This painting depicts a group of kilns for firing clay, a chapel and an array of terraced houses dotted about in the distance. It takes its title from the name given to a group of towns in the region of Stoke-on-Trent.
The painting dates from the years when Trevelyan was allied to the left wing Mass Observation group. Founded in 1937 by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson (1911-76) and the writer Charles Madge (1912-96), Mass Observation was an anthropological study of the British working class. It was a purely information gathering project intended to accumulate a mass of data for future generations to analyse.
For the duration of the survey, Harrisson lived in Bolton, a town he referred to as 'Worktown'. From there he and Madge commissioned volunteers to record secretly the daily activities and conversations of working people. Harrisson himself took a job in a cotton mill, while the artist Humphrey Jennings (1907-50) filmed millers at work. In addition to these covert operations, some of the observed were persuaded to keep detailed diaries of their day to day existence. All of this information was collated and now forms the Mass Observation archive at Sussex University.
In the summer of 1937 Harrisson invited Trevelyan and Michael Wickham, a communist and artist, to visit Bolton and paint street scenes. The following spring William Coldstream and Graham Bell joined the project as well. Once the paintings were complete photographs were made of them and then, in an attempt to gauge popular taste, passers-by were asked for their opinions of the images. From this research it was hoped an aesthetic would emerge that was accessible to working class people and acceptable to vanguard artists. Harrisson reported that all the paintings were criticised for 'lack of life' (undated letter from Harrisson to Trevelyan, Trevelyan Archive, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, box 4).
Trevelyan spent much of his time in Bolton photographing street life and making collages of industrial scenes. It was only after visiting the Potteries in 1938 that he began to make paintings. In an unpublished manuscript Trevelyan described the area as 'a landscape full of drama and pathos, very much after my own heart…. Human beings seemed to creep about almost apologetically among the man made disasters…. I found this world of pyrotechnics and smoke most inspiring as a painter' (Trevelyan Archive, box 8). Despite Harrisson's categorisation of Trevelyan as a 'leading exponent of the Surrealist school' (Harrisson, 'What They Think in Worktown', The Listener, 25 August 1938, p.398), the paintings he made in The Potteries mark a departure from his earlier work. Instead of the fantastical imagery of Base Wall (Tate T05798) for example, The Potteries is a stylised record of a remembered scene. Its naïve figuration is reminiscent both of Christopher Wood (1901-30) and to a lesser extent Alfred Wallis (1855-1942). The use of this primitive idiom to depict working class life is consistent with the understanding of labourers as exotic, unsophisticated innocents that underpinned Mass Observation attitudes. In an undated letter to Trevelyan, Harrisson discussed an exhibition about Bolton in which he suggested they 'reconstruct an actual part of a street and the graphitti [sic] of one lavatory wall…Also serve bolton meals with readings aloud on how to eat them. Fish and chips frying continually, and soot falling constantly' (Trevelyan Archive, box 4).
The Potteries was probably worked up in his studio or hotel room from pen and ink drawings made on site. The painting was discovered in 1995 by the artist Mary Fedden (b.1915), Trevelyan's widow, among a cache of pictures at her home.
Julian Trevelyan, Indigo Days: The art and memoirs of Julian Trevelyan, London 1957
The Imaginative Impulse: Julian Trevelyan 1910-88, exhibition catalogue, Bohun Gallery, London 1998
Suzanne Marston, Julian Trevelyan: 'To Break a Butterfly on a Wheel', unpublished MA report, Courtauld Institute of Art, London 1993