Trevor Bell: A personal recollection

I started working with Trevor in 2006. Our first correspondence was slightly unusual. I had been casually complaining to our shippers about the rather eccentric behaviour of another artist. The artist in question was a friend, and a significant figure in terms of British abstraction, but was not always the most straight forward person to deal with despite an abundance of charm. Realising the Trevor was at that time not represented by a gallery in London, our shipper (3 Lanes) suggested I contact him, but I had no address, no phone number or e-mail. So I wrote a letter, explaining who I was and something about the gallery, and it was delivered to Trevor via Luton van shortly before Christmas in 2005.

I grew up in Devon and Cornwall, and still have family there, often spending Christmas in the South East of the county. In between Christmas and New Year, I drove down to Trevor's large farmhouse and studio just outside Newlyn and met him for the first time. He was enormously engaging and we spent a few hours going through his racks of paintings and works on paper. I left with a signed poster, and a promise that we would work together in the New Year. Within 3 weeks we had sold our first ‘Bell' at the London Art Fair.

Over the next few years we had the pleasure of mounting a series of exhibitions. Our first was held in two venues simultaneously, with an exhibition in our London gallery of more modestly sized works and a second show in Oxford arranged by my colleague Jemimah Patterson that consisted of his large colour field canvases. The exhibitions were extremely well received, with Chris Stephens (then of the Tate) kindly providing an essay for our first catalogue. A second retrospective exhibition followed in 2009 which coincided with the publication of a major monograph, followed shortly afterwards by a beautiful exhibition of his recent black and white canvases – held as a celebration of his 80th birthday.

By this time, Waterhouse & Dodd had expanded into new territories with a gallery space in the Soho area of New York. There we held Trevor's first ever solo show in the city, principally made up of his vibrant shaped canvases. Our last exhibition together was perhaps the most ambitious. The Thrust shows took place in London and in New York (the only artist we have ever ‘toured' between the two galleries). Thrust bought together work from the 1960s through to the present day but concentrated on Trevor's most dynamic motifs. Although perhaps not the most sensible show to mount from a commercial perspective, the exhibition gave space to some of his very best works, including Blue Radial.

Trevor was unfailingly generous and supportive. Although he was well able to stand his ground, he was equally open to ideas and suggestions. His work was always beautifully finished and worked on with an enthusiasm that would have shamed an artist 60 years his junior. Until the very end of his life he was producing wildly inventive work and constantly trying to escape the confines of traditional painting. We have had the pleasure of handling some of his very best work, including Forces (now in the collection of the Tate) which formed the centrepiece of our retrospective and the Florida Six, a wonderful set of mid-career abstracts which display Trevor's incredible ability with colour and which we ultimately sold to a major collector in the State.

Although far from his greatest work, a personal favourite of mine is a small scrape of paper buried in a photo album at home. On returning from my honeymoon I sent Trevor a photograph of a leopard I saw in a tree while in Tanzania. A week later, with no note, a drawing came back in the post of leopard as re-imagined by Trevor. Perhaps he liked the patterns on the tail, or was amused by the image of the rear end of a big cat, but the drawing conveyed his generosity, sense of fun, and the sheer joy he felt in creating.

Trevor Bell deserves to be regarded as one of the best abstract painters Britain produced in the 20th century. His work is often misunderstood or misrepresented, but those willing to invest time in it will be richly rewarded as many of our collectors can vouch for. He will be greatly missed by the gallery.

Jamie Anderson

Available artworks by Trevor Bell can be found here