Painter, printmaker, teacher and writer, Julian Trevelyan enlivened twentieth-century British art through his varied assimilation of elements of French avant-garde approaches – not only the dreamlike and childlike aspects of Surrealism, but also the decorative colourism of Matisse and Bonnard. Julian Trevelyan was born in Leith Hill, Surrey, on 20 February 1910, the only surviving child of the classical scholar and poet, Robert Calverley Trevelyan, and his Dutch wife, Elizabeth (née Des Amorie van der Hoeven). His paternal grandfather, Sir George Trevelyan, and his uncle, George Macaulay Trevelyan, were both distinguished historians.
Julian Trevelyan was educated at Bedales School, in Hampshire, before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1928, to study English. While at Cambridge, he became a member of a group of students who produced the magazine, Experiment, to promote an interest in Modernism. The magazine published his text devoted to dreams, in which he stated that ‘to dream is to create’. His friends within the group included Humphrey Jennings, who encouraged him to look at French painting, and particularly the work of the Surrealist, André Masson.
As a result, he left Cambridge in 1930, in order to study painting.
Moving to Paris later in 1930, Trevelyan rented a studio in Montparnasse. Initially, he joined the Académie Moderne, run by Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant. However, he soon transferred to S W Hayter’s printmaking workshop (later known as Atelier 17), and there received a thorough training. While still in Paris, in 1932, he held the first of two joint shows with Robin Darwin at the Bloomsbury Gallery, which introduced his work to the London public. The second took place in 1934, following his return to England. In that year, he married Darwin’s sister, Ursula, who was a potter. A decade later, in 1943, she gave birth to their only child, Philip, who would become a filmmaker.
In 1935, Trevelyan and his wife moved to Durham Wharf, Hammersmith, which would remain his home and studio for the rest of his life (and become the venue for his famous annual Boat Race parties). There he developed a distinctive approach to Surrealism, which was revealed, in 1935, in the first of the seven solo shows that he held at the Lefèvre Galleries. In 1936, he joined the English Surrealist Group, and had three works selected, by Roland Penrose, for the ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’, at the New Burlington Galleries.
Trevelyan had his consciousness raised, politically and sociologically, through his early membership of two organisations. The Artists’ International Association was founded in 1933, in reaction to the spread of Fascism, while Mass-Observation was formed in 1937 (by Trevelyan’s friend, Humphrey Jennings, among others), to document ordinary life and beliefs. In participating in the latter, he spent time in Bolton and Blackpool, observing the scene, taking photographs and producing works of art, including industrial landscapes in collage and paint.
Early in the Second World War, in 1940, Trevelyan became a Camouflage Officer in the Royal Engineers, and served in North Africa and Palestine. When providing the personal information that would be inscribed on his identity disc, he declared his religion to be Surrealism. Three years later, in 1943, he was invalided out of the army on psychiatric grounds. On returning to painting, he took a fresh approach that, in its looser handling and brighter palette, revealed his admiration for the work of Bonnard. His new work was shown at the Galerie de France, in Paris, in 1947, and in his last exhibition at the Lefèvre Galleries, in London, in 1948. In the same year, he joined the London Group, becoming its Vice-President in 1956, and remaining a member until 1963.
It was also in the late 1940s that Trevelyan discovered that his wife, Ursula, had fallen in love with a young Belgian sculptor, Norman Mommens. Though Trevelyan had agreed with Ursula that they would conduct a fairly open relationship, and had also engaged in affairs himself, he had not expected that such behaviour would lead to the break-up of his marriage. Following his separation from Ursula early in 1949, he took an extended trip to Sicily with his friend and fellow artist, Mary Fedden, and while there fell in love with her. On their return to London, she joined him at Durham Wharf, and in 1951 they married. He published a memoir of his early life, entitled Indigo Days, in 1957.
During the 1950s, Trevelyan essayed a new style, in which areas of flat colour were bounded by firm outlines. While this was partly inspired by the work of Matisse, it grew more profoundly out of his engagement with etching. He taught printmaking at both Chelsea School of Art (1950-60) and the Royal College of Art (1955-63, becoming a Senior Fellow in 1986), and published the manual, Etching, with Studio Books in 1963. The development of this style was charted in solo shows at Gimpel Fils (1950), the Redfern Gallery (1952) and St George’s Gallery (1959) and in six exhibitions at the Zwemmer Gallery (1955-67). A retrospective mounted by the New Grafton Gallery in 1977, was the first of four shows that he held there. Later retrospectives were held at the Bohun Gallery, Henley, in 1983 (specifically of prints), and Waterman’s Art Centre, Brentford, in 1986. His achievement as an artist was marked by his election as an Honorary Senior Royal Academician in 1986.