Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan
Life and Art by the River Thames
London: Unicorn Press, 2012
Hardcover. 208 p. ISBN 978-1906509118. £25.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Gould
Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3
Journalist José Manser’s biography of the Fedden-Trevelyan couple provides a fascinating insight into their lives together and the way they managed two discrete artistic careers while constantly supporting one another, creating a perfect environment by the Thames for their many creative friends and fostering the talent of younger painters and etchers through their financial generosity and their teaching at the Royal College of Art, the Chelsea School of Art and the Yehudi Menuhin School. Both artists are famous in their own right. Mary Fedden (1915-2012) was a very (too?) prolific painter of still-lifes using bold contrasting colours to set off beautiful or quirky objects against either British or foreign landscapes encountered during her many travels abroad. This combination of modernist boldness and cosy British domesticity made her very popular and she was given solo exhibitions almost every year from the 1950s onwards, as well as commissions for several murals, notably in 1951 for the Festival of Britain . She was the first woman ever to teach painting at the RCA. In 1992, she was elected as Senior (because she was over 75) Royal Academician  and five years later was given an OBE. Julian Trevelyan quit Cambridge to study print in Paris. Money and social standing had been bestowed upon him at birth thanks to his illustrious aristocratic family  whose history has been recounted in Laura Trevelyan’s 2006 book A very British Family. Trevelyan College at Durham University had for example been named after his uncle, historian G.M. Trevelyan . He was briefly a Surrealist, and although he eventually resigned the movement, he always felt his work had been enriched by his having belonged to it . In 1937, he joined the Mass Observation project through his friend Humphrey Jennings , and in 1950 he was elected a member of the London Group . These different associations define him as an important actor of the post-WW2 British art scene. But while Mary excelled at painting, he was considered to be much more successful at etching. He became a Royal Academician in 1987.
While it stresses these accomplishments, Manser’s double biography does not focus on an analysis of the art itself. The book is beautifully illustrated, providing 46 illustrations of works or personal archive, but what the author is interested in is the artists’ backgrounds, the almost forty years they spent together and the way Mary Fedden, Manser’s neighbour in Chiswick, kept Julian Trevelyan’s memory alive after he died and went on being productive while her reputation steadily grew. The approach is therefore an affective one rather than an art-historical one, although the phenomenon of the artist couple is of course worthy of art-historical interest. Especially so since, in their case, no spouse was left to work in the shadow of the other, even though they might have taken turns being the most successful of the pair. As the title suggests, the book also offers a compelling mapping of modernist London with Durham Wharf appearing as a locus of inspiration, a place of hard work as well as socialising. After the war, Trevelyan and his first wife, the potter Ursula Darwin, had opened The Picture Loan Gallery there, where works could be hired for a relatively small sum . After they were divorced and Mary had come to live in the same studio-cum-home, Julian and Mary held yearly open days and boat race parties , which meant they had to find a balance between work and talking to the many visitors drawn to the warm atmosphere of their studio. The couple was very generous with the money they earned and had inherited, as is demonstrated by the way they devised the sharing of Durham Wharf with other artists: they developed a group of houses on Julian’s land, the long leases of which they intended to sell to young artists without including the value of the land – and therefore without making a profit. Unfortunately, most of the houses ended up being bought up by wealthy artists or by non-artists . But Mary’s involvement with the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution towards the end ofher life was another, more successful, example of their generosity.
Manser thus chooses to celebrate two extraordinary personalities and the day-to-day compromises needed when two artists work alongside. And yet, this is no hagiography, because some of the darker elements (though they are few) have not been swept under the carpet, although some details make for uncomfortable reading, especially those concerning Trevelyan’s doomed affair with Peggy Guggenheim . Still, all the personal anecdotes eventually draw a bigger picture which comes as a refreshing contrast to drier and more chronological accounts of the history and actors of British Modernism. The “influx of exceptional students”  Fedden and Trevelyan taught at the RCA included R.B. Kitaj, Allen Jones, Patrick Caulfield and David Hockney, to whom the couple were an inspiration. Julian was instrumental in modernising the Royal Academy which had suffered in the wake of the Munnings brouhaha. The couple’s many travels abroad also revitalised many of the British motifs they were fond of, and concurrently British painting and etching in general.
This endearing account of Life and Art by the River Thames charts the joys and trials of a couple dedicated to their art and to one another and takes us behind the scenes of the grand narrative of Modernism. Many important art-historical events are mentioned – the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries organised by Roland Penrose , the impact of the Mass Observation project, the new types of students attending British art schools after the government introduced higher education grants, the workings of the London Group and the Royal Academy – but they are glimpsed at from the perspective of actual lives lived season after season in the West End by two artists whose personalities, as well as their art, are worthy of a chronicle.
Cercles © 2013
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