Jill Trevelyan (right) is an art writer on the rise, having written two biographies, of artist Rita Angus, and art dealer Peter McLeavey, and curated/edited a book of letters by Toss Woolaston. While I haven’t read her, I was still entertained by this session, which focussed mainly on the popular Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer.
Trevelyan’s work on McLeavey’s biography could very easily have been complicated – he fell out with a lot of artists, he is still alive and so is his family – so it was with a little trepidation that she began. When Trevelyan presented McLeavey himself with the finished book, he said ‘so, have you found the real Peter McLeavey’? She later admitted that he sent her a note saying ‘thank you for finding Peter’ – so clearly she wasn’t too far off the mark with her portrait. The family were directly involved in the process, as she read each chapter to them as it was finished. This seems an incredibly generous way to work, and something I’d imagine not every biographer would be comfortable with.
McLeavey sounds like an incredible person, dedicated fully to his vocation, and driven to constantly seek out new artists. But he didn’t ‘jump into bed with them’ straight away, Trevelyan said, but instead flirted for many years before offering to sell their work. The most impressive thing that Trevelyan found when researching was the volume and intensity of letters that McLeavey exchanged with the artists in his stable. He cultured their deep friendships by giving a lot of himself. This was also a way of keeping them close to him, while most art dealers were in Auckland, often closer to the artists geographically.
The biography of Rita Angus was much simpler in some ways, as the holder of her estate is her nephew. The fascination with the Angus book was how much her letters informed her art – showed the area in which she was thinking as she painted. Angus was a pure artist, painting her passions, rather than for money, such as Toss Woollaston. Amusingly, she would often borrow the paintings she had sold to somebody back, and sometimes even add to them, as she was never ready to let go.
Trevelyan loves how artists think and work in their world, and her job as an art writer is the most fun thing she can think of doing. While she doesn’t enjoy the production side as much, she acknowledged her brilliant team at Te Papa Press for leading her through it so expertly, as well as being able to see what needs to be done from a very early stage of her work.
Jill Trevelyan is certainly somebody to watch if you are interested in the world of art in New Zealand. A perfectly pitched and wonderfully chaired session.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ.