Julian Trevelyan is one of the few artists who can say that he spent a portion of his career creating works of art he hoped no one ever saw and as a camoufleur working for the British Army during World War II, he did just that.
Trevelyan was born in Britain in 1910 to a family of politicians, historians, and artists. After attending college in Cambridge, he moved to Paris to train with S.W. Hayter at Atelier 17, one of the foremost artistic print schools of its era. While in the city, Trevelyan rubbed elbows with Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso. In 1934, he married his first wife, Ursula Darwin, the great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin.
When war broke out in Europe, Trevelyan, along with a handful of other artists, served as a Camouflage Officer in the Corps of Royal Engineers. From 1940-1943, Trevelyan worked throughout North Africa and Palestine pioneering the British army’s desert camouflage. You can’t hide anything in the desert and the typical splotchy green/brown British uniforms stood out like a sore thumb. Trevelyan and his colleagues quickly realized that they had a lot of hard work ahead of them. It took a skilled hand to create camouflage, and Trevelyan’s background in surrealist printmaking was the solid foundation upon which he developed lifesaving technology for his fellow soldiers.
Trevelyan and his colleagues became so good at what they did that they actually managed to fabricate an entire “dummy army” using fake radio transmissions, loudspeakers, prop tents, and inflatable tanks and airplanes all painted to look like the real thing. The ruse was so successful that they managed to trick Germany’s Afrika Korps into monitoring these fake units while actual units carried on fighting.
Trevelyan’s accomplishments inspired the US Army to create an entire force of soldiers dedicated to fabricating a company nicknamed the “Ghost Army.” Later in the war and inspired by Trevelyan’s techniques, 1,100 Allied forces impersonated a 30,000-man unit all across the European theater. Among their ranks were other artists, advertisers, architects, actors, set and prop designers, and engineers. Many of these soldier-artists went on to have successful careers after the war.
After leaving the army, Trevelyan continued to create prints, paintings, collages, photographs, and poetry. He worked with the infamous anthropological research group Mass-Observation, which aimed to record the lives of everyday British people through the use of untrained volunteer observers. Many of his photographs showcase Britain’s post-war decline and Mass-Observation went on to influence public policy through their research. Trevelyan was inducted into the Royal Academy of Arts in 1987, a year before he died.