Julian Trevelyan, ‘Untitled’, ca. 1937, Osborne Samuel

In his entertaining autobiography Indigo Days, covering the decisive early days of a distinctive and rich career, the highly imaginative British painter Julian Trevelyan wrote about the contrasting Jekyll and Hyde sides to his artistic character. This dichotomy related to the palatable neo-romantic imagery on the one hand and the more challenging and disquieting surreal content on the other. In the introduction to Indigo Days, scripted by one of Trevelyan’s later critical champions, the writer Nicholas Usherwood, the artist is referred to as, “a somewhat reluctant surrealist in the 1930s” who felt the “need to work along several parallel and contradictory artistic paths”1 at one and the same time.

Whilst Bedales and Cambridge educated Trevelyan never went to art college and so remained “blissfully free of academic artistic inhibitions”, Usherwood was also able to detect that Trevelyan’s true visual education came about,“haphazardly, from watching, at first hand, the great contemporary masters in Paris”2. These included Picasso, Miro, Calder, as well as a clutch of minor names encountered at S.W. Hayter’s renowned Atelier 17 etching studio in Paris where his induction into intaglio printmaking later lead to his teaching printmaking to Hockney and many others at the RCA in London.

Trevelyan’s appearance on the late 1930s avant-garde stage coincided with the great International Surrealist Exhibition mounted by Roland Penrose and Herbert Read at the new Burlington Galleries in London in 1936. Three works by Trevelyan were included in this international razzmatazz. ‘Untitled’ is typical of Trevelyan’s early surrealistic work, showing a Miro-esque whimsicality linking it to the Pompidou Centre’s Siesta or Head of a Catalan Peasant (1925) in the Penrose collection. It was produced the year after the big surrealist show when Trevelyan, long returned from Paris, was settled at his Thames-side home ‘Durham Wharf’ in Chiswick where he would remain for the rest of his life.

The work’s title is paradoxical since the composition is made up of the three initials of his full name Julian Otto Trevelyan. The enigmatic letterpress J and T contrasts with the large hand painted circle, itself containing a small painted grey disc. Small red and black diamonds, surely derived from playing cards, and a feather-like dark blue gestural streak of paint complete this mysterious picture, a putative self portrait in the manner of Robert Motherwell’s later The Homely Protestant. The surrealist ‘coin’ contains a literary, symbolic, and figurative face and a flipside altogether more abstract and plastic in intention. The present work, whilst encompassing a little of both sides, perhaps veers to the latter, highlighting Usherwood’s contention that Trevelyan’s career was, “among the more original contributions by a British artist to the more abstract vein of surrealism in the 1930s.”3
Peter Davies

  1. Usherwood, Nicholas. Introduction to Indigo Days, 2nd ed., p. 14, 1996, London, MacGibbon and Kee
  2. Ibid, p. 15
  3. Ibid, p. 17

About Julian Trevelyan