We love getting to know our artists, and we thought you might too. This week we chat with our long-standing artist, Trevor Mitchell, who is well known for his popular 4x500 puzzle sets.
Thanks for chatting with us, Trevor. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Artist, family man, keen hiker, a lover of tranquillity, the British countryside, wholesome food and real ale (in moderation of course). I entered the world at St Lukes Hospital, Bradford, West Yorkshire in July 1959 and apart from two years spent living and working in London, I’ve lived the rest of my life in Shipley, just five miles north of where I was born. I was an only child, my dad was an electrician and my mum a full time housewife, talented seamstress and cook. So although they never had much money, I was always well clothed and fed!
Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I played football and cricket in the street or on a patch of grass with my friends. I was enthralled by the space race culminating in the moon landings and this gave me a life long interest in space, astronomy and science in general. These are the subjects I most often listen to on audio books or YouTube while I’m painting. Unless there’s a cricket match on and I’m following it on Test Match Special. I’m also interested in history and archaeology and will enjoy watching anything presented by Professor Alice Roberts.
I enjoy a bit of gardening, particularly growing vegetables - I love being able to go into the garden and pick something to eat that I’ve grown myself! I bought a polytunnel this spring, as we live on the north facing side of the Aire Valley and we’re quite high up, so I’m hoping this will extend the growing season.
I enjoy most sports but the only one I’ve played regularly as an adult is squash. I still play racketball once a week with a few friends. I met my wife at Shipley squash club in 1978, where she worked as a part-time receptionist while doing her A levels. We married in 1983 and have two daughters who are both now mothers themselves. Our granddaughter is 3 this August and our grandson was born in May this year.
You’ve been collaborating with Gibsons for a long time now. How did that relationship begin?
It began in 2004 at the National Railway Museum, York. I went in the gift shop and my eye was immediately caught by a jigsaw puzzle on top of a display cabinet. It was Tangmere Hurricanes by the aviation artist Nicolas Trudgian. I thought ‘Wow! What a fabulous painting’ and went to take a closer look. It was immediately apparent, looking at the other Gibsons puzzles on the shelves, that this was a company who promoted the type of art that I appreciated and aspired to.
So the next day I phoned them in the hope that one day my paintings might feature in the Gibsons range. A very pleasant and helpful lady suggested I send examples of my work to Michael Gibson, and gave me his email address. This I did and to my delight I received a swift and encouraging response from Michael, who licensed a farming scene I’d shown him and asked me to paint a snow scene for their limited edition Christmas puzzle. That was Christmas Holidays, my first Gibsons commission.
What is your favourite puzzle that you’ve created for Gibsons? Is there a story behind it?
Yes there is. I’m very proud of a lot of my Gibsons 4 puzzle box sets, especially The Magic Of Christmas, which I know has brought back some happy memories of childhood Christmases for a lot of people, as they’ve been kind enough to tell me. But if I had to choose an overall favourite it would have be The Postman’s Round, which grew into a set of six puzzles when we followed the original 4x500pc with a 2 puzzle set. I’m happy to see that is still in your range.
The story behind it begins in February 2008, on your stand at the NEC Spring Fair. I was having a conversation with Michael Gibson, who had first asked me to create a 4x500pc box set four years earlier. Magic Of The Seasons was our first one and we did one every year subsequently. The first few box sets had all been of the same view or setting in four different seasons or decades. Michael told me on future box sets he would like to make each scene more varied by moving around a location instead of viewing it from the same spot. Could I think of a story to link the scenes? I don’t have many instant light bulb moments, but I was blessed with one then and said ‘How about a postman? We could follow him as he delivers mail around a village.’ Michael’s face lit up.
What is your proudest achievement of being an artist?
Fulfilling my ambition to earn a living from painting and illustrating. I enjoy it so much it doesn’t usually feel like work.
You were featured in our segment on ITV’s Made In Britain programme. How was that?
