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Trevor Thomas (June 8, 1907 - May 27, 1993) was an art historian and artist. He 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.
He was born in Ynysddu, Gwent, on 8 June 1907. 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.
He was Secretary and Lecturer-Assistant, Department of Geography, Victoria University, Manchester from 1930 to 1931; Cartographer to Geographical Association, Manchester from 1930 to 1931; Keeper, Department of Ethnology and Shipping, Liverpool Public Museums from 1931 to 1940. 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. He was Director, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery from 1940 to 1946. 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 July 1946, Trevor Thomas was dismissed from the post as curator-director of Leicester Museum and Art Gallery he has held since 1940. He had appeared in court charged with public indecency. It was not until the late 1970s that Thomas, accompanied by the then Observer’s art critic, Brian Sewell, and by Patrick Boylan, was able to look at the court records about his arrest. The witness report of the arresting policeman admitted that there had been no physical contact or conversation between the two men, but he considered that they briefly “looked towards each other in a suspicious way”. Thomas had been advised to plead guilty by his barrister since his sexual orientation and possible other allegations about his conduct and reputation would be raised if he pleaded otherwise. A later director in Leicester, Trevor Walden, privately asked the Chief Constable of the time if Thomas had been deliberately targeted. The response was reportedly that he felt he had to make an example of him because there had been a number of repeated complaints from an undisclosed source that Thomas was a “known homosexual” (the information comes from the late Trevor Walden in an informal interview by Patrick Boylan, 1978). Thomas believed that his summary dismissal from Leicester ruined his professional museum career but both a character reference by Sir Kenneth Clark during the case and an appointment following his dismissal rescued it somewhat. However, in 1947 under medical pressure on how to “cure his homosexuality” he had a short-lived marriage and two sons. The full story of his dishonourable treatment was subsequently published on the Leicester Museums website.
He was Surveyor, Regional Guide to Works of Art, Arts Council of Great Britain from 1946 to 1948. 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.
He was Director, Crafts Centre of Great Britain from 1947 to 1948; Programme Specialist for Education through the Arts, Unesco from 1949 to 1956; Professor of Art, State University of New York, College for Teachers, Buffalo from 1957 to 1958; Professor of Art History, University of Buffalo, from 1959 to 1960. 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.
He was Art Editor, Gordon Fraser Gallery from 1960 to 1972. 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.
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.
Gordon Fraser later transferred to Bedford, where Thomas lived for over 28 years, the last 13 with his close friend Robert. He edited the well-known range of architectural postcards and fine arts greetings cards. He retired in 1972. He died in Bedford 27 May 1993.
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