A cultural gem sits in the heart of Leicester. Behind the closed doors of New Walk Museum, opened in 1849, sits one of the most extensive collections of German Expressionist Art in the country. Boasting artists such as Franz Marc (1880-1916), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Conrad Felixmüller (1897-1977). The permanent exhibition details the progression of German Expressionism, looking at the impact of two groups in particular: The Blue Rider (1911-1914) and The Bridge (1905-1911). Its creation can be attributed to many curators, collectors, and civilians who have cultivated and expanded the collection over the museum’s long history. However, in this piece I will be highlighting the work of one man in particular who’s story is important to both the history of Leicester and the LGBTQ+ community.
Trevor Thomas was significant in founding the start of what would become one of the largest collections of German Expressionist Art in the UK. Born in Gwent, South Wales in 1907 Thomas was appointed as the youngest keeper at the Liverpool Museum in 1931, heading the department of Ethnology and Shipping. An artist himself, he became passionate about making museum collections more accessible to various audiences. His desire for innovation lead him to New York where he could see the latest advances in exhibition design. He was greatly influenced by two exhibitions, the first being Bauhaus 1919-1928, which showed the latest in artistic thinking from Germany, at the museum of Modern Art and then second being Art in our Time: 10th Anniversary Exhibition. After exploring both of these exhibitions Trevor Thomas would have a lifelong love of Modern European Art which would come into play during his career at New Walk Museum.
When he was appointed Curator of New Walk Museum in 1940, he set about improving the accessibility of the museum. Whilst his plans for an exhibition were put on hold due to air raids, he created a programme of events and activities to keep moral up amongst the public. In 1943 he worked with the Polish Airforce of Great Britain in organising an exhibition of Contemporary Polish Art, allowing the public to access the kind of European Art he’d seen on his earlier trip to New York. His passion for art led him to form a friendship with Tekla Hess and her son Hans, both of whom had fled Germany during the rise of Fascism in the 1930’s. The Hess family business had been destroyed and much of their art collections lost. However, they had successfully smuggled some of their extensive collection out of the country, some works finding their way to Leicester along with the Hess family. Their friendship soon led to plans for an exhibition of European Art which was to be supported by the Free German League of Culture an Anti-Nazi organisation. Some of the works which were exhibited included The Mask by Emil Nolde and The Red Woman by Franz Marc, both of which were purchased by Trevor Thomas. He was also gifted with Max Pechstein’s View from My Window by Tekla Hans in recognition of the kindness he had shown himself and his mother. These paintings still form the basis of the collection housed at New Walk Museum today.
Unfortunately, the career of Trevor Thomas as curator of New Walk Museum came to an abrupt halt in 1946 when he was charged with a public indecency offence. During this time, homosexuality was viewed as a criminal offence under British law. When the case went to court, he was told to plead guilty in order to avoid questions over his sexuality. After being find and bound over to keep the peace, meaning that he could not commit the offence again without risk of going to prison, he lost his job as curator of New Walk Museum and was denied access to his pension. This injustice did not stop Trevor Thomas from pursuing a career in museums. After his career ended in Leicester, he went on to work for UNESCO. During his time there he made significant contributions to improving education in the arts on an international level. In 1956 he moved to America and became a History of Art professor at Buffalo University. He worked for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and ran a counselling service. Despite all of his achievements, Trevor Thomas’ role in founding the German Expressionist Collection at New Walk Museum and Art Gallery faded from local history, his work becoming overlooked. In more recent years, work has been done to restore his reputation with former museum director Patrick Boylan inviting him back to the museum as a guest of honour in 1985. Since then a cluster of curators and artists have worked to restore his place in history. A recent exhibition at the gallery Dissent and Displacement highlights Trevor Thomas as key to the founding of the expressionist gallery. His work was pivotal to the formation of the German Expressionist Collection and forms an important segment of Leicester’s local history as well as it’s LGBTQ+ history.
Unfortunately, Trevor Thomas’s persecution and erasure from history is not an isolated case. Many important LGBTQ+ figures in history have been overlooked. It’s important that we highlight these stories and work to restore the reputations of those who have been lost.
For further reading you can visit the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery website which has an extensive range of information on Trevor Thomas, the Hess Family, and the collection as a whole. This article by Pink News is also very interesting and delves deeper into the history of Anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
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