My Favourite Painting: Philip Trevelyan

Potteries (Clay Pits), 1939, 251/2in by 36in, by Julian Trevelyan (1910–88), private collection

Philip Trevelyan says:
‘I love this picture for its wind-blown atmosphere and for the poetic way in which its colours, patterns and details record a way of life only recently come to an end. Here, amid the terraced houses and smoking bottle kilns, we see the clay itself, which was, of course, the “lifeblood” of the whole pottery community. We see the different colours of the clay layers, and the little railway line spiralling down to the circular holes where the new clay is being dug. My enjoyment of it probably has something to do with my mother, Ursula Mommens, having been a potter. It also reminds me of a film I made about George Curtis of Littlethorpe near Ripon. He was a country potter and used to dig his clay from a deep hole in the ground.’

Philip Trevelyan is a documentary film-maker, sheep farmer and author.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Julian Trevelyan’s grandfather and uncle—the historian G. M. Trevelyan—were both OMs, and his childhood Surrey home was a haven for Cambridge intellectuals and First World War pacifists. The contrast with the industrial North, glimpsed on train journeys when visiting his grandparents at Wallington Hall in Northumberland, could hardly have been greater and made a powerful impression. So did Wallington’s mural Iron and Coal by the 19th century artist William Bell Scott, and its flaring night skies lit by the far-off Consett steelworks.

Trevelyan’s boyhood drawings reflect a fascination with this mighty, unknown, world. After Bedales and Cambridge, he chose to be an artist and went to train in Paris. ‘I hope you’re not going to meet one of those Matisse’s or Picasso’s was his famous uncle’s only comment. Trevelyan made a point of meeting them all and was especially influenced by Surrealism. Returning to England in the mid 1930s, he fully exploited his fascination with industry as a member of Mass Observation, an anthropological survey of everyday British life, beginning with the working class of industrial Bolton.

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His first wife, the potter Ursula Darwin (later Mommens), was related to the Wedgwoods and it was Trevelyan’s sight of Stoke-on-Trent’s ‘smoking kilns, like so many monstrous bottles, the canals, the gaping chasms from which the clay had been extracted’ that first inspired him to paint his ‘own pictures without trying to please anyone but myself’. The film-maker Philip Trevelyan is their son and his monograph Julian Trevelyan: Picture Language (Lund Humphries, £40) will be launched at the exhibition of the same name at Bohun Gallery, Henley-on-Thames, April 23 to June 1 (01491 576228;’

This article was first published in Country Life, April 17, 2013