Painting becomes an unlikely star of the show after years in a Chichester school storeroom

Absentee Pig_ Pallant House Gallery (detail)
Absentee Pig_ Pallant House Gallery (detail)

A painting discovered in a storeroom at Chichester High School for Girls in 2005 has become one of the stars of Pallant House Gallery’s current exhibition, Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and his World (until February 10).

The chance discovery of the painting revealed a fascinating story about the Chichester High School for Girl’s wartime history, as gallery spokeswoman Anna Zeuner explains.

“In 2005 pupils from the school were taking part in a workshop at Pallant House Gallery when Phillip Riley, then the school’s head of art, mentioned that a painting by Julian Trevelyan had come to light when the school had moved sites. Nobody knew how the school had come to have such an important artwork, and so Simon Martin, now director of the gallery, was inspired him to embark on some detective work.

“The remarkable painting, entitled The Absentee Pig, was painted by the Surrealist artist in 1943. It depicts a giant pig flying over the farmer and his cottage, from where it has escaped and was created during a dark period in Trevelyan’s life when he was working as a camouflage artist during World War II.

“Trevelyan was particularly influenced by the Russian artist Marc Chagall and had been looking at some Russian engravings of debtors escaping from creditors through chimneys. In the words of Trevelyan, the idea behind the picture was that ‘a pig in his sty longs for freedom and that is a kind of dream of his.’ Until the discovery it had not been publicly exhibited in over 60 years.

“A code on a label on the back of the painting led to a chain of discoveries about the painting’s history. Through the sales records held at the Lefèvre Gallery in London, where it was sold in 1943, Simon Martin discovered that it had been bought by a Miss Kathleen Burgoine – the art mistress at the school until 1960. It transpired that during WWII the High School had played host to evacuees from Streatham in London, who gave the painting at the end of the war as a ‘thank you’ for the welcome and kindness they had been given. For many years it had hung in the art room of the School.

“Simon later visited Trevelyan’s widow, the Royal Academician Mary Fedden (who died in 2012) at her home at Durham Wharf in Hammersmith and his first wife, the potter Ursula Mommens (née Darwin) in East Sussex (who died aged 101 in 2010) completed the missing links in the painting’s unusual story.

“Pallant House Gallery arranged for The Absentee Pig to be conserved for the School and in 2005 a small exhibition was held at the School together with works from the Gallery’s collection and by pupils of the School. The painting is now on long term loan at Pallant House Gallery, where it can be seen today in the critically acclaimed Julian Trevelyan exhibition, the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in over 20 years.”

Simon said: “It is wonderful that the discovery of this painting has led to such a fascinating and exciting story. We would love to welcome any of the evacuees and their fellow students from Chichester whose childhoods are linked to this magical work. It is a much-loved work at the Gallery and hope it will remain here for many years to come for future generations to enjoy.”

Julian Trevelyan: An Artist and his World runs at Pallant House Gallery until February 10 2019. Trevelyan (1910–1988) was a founding member of the British Surrealist Group and an original participant of the Mass Observation project. He embraced a wide variety of styles from surrealism to realism and abstraction, which are shown through over 100 paintings and prints in this exhibition.

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