How Shoreham’s Shirley Trevena has summed up 35 years of work

PUBLISHED: 10:43 31 August 2017

Shirley Trevena at work (Photo by Mick Pickerill)

Shirley Trevena at work (Photo by Mick Pickerill)


After winning a county hall art competition, Shirley Trevena spent the next 35 years following her artistic muse as she tells Duncan Hall

Not many people get the chance to sum up 35 years of work in one book, but with her fourth publication Shoreham-based Shirley Trevena RI has done just that.

Shirley Trevena Watercolours is a two-year labour of love, edited by Shirley and photographed by her husband Mick Pickerill featuring work stretching back from school projects to today. Published last August it is the first of her books not written to specifically pass on knowledge Shirley has gained from toiling at the easel. And it comes at a time when Shirley’s work is once again being acknowledged by her peers – having been named one of the top 20 foreign watercolour masters in an International Watercolour Exhibition in Jimo Qingdao, China, last November – despite initially mistaking the invitation to exhibit for spam – and last April being awarded the Winsor and Newton/RI Award 2017 at the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (RI) annual exhibition for the second time in 23 years. In her beautiful Shoreham home, where she has lived for the past four years, she is both proud and humble of the reaction to the collection of four still life watercolours, reproduced here and on the previous page. “I have put in much better sets of paintings,” she says. “It shows you can’t judge your own work.” She feels joining the RI in 1994 – the same year she won the prize for the first time – was a major step in her artistic journey. “I felt like a real artist. It’s like your peers are voting for you.”

Still Life with Blue Paper Flowers by Shirley Trevena (Photo by Mick Pickerill)Still Life with Blue Paper Flowers by Shirley Trevena (Photo by Mick Pickerill)

It was another competition which helped her find her calling. Born in Brixton she had worked as a planning officer in Westminster after leaving school – one of her projects was the pedestrianisation of Leicester Square. “My mother and grandmother were a double act in vaudeville,” she says. “My father was a TV and film lighting director on all sorts of fabulous films including The Prince and The Showgirl. They never wanted me to do anything in that way. I should never have been in local government in the first place!” Her husband Mick bought her a box of watercolour paints to pass the time on a rainy Cornish holiday. “I painted the best painting I have ever done,” she says. “It was called Tea Party For One – inspired by a photograph of an actress. I tried to buy it back recently and they wouldn’t sell it back to me!” She entered the painting into a competition run at County Hall in 1980 and scooped first prize. “The judge said I had an amazing style – very fresh and unusual, but I would have a really hard job to keep it,” she says, adding she would love to meet the judge again now.

She decided to pursue a full-time artistic career, giving up her job in 1982 and leaving London for Brighton. Mick carried on commuting to Westminster, where he worked as a civil engineer, while Shirley worked on her promise to ensure he could take early retirement. As well as painting she knitted items to sell in Brighton shops and designed stained glass for companies in London and Saudi Arabia. “I had no experience in art at all so I was willing to take on any job,” she says. Initially the focus of her watercolours was women: “I was heavily into Women’s Lib,” she says. “My first exhibition in Brighton was at the library and it was all portraits of women.” It was when she began painting flowers and still life that she began to have some success – although compiling her book has focused her attention back to female portraiture. “As an artist I really believe that you can’t stand still,” she says. “If you crack something it doesn’t mean that’s it forever. It keeps the work fresh and lively.” As well as going to exhibitions for inspiration at one point she even found herself going back to her own tutorial books, which include Taking Risks with Watercolours and Breaking the Rules of Watercolour. “Over the years I have painted women, flowers, still life, a bit of landscape, mono-printing, collage and recently I have gone into pencil drawings, back to women as the subjects.” Some of her recent works are on the walls of her home – with the pencil and watercolour portrait The Rehearsal harking back to her mother’s profession.

A Fruit Bowl with Black Grapes and Pears by Shirley Trevena (Photo by Mick Pickerill)A Fruit Bowl with Black Grapes and Pears by Shirley Trevena (Photo by Mick Pickerill)

She has never had any formal tuition. Much of what she does breaks the rules students are taught at evening classes – from working with photographs to creating strong and bold colour with watercolour paints. Having started out on her kitchen table she now works in a south-facing purpose-built studio space extension. Her walls are surrounded by sculptures and artworks she has bought at Artists’ Open Houses in Brighton which she likes to incorporate into her work.

Although she confesses she would like to explore working in acrylics in the future she feels watercolours have been unfairly sidelined. “I find it very strange that oils and acrylics have really made it to the top,” she says. “You can do anything with watercolour. It doesn’t have to be wishy-washy – the colours can be as bright as oils.

“I don’t think watercolours have reached their full potential.”

Good to know

Shirley’s RI award-winning works feature in the 40th anniversary exhibition of the Sussex Watercolour Society at The Oxmarket Centre of Arts.

There is a demonstration day and chance to meet some of the artists on Saturday 16 September 2017. The exhibition is in support of St Wilfrid’s Hospice.

Oxmarket Centre of Arts, St Andrew’s Court, off East Street, Chichester PO19 1YH from 12 to 24 September 2017, 10am to 4.30pm, free. Visit For more about Shirley’s work visit


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