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How Julian Trevelyan made an art of everyday life

15 October 2018

This autumn, Julian Trevelyan (1910–88) is to be celebrated in an extensive exhibition of paintings, collages and prints at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (‘Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World; 6 October–10 February 2019). The artist, who left Cambridge University prematurely in 1931 and went to Paris to become a painter, made a major contribution to Surrealism in Britain after his return in 1934 – and was later to be an influential teacher, becoming Head of the Etching Department at the Royal College of Art in the 1950s. He was also the artist most closely involved with the beginning of the Mass Observation movement, which was founded by, among others, a young anthropologist called Tom Harrisson.

Trevelyan probably first met Harrisson in the autumn of 1936. Harrisson had just returned from the New Hebrides where he had spent two years studying the behaviour of cannibals. He had settled in Bolton to investigate the lives of mill workers and miners. Harrisson sent a long poem called ‘Coconut Moon’, about the culinary habits of the South Sea cannibals, to the New Statesman, which was published on 2 January 1937. As he reread it in Bolton Public Library, Harrisson noticed a letter on the same page, ‘Anthropology at Home’, by the poet Charles Madge.

Harrisson got in touch with Madge; by the end of the month, a further letter, signed by Harrisson, Madge and the film-maker Humphrey Jennings, and lamenting the lack of the science of everyday life in modern society, announced the foundation of Mass Observation – a group of painters, poets and film-makers who intended to form a new ‘science of ourselves […] which would involve a mass recording and cataloguing of public opinion’. The group included Jennings, Kathleen Raine and William Empson, all of whom had been close friends of Trevelyan at Cambridge. Its purpose, as later described by Raine, was to be ‘an expression of both the national consciousness and the unconscious fears and wishes of the mass […] to record the routines and rituals, the paraphernalia and symbols of everyday life […] the subliminal stirrings of the collective mind of the nation.’           

There were at the outset two headquarters: an 18th-century house in Blackheath, where Madge and Raine lived and where Jennings was to help, and a ‘two up and two down’ in Bolton, where Harrisson was living. In the summer of 1937, Harrisson wrote to Trevelyan: ‘Bolton awaits you. You will enjoy it, I swear!’ Trevelyan drove up with Empson one night in July to stay with Harrisson. Empson was soon sent to record the contents of a sweet shop.

Trevelyan set to work, painting and taking photographs. He started to use collage to great effect, sitting in the street to record the scene before him, with a suitcase containing ‘newspapers, copies of Picture Post, seed catalogues, old bills, coloured papers and other scraps, together with a pair of scissors, a pot of gum and a bottle of Indian ink’. He noted that, ‘The people who lived there had probably never seen a painter […] It was awkward sometimes in a wind when my little pieces would fly about and I was shy of being watched.’ Trevelyan’s use of collage owed much to Max Ernst, whom he had worked alongside in Paris.

The Potteries (1938), Julian Trevelyan.

The Potteries (1938), Julian Trevelyan. Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. © The Julian Trevelyan Estate

Over the next months, Trevelyan also visited the towns surrounding Bolton. On one return trip to London, he spent a few days in the Potteries, where he abandoned collage and returned to painting in oils, which he found very liberating. (He also took many photographs, as did Humphrey Spender, the brother of the poet Stephen Spender, who was working as a roving reporter for the Daily Mirror.) Other painters including William Coldstream and Graham Bell were also asked by Harrisson to visit Bolton to help with Mass Observation. As Coldstream recorded, ‘the slump made me aware of social problems and I became convinced that art should be directed towards a wider public. It seemed to me important that the broken communications between the artist and the public should be built up again.’ But he was a shy and reclusive man: in Bolton he painted from remote sites, such as the roof of the art gallery, so that he could not be observed.

Although greatly encouraged by his art teacher at Bedales School, Innes ‘Gigi’ Meo, Trevelyan had received little formal training as a painter and was always interested in the work of untrained artists. He was drawn to the works of amateurs, recording that their work ‘filled me with doubt about the value of professionalism in painting; they expressed themselves with so much more “sayfulness” (a favourite word of Tom Harrisson) than most of the exhibitors at the London Group or the Royal Academy.’

It was little surprise, then, that he became anxious to see the work of miners in Ashington – about 150 miles north-east of Bolton – who had formed a group that met every Monday evening to paint. (Trevelyan had a close affinity with this part of northern England; his uncle had been MP for Newcastle Central.) The Ashington Group received occasional instruction from Robert Lyon, a lecturer at King’s College, Newcastle, who did not teach them perspective, balance or colour theory, but encouraged them to paint using natural skill. In 1936, he had arranged an exhibition of their work at Armstrong College, Newcastle.

Harrisson visited Lyon, sensing that the Ashington Group was well placed to establish a north-eastern division of Mass Observation, being on the spot, motivated and authentic. In September 1938, Harrisson and Trevelyan stayed for a week in Ashington with the leader of the group, George Brown, a painter and joiner. As well as meeting many members of the group, they were taken down a coal mine to see the reality of life at the coal face.

A further exhibition, ‘Unprofessional Painting’, was mounted a few weeks later in an educational centre in Gateshead (it later travelled to London and Glasgow). The gallery owner Lucy Wertheim lent paintings by Alfred Wallis, and Trevelyan, Roland Penrose and others lent paintings by untutored artists they admired, such as Louis Vivin (a retired French postman), Henry Stockley (a Green Line bus driver) and David Burton (a pavement artist). Some 50 paintings and about 12 sculptures by the miners were also shown. The paintings by Wallis were priced at £5 and those of the Ashington Group £2 – the average weekly wage of a miner at the time.

Much of the work of Mass Observation was contracted into the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. Its extensive archives are held by the University of Sussex. Mass Observation had not only been about recording, however; for the group’s leading figures, it was a way of exploring what it might mean to be an artist at a time of national uncertainty. ‘For Trevelyan, Harrisson, Madge and Jennings,’ wrote Kathleen Raine in 1974, in a commentary to a suite of drawings by Trevelyan, ‘Mass Observation was precariously poised between left wing politics and an almost visionary search for the oracular self’.

James Scott is the author of The Sculpture of Kenneth Armitage (Lund Humphries). He is co-curator, with Ariane Bankes, of ‘Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World’ at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (until 10 February 2019).

From the October 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here