of his contemporaries Max Ernst or Paul Klee, but the poetry and mystery of their iconography is Trevelyan’s own.
His involvement with Stanley Hayter’s celebrated and experimental print workshop Atelier 17 had a profound impact upon his work. Hayter continually pushed the medium in new directions, and Trevelyan revelled in the possibilities this experimentation offered him. He remained an unorthodox and innovative print-maker throughout his life, always eager to try out a new technique, to make use of materials such as gauze, netting or lace to create unusual textural effects. This not only resulted in a wonderfully fresh and original body of work of his own, but would inspire generations of students at the Royal College of Art, where he was to head the print-making department from 1956–63, and where future printmakers such as David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj and Norman Ackroyd were among his talented students.
Back in London in 1934, Julian married the young potter Ursula Darwin. Walking along the Thames at Hammersmith one day, they stumbled upon a cluster of buildings overlooking the river called Durham Wharf, consisting of a derelict warehouse and the former studio of the sculptor Eric Kennington. There they settled, creating working spaces with kiln and printing press, and Julian was to remain there for the rest of his life, painting the river in all its moods and tides and weathers, and creating first with Ursula and then with his second wife, the painter Mary Fedden, a lively meeting place for artists, writers, and bohemians of all stripes. Their Boat Race parties became legendary, as did their regular Studio Open Days, the conviviality and generosity of their hospitality never flagging.
Trevelyan’s lifelong fascination with cities and their industrial life came into its own when, in 1937, he was invited by his friends Humphrey Jennings, Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson to take part in their new Mass Observation project in the north of England. The months he spent in Bolton and Stoke-on-Trent, and his encounter with the Ashington miners (now better known as the Pitman Painters) inspired a powerful series of collages and paintings of the industrial north. Often surreal in inspiration, collages such as Rubbish May be Shot Here wittily incorporated allusions to contemporary politics and popular culture. Paintings from this time were darkly expressive portrayals of life in the Potteries and northern towns during the Depression, polemical yet deeply personal in their evocation of poverty and deprivation.
During the war, Trevelyan worked in an army camouflage unit, and our 2018 exhibition included paintings he made on trips to Africa and the Middle East. Travel was to continue to form a huge part of his life with Mary Fedden, whom he met in 1948 and married in 1951. They fell in love on holiday in Sardinia, and thereafter journeyed all over the world together, returning again and again to the Mediterranean, and venturing as far afield as Moscow and New York, Julian recording their impressions in powerfully graphic works in print and paint. His busy, decorative watercolours from Kano and Freetown in South Africa during the war contrast with the bold stylised skyscrapers of Manhattan painted in the early 1980s, in the last decade of his life. In his etchings he was particularly adept at eliciting the underlying patterns of what he saw: he had a genius for distilling the complicated, messy details of reality into pure lines and planes of colour, creating images of almost childlike naivety that nevertheless get to the heart of what he saw.
Settling back into Durham Wharf after the war, Trevelyan also found a new lyricism in paintings of his beloved river Thames, its tides, its mud banks, the Chiswick Eyot (or island) across the water from the studio, the various boats that marked the passing hours, the waterfowl whose cries filled his life. In these works as much as any other, Trevelyan’s original vision was informed by an imagination that wittily and effortlessly transformed the everyday into the unworldly.
Why mount an exhibition of Trevelyan’s work in 2018? It was twenty years since The Imaginative Impulse, the last full-scale retrospective at the Royal College of Art, held just a decade after his death. His relative lack of recognition today is due to several factors, his own modesty and diffidence in later years being one of them. The fact that he was constantly innovating throughout his long life – from Surrealism to raw social observation in the industrial north, to the more lyrical work of later years – means that his work cannot be neatly labelled, and the extraordinary success and popularity of Mary Fedden’s art perhaps overshadowed his output after his death in 1988. We felt that the time was ripe to rediscover the full range and richness of his oeuvre, at the time when Trevelyan’s and Fedden’s studio-home at Durham Wharf is being redeveloped by the Turner Prize-winning architects’ collective Assemble into a set of artists’ studios. Their opening in 2020-21 continued the creative enterprise that defined Durham Wharf for half a century while Trevelyan and Fedden lived and worked there, surrounding themselves with painters, musicians, writers and designers.