Born in 1902, Frederick John Lloyd Strevens was the oldest of a large family living in the East End of London. John (as he later preferred to be called) began his long route to becoming an artist after leaving school at 12 to work and contribute to family finances. After a various jobs as a messenger boy in the City, he was employed during the First World War years, by a French wine merchant who noticed the teenager’s interest in his own collection of paintings and sent him to copy 19th century narrative history paintings by Delaroche and La Thangue at the Guildhall museum in London.
A small windfall from his aunt from Dorset, and extra cash from teaching and playing the violin in the silent cinemas paid for a few art classes in the Regent Street Polytechnic and later at Heatherley’s art school. It was there, during a lecture by Roger Fry on the avant-garde and Cubism, he famously walked out, saying “I thought art had something to do with beauty”. That was the end of any formal art education for John Strevens.
Working in the newspaper publishing centre around Fleet Street, London with other graphic artists was to teach him how to channel his artistic talents into earning a living as an illustrator, until the outbreak of the Second World War. 1943 marked a turning point in John Strevens’s career with his first solo art exhibition off Bond Street.
In 1947 Strevens was commissioned to execute a series of murals, The Four Seasons, for a large public hall in Kingston-upon-Thames. The four huge panels of seasonal flowers and a 17ft wide central panel were heralded as “a forerunner of the advertising of the future – the straightforward commissioning of fine art by industry for the benefit of the public” (Art and Design Bulletin, January 1949). Strevens’s post war, romantic paintings such as The Three Princesses, depicting his daughters Jo, Vicky and Ginny, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy, earned him public acclaim. From then on he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and the Paris Salon.
Not long after the death of his first wife, the novelist Jane Cooper Strevens, he married a young native of Barcelona, Julia Marzo. In 1957 he set off with his three daughters, and his new wife and baby daughter Bridget on the first of several trips across France to Spain which were to inspire subjects for more London exhibitions. 1961 saw his first trip to the USA and the beginning of an enthusiastic reception from American art collectors. Leaving a Kensington flat and studio for a quieter house and garden in Loughton, Essex, (near family roots) in 1963, John Strevens continued to support his family painting pictures destined for the popular British print market, as well as portraits and colourful romantic fantasies of women, children and flowers.
A new life-long working relationship began in the late 1960s when the art dealer Kurt E Schon of New Orleans tracked the artist down after seeing his painting The Woman in Black in the International Directory of Art.
Well into his 80s, John Strevens would travel to the US to meet collectors and paint portrait commissions from life. But his book-lined and music-filled studio at the end of the garden of his home in Loughton, Essex continued to provide a refuge and the main source of his inspiration until the end of his life. Epping Forest District Museum held a retrospective in 1991.
Collections: Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston and in New Orleans, USA.
See also: John Strevens, The Man and his Works, by Dr T.L.Zamparelli 1982 (ISBN 0-9603880-0-2)