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Modern & Post-War British Art

Mass-Observation: The Movement that Art History Forgot

In 1936 anthropologist Tom Harrison returned to the UK from the South Pacific where he had been living with the native people of the New Hebrides. He wrote of these experiences in his book Savage Civilization, and from this came the idea of forming a social research project, creating a study of the everyday lives of the ordinary people of Britain, and in particular the working class of England’s heartland, the industrial north.

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JULIAN TREVELYAN R.A., BOLTON, 1937. ESTIMATE £18,000–25,000.

The project became known as Mass-Observation, and in 1937 Harrison invited the young Julian Trevelyan to join the project in Bolton – known as The Worktown Project - alongside other artists, poets and filmmakers including Charles Madge, Humphrey Jennings, Humphrey Spender and William Coldstream. Together with a larger team of volunteers, including many students, they aimed to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’, recording people’s lives, conversations and behavioural patterns.

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JULIAN TREVELYAN, R.A., STREET SCENE, STOKE-ON-TRENT, 1937-8. ESTIMATE £3,000–5,000.

The manufacturing industry had captured Trevelyan’s imagination since childhood, and his involvement in the project ignited his passion for the industrial cityscape, sketching and painting the smoking chimneys of the now lost potteries in Stoke-on-Trent.

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JULIAN TREVELYAN’S SUITCASE FULL OF COLLAGE MATERIALS WHICH HE TOOK TO BOLTON IN 1937. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE DURHAM WHARF ARCHIVE.

Treveylan also made use of collage – inspired by artists such as Max Ernst and John Piper – bringing a suitcase of scraps with him to Bolton, constructing the collages on the spot and revelling in the directness and immediacy of the process – the key features which stood at the very heart of the Mass-Observation ideal, and which shine through in the fascinating selection of works featured in the forthcoming sale A Painter’s Paradise: Julian Trevelyan & Mary Fedden at Durham Wharf, sold to benefit the redevelopment of Durham Wharf by Turner Prize-winning architects Assemble.

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JULIAN TREVELYAN R.A., CLAY PITS, STOKE-ON-TRENT, 1938. ESTIMATE £3,000–5,000 (LEFT) AND JULIAN TREVELYAN R.A., SHEDS. ESTIMATE £12,000–18,000 (RIGHT).

The information gathered by Trevelyan, Harrison, Madge, Jennings and others now forms the Mass-Observation Archive at Sussex University – a lasting public testament to this brief but fascinating art historical and social movement.

Join us at 1pm on Sunday 20 November at New Bond Street for a gallery talk and book signing with Philip Trevelyan, author of Julian Trevelyan: Picture Language. To reserve your place email rachel.david@sothebys.com  Click ahead to see highlights from the sale.

A Painter's Paradise Julian Trevelyan & Mary Fedden at Durham Wharf sale is in London on 23 November.

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