Obituary: Trevor Thomas

Robert Stuart
Thursday 08 July 1993 23:02 BST

Trevor Thomas, art historian and artist: born Ynysddu, Gwent 8 June 1907; Secretary and Lecturer-Assistant, Department of Geography, Victoria University, Manchester 1930-31; Cartographer to Geographical Association, Manchester 1930-31; Keeper, Department of Ethnology and Shipping, Liverpool Public Museums 1931-40; Director, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery 1940-46; Surveyor, Regional Guide to Works of Art, Arts Council of Great Britain 1946-48; Director, Crafts Centre of Great Britain 1947- 48; Programme Specialist for Education through the Arts, Unesco 1949-56; Professor of Art, State University of New York, College for Teachers, Buffalo 1957-58; Professor of Art History, University of Buffalo, 1959-60; Art Editor, Gordon Fraser Gallery 1960-72; married 1947 (two sons; marriage dissolved); died Bedford 27 May 1993.

TREVOR THOMAS was a man of multiple artistic talents with a sparkling personality, flamboyant, eccentric, friendly, a raconteur extraordinaire. He was also the last person to see the poet Sylvia Plath alive.

Coming from a South Wales colliery family he gained many prizes as a boy singer at the eisteddfods. At the age of 22 he took an Honours degree in Human Geography and Anthropology at Aberystwyth: at 24 he became the youngest-ever Keeper at the Liverpool Museums, where his novel display techniques - using flat life-size figures in wood carved by himself to display costume, adopting bold colour schemes and exchanging shelves for built-up cubes - attracted official praise. He researched African art and did theatre designs, acted and sang, collaborating with David Webster (later the Director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) on Murder in the Cathedral.

Having gained international recognition as a specialist in primitive art, Thomas won a Rockefeller Foundation Museum Fellowship to install an African Art exhibition in Buffalo, New York, and to study museums and art galleries in the US. He made a survey of display techniques in the Pacific Exposition 1939, then after visiting Texas and New Orleans he surveyed the New York World Fair.

Thomas returned to the Liverpool Museums in March 1940, unfit for military service through deafness. In 1941 he was appointed Director of the City of Leicester Museums and Art Gallery, where he staged exhibitions and inaugurated a series of lunchtime concerts which still continues. In 1943 he acquired paintings from the family of Hans Hess, an internee, which prompted a substantial exhibition of 'Mid-European Art' held in the gallery in 1944 and became the nucleus of Leicester's German Expressionist collection, now the best in Britain.

In 1946 Thomas left Leicester and, after jobs with the Arts Council and the Crafts Centre of Great Britain, went to Paris as Programme Specialist in Art Education for Unesco, where he remained for eight years, organising international seminars in Japan and India. From 1956 to 1960 he was in the US, lecturing and teaching, finally as Professor of Art Education and of Art History at the University of Buffalo.

Returning to England, he joined Gordon Fraser, the greetings-card publisher and a former Unesco colleague, as Fine Arts Editor for the Gordon Fraser Gallery in Highgate, north London, living at 23 Fitzroy Road, where Sylvia Plath, separated from her husband the poet Ted Hughes, lived above with her two very young children. Thomas was the last to see her the night she committed suicide by gassing herself in 1963, and was poisoned himself by the gas coming under pressure down the chimney.

Gordon Fraser later transferred to Bedford, where Thomas lived for over 28 years. He edited the well-known range of architectural postcards and fine arts greetings cards. He retired in 1972.

Trevor Thomas's own painting was influenced by the American Abstract Expressionists. In retirement he developed a new technique with flowing and swirling colours, giving vivid impressions of dance and movement, and held a number of exhibitions.

Thomas was passionately against capital punishment and worked vigorously to counteract social injustice wherever possible. Triumphing over personal disabilities, he was abundant in friendship, warmth and energy, greatly enjoying his many friendships, classical music, cooking and his flowers. He possessed an extraordinary memory that enabled him to recall and visualise past events in accurate detail. He was a man of impressive talents and integrity.

(Photograph omitted)

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