Julian Trevelyan was born in Dorking in 1910, to a family of writers, poets, academics. His father, the poet Robert Calverley Trevelyan, had close links to the Bloomsbury Group, an association which reflected their liberal upbringing of Julian. After attending Bedales School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read English Literature, Trevelyan moved to Paris to become an artist. He was enrolled at Atelier Dix-Sept, an engraving school where he learned etching. Whilst here he worked alongside some of the most important European artists of the twentieth centur, including Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso.
In 1935 Trevelyan joined the English Surrealist Group, and showed his work in the important International Surrealist Exhibition in London the following year. He had lived in Paris from 1931 to 1934, studying under the influential S. W. Hayter, and travelled widely in Europe during this period.
In 1935 he returned to London, where his home at Durham Wharf in Hammersmith became a lively social and artistic centre. Trevelyan’s main concern in his Surrealist work was the construction of a new collective myth of the city, a theme that had fascinated him from childhood. He described how he ‘had invented a sort of mythology of cities, of fragile structures carrying here and there a few waif-like inhabitants’.
Trevelyan was engaged by his old student friend Humphrey Jennings to contribute to Mass Observation (1937–8), and the urban images which resulted, utilised collage and torn shreds of newspaper, an attempt to express his personal myth of the gritty urban working-class environment.