In June 1937 Tom Harrisson wrote to his friend, artist Julian Trevelyan, asking him to join the Mass Observation team in Bolton:
“We have a Scotch Materialist, a Tramp Recorder, a Harpo Marxist and a coalminer in the house at the moment … You must paint some Bolton chimneys; they are like saltmines without the savour … Bolton Art awaits you! You will enjoy it, I swear!”
Julian Trevelyan had been born into a wealthy family and after studying at Trinity College, Cambridge travelled to Paris to pursue his passion for art. He had become increasingly involved in the Surrealist art movement after his return to Britain and was developing his style by experimenting with collage. His artistic pursuits were fuelled by his increasing social concern about the rise of Fascism across Europe. He organised a number of exhibitions to raise money for Republicans fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Trevelyan gives a lively account of his time in Bolton in his autobiography Indigo Days. He describes his arrival in Bolton:
“Tom asked me up to Bolton first of all to paint it, and I set out with him from London one night at ten o’clock to drive there, with Bill Empson in the back. Along the great trunk road we drove, past the streams of lorries, their lights flashing and dipping in the secret language known only to their drivers. At last, about five in the morning, Bill became restless, and we had to stop in a café, so that he should not see the dawn that upset him strangely. We slept for a few hours on the greasy benches and then pounded on in the daylight, arriving at Davenport Street for breakfast. A house like any other in Bolton, it contained a few beds and office desks and an old crone who cooked us bacon and eggs and tea on a smoky grate.”
Harrisson wanted artists to join the Worktown study because he had a strong personal belief that art should be relevant to everyone in society. To this end he persuaded Trevelyan to make his art out in the streets of Bolton. Although Trevelyan did not suffer from Humphrey Spender’s acute sensitivity he was still aware of the social gulf that separated him from the town’s workers and his artistic practice presented practical difficulties:
“At this time I was making collages; I carried a large suit-case full of newspapers, copies, of Picture Post, seed catalogues, old bills, coloured bills and other scraps, together with a pair of scissors, a pot of gum and a bottle of indian ink…. It was awkward, sometimes, in a wind, when my little pieces would fly about, and I was shy of being watched at it; but it was a legitimate way, I think of inviting the god of Chance to lend a hand in painting my picture.”
He made a number of these collages whilst in Bolton, in addition to painting watercolours of the townscape and taking photographs. Harrisson took a reproduction of his collage around the pubs and streets of Bolton to find out what local people thought of it, alongside copies of works by William Coldstream and Graham Bell. The collage produced a strong response, and Harrisson concluded that this showed that everybody was capable of responding to art, regardless of their class.
“The first thing people did when they saw this picture was to stare at it in speechless silence- sometimes for five minutes at a time.”
Trevelyan used photography in Bolton as both a guide for paintings and as an art form in its own right. Bolton Museum holds around 60 photographic prints by him, but we are not certain that they all were taken for Mass Observation. They include images taken in Bolton, Blackpool and during MO’s visit to the Pitmen Painters in Ashington, Northumberland.
Although he was using a similar type of rangefinder camera as Humphrey Spender Trevelyan’s photographic style is quite different. His photographs show the influence of Surrealism on his art at the time as he picks out quirky details of the landscape. Unlike Spender, who felt a social responsibility to communicate factual detail straightforwardly in his photographs, Trevelyan could place his subject matter secondary to structure of the image itself. He produced some striking cropped compositions emphasising the noise of Blackpool’s beach front adverts.
Whilst in Blackpool Trevelyan also produced written observations with his then wife, Ursula. They were asked to record details of sexual activity on the beach at night, and pretended to be drunk as they stumbled amongst amorous couples under the pier. Despite Blackpool’s licentious reputation they found that night time activity was mostly “of a very pure and innocent kind”.
Julian Trevelyan also joined Mass Observation’s return visit to Bolton in 1960. Following this trip he made a series of prints of Bolton scenes including the Market Hall. These prints can be viewed with other works produced by Julian Trevelyan and held in the Worktown Archive by arrangement at Bolton Museum.