I was pleased and flattered to be asked, obviously, but I can’t say I feel comfortable in front of a camera trying to talk about what I’m doing with a microphone shoved up my jumper. I had been in a similar programme with Gibsons two years ago, so I knew what to expect - hours of filming for a few minutes of TV footage.
This one wasn’t made any easier because of Covid and the lock-down rules we had to follow, so the cameraman had to film it all from the open doorway of my studio. After so many years of working on my own, being filmed as I explain each step of the process I go through to achieve the final image is a little daunting. I worried I might sound boring or ramble on incoherently, but everyone seemed pleased with the end result, so I was happy. Also, it made me tidy my studio and my wife cut my hair, both of which were overdue.
What motivates you to work for yourself? Do you have any habits to keep you creatively motivated?
I think I was destined for self employment. After leaving art college I had a brief career in advertising but found more snakes than ladders. My final job, as art director at a badly run advertising agency, meant frequently working long hours which I got sick of. So when the opportunity to go freelance came, when I was only 27, I grabbed it.
That was in 1986 and full time painting was still a long way off, as I was spending most of my time doing graphic design for the contacts I’d made in the ad industry. That was my work and painting was my hobby, even though it was starting to bring in an income. It took years to make the transition from graphics to full time painting, which had become my burning ambition.
It’s no coincidence that I finally achieved that around the time I started illustrating for Gibsons. That’s why I developed a great affection for the company. It seems odd now, but I remember about twenty years ago feeling guilty because I was painting, thinking ‘I really should be getting on with that furniture brochure...’ So as for habits to keep me creatively motivated, all I have to do is recall those days. You don’t easily give up what you’ve had to strive for.
The puzzles you tend to produce are often quite nostalgic. Why is this?
I was always fascinated by the recent past, particularly the first half of the 20th century. My dad had lots of books on transport of the period and whenever I looked through them, it wasn’t just the steam trains, trams etc that fascinated me, it was all the surroundings. Scenes that looked so familiar yet so different; streets empty of cars, colourful posters on gable ends, enamel signs on a station fence, quaint market places with gas lamps… all these things I find appealing and want to capture on canvas.
I particularly enjoy the story telling aspect of illustrating and for that I think I should thank my grandma. My only surviving grandparent was my paternal grandmother. A natural story teller and a really amusing character. She was always regaling me with tales of old Baildon, the small West Yorkshire town where she grew up and lived out her life. She conveyed the atmosphere of a friendly, close-knit community and I try to capture a sense of that in my pictures. When someone does a jigsaw puzzle they are likely to be absorbed in the picture for long periods, so I try to make it look engaging, welcoming, the sort of place you want to step into in your imagination and wander round, perhaps back in your childhood or younger days if you’re an older person, or to explore back in time if you’re young.
Are there any more designs in the pipeline?
Oh yes! I’ve no intentions of stopping any time soon and I’m working on another Gibsons 4x500pc set now.
We hear you put your family members in some of your designs. How did this start?
When painting people I prefer to work from photographs, so it really helps to have someone around who can adopt the pose you’re after for your picture. So snapping my wife or daughters was the easiest thing to do, or asking them to photograph me if a male figure was required. Also, when photographing children it’s best if they are your own - or you yourself! So the family photograph albums are also a useful and fun source of reference. To add to the enjoyment, I’ve now got two grandchildren to work into the pictures!
The puzzle with the highest number of my family members in is The Country Bus 4x500pc. The ‘Journey Home’ picture inside the bus features four generations of my family. It’s the only one I’ve put my grandmother in, all be it on a newspaper being read by a passenger. She remarried in 1966 and as my step grandfather was a musician it made the local paper, which my mum kept and is now in my possession. Musical Society’s Conductor Marries is the headline. Also in the picture went me, my dad, my eldest daughter and her boyfriend at the time. My wife and her friend obliged by posing as two ladies catching the bus to market.
What’s your favourite pizza topping?
I’ll have a Prosciutto please!