Rubbish May be Shot Here is a collage that marks a pivotal moment in Julian Trevelyan’s artistic development. It was made in 1937, the year King George V died and was succeeded by Edward VIII who, in order to marry a divorcee, was forced to abdicate in favour of his brother, crowned King George VI in his stead on 12 May. Most of the cut-out heads at the base of this image are taken from newspaper photographs of the coronation, or represent successive generations of the royal family: George VI’s widowed mother Queen Mary; his wife, Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother); and his two daughters Elizabeth (the present Queen) and her younger sister, Margaret. The smiling child, however, is taken directly from an advertisement for Shredded Wheat, captioned ‘the food for general fitness’. Above them tall factory chimneys and cotton mills reach into a smoky, cloud-studded sky, the solidity of the architecture contrasting forcefully with the chaos on the ground where royalty is mixed indiscriminately with printed images of pots and pans, royal plate, household furniture and vegetables. Darting through them are primitively-drawn fish in bright pastel colours.
1937 was also the year when the pioneering social survey organization, Mass-Observation, was founded by Tom Harrisson (1911–76), Charles Madge (1912–96) and Humphrey Jennings (1907–50), a friend of Trevelyan’s from his time at Cambridge (Trinity College, 1928–30). Its aim was to produce an anthropology of the British people, giving a voice to the mass of people whose work, leisure and views were so often ignored, and its first book was devoted to a study of Coronation Day: May The Twelfth: Mass-Observation day-surveys 1937 by over two hundred observers (London, Faber and Faber, 1937). By contrast, a few locations such as ‘Worktown’, M-O’s name for Bolton in Lancashire, were studied over a long period by full-time observers. The first artist to be recruited was Julian Trevelyan. He was invited to Bolton and asked to draw anything relating to the life of working people, but he also recorded his observations in watercolour sketches, in photographs, and in a series of collages including, very probably, Rubbish May be Shot Here which the artist has signed in the bottom left-hand corner.
In this image he has used thick cardboard for the tall chimney, a blue foil sweet wrapper for the low roof on the left, and strips of newspaper alternating with extracts from French seed catalogues for the walls of the buildings. In his autobiography he recalled carrying with him a suitcase of scraps and copies of the illustrated magazine Picture Post (launched in October 1938), scissors, glue and Indian ink to the site where he was going to paint, or that would serve as the starting-point for a collage. He would work on the spot, battling with the wind and his own shyness in front of an audience, finding it a legitimate way of ‘inviting the god of Chance to lend a hand in painting my picture’ (Trevelyan, p.84). The people of Bolton responded, saying he had caught the mood of the current anti-litter campaigns, and that one of his collages accurately conveyed ‘the worker versus royalty feeling’, a comment, Trevelyan thought, that had been prompted by the headlines he had worked into the texture of his cotton-mills (Trevelyan, p.88).
In 1936 he had contributed three paintings to the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London, and it was in this spirit that his collages went well beyond the recording of external reality. Rubbish May be Shot Here follows the classic Surrealist pattern of combining different realities, its juxtaposition of cabbages and kings suggested perhaps by the ballad of the Walrus and the Carpenter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass (originally published in London in 1871). The Royal line of succession and the natural cycle of plants are set against a third reality, that of Bolton itself with the characteristic smoking chimneys of industrial towns that had fascinated Trevelyan since he was a schoolboy. Now a convinced Socialist with Surrealist affinities, his collage is revolutionary in both form and content: hierarchies are subverted, solemnity is eschewed and pageantry ridiculed. Trevelyan’s selection of printed material, however, is more deliberate, and more humorous, than his embracing of chance might suggest. Snippets of seed catalogues that refer to successful propagation and germination of plants, the importance of fertilizer and good, pure stock, even if printed in French, provide an irreverent commentary on the state of the monarchy portrayed here as so much rubbish, to be thrown away and buried beneath the earth.
Rubbish May be Shot Here was close to the political tenor of Mass-Observation’s founders but it was also personally liberating for the artist. In his autobiography, Indigo Days (first published London 1957), he gives his own assessment of what this period of work meant to him:
I drew much profit from my contact with Mass-Observation. First of all it was largely through my experiences in it that I had the courage to ‘find myself’ in painting, to leave the various clichés of Surrealism and Abstraction and to paint the things I cared about in the way I felt them. Worktown had been the mythology of my childhood and it was through a return to its grime and flames now enriched by the poetic imagery of Surrealism and the formal discipline of Abstraction, that I could move on to other fields of experience.
Nick Hubble, Mass-Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory, Basingstoke and New York 2006, pp.41–3, 133–7.
Julian Trevelyan, Indigo Days: The Art and Memoirs of Julian Trevelyan, Aldershot 1996.
, accessed 16 March 2009.