“I must warn you: I have a reputation, not only as an artist but as a talker,” Paul Trevillion informs me prior to our interview. “I never finish a sentence because I’ve already started the next one.”
Despite this reassuring presage, anxiety still broils inside me as I prepare a list of topics on which to question him. After all, this was the man who drew one of the most iconic footballing characters of all time, Roy from Roy Of The Rovers; this was the man who created one of the most popular comic strips of the last 60 years, You Are The Ref; and this was a man on first name terms with Pelé, the greatest footballer of all time.
Yet within five minutes of his charmingly impish North London twang first blustering a greeting, I have forgotten all about my carefully-prepared questions. Trevillion’s illustrious life has furnished him with story after wonderfully pertinent story, and it is a joy to listen to them come tumbling out of his mouth, one after the other.
Trevillion’s life in art began when he was a toddler in the 1930s, he tells me, living in Tottenham, in the shadow of White Hart Lane. “I never had a teddy bear,” he confesses. “I used to take a pencil to bed instead, and to this day I sleep with one under my pillow. At school, the teachers used to let me go over to Tottenham Hotspur’s ground and sketch, and they could recognise the players I drew, so they were happy.”
“You can teach technique, but you can’t teach talent,” he replies, when I ask him how he learnt to draw. “I don’t read very well, I don’t write too good, I don’t know my own address, and I don’t even know my phone number, but I can look at a person, walk away to a sheet of white paper, and see them on it.”
Trevillion, unlike many children living in London during the Second World War, was not evacuated and remained there throughout the Blitz. It was then, amidst the trauma of the air raids, that his love of Comic Art Realism was born.
“American G.I.’s showed me some Superman comics,” he recalls, “and I couldn’t believe these drawings. I wanted to do Comic Art Realism too. So when I was approached to draw Roy Of The Rovers, I told them it had to look real.”
Fleetway Publications were unenthusiastic about using Trevillion’s drawings, but when unforeseen problems forced them to, the results were wholly unexpected.
“After 12 weeks, they were getting letters from little boys asking for Roy’s autograph. They thought he was real. Kerry Dixon, when he played for Chelsea, used to dress up as Roy and sign autographs as him.”
This realism has imbued Trevillion’s work throughout his career. It can be seen in the evocative illustrations that accompany You Are The Ref, the comic strip detailing difficult refereeing conundrums that Trevillion created in 1957. It can be seen in the sketch of Churchill that was apparently the only portrait of himself the great man ever liked. But it is best observed in his portrait of Pelé, which recently sold for £50,000 at the Strand Gallery.
“I was told by the man who bought it that he could hear Pelé’s heart beating, and feel him breathing”, Trevillion tells me. “One guy saw it and told me he could have a conversation with it in his office every morning.”
One can feel this same vitality exuding from Trevillion himself. His express train speed of thought is evident in his fluid, jittery conversation and his years of living life to the full shine through in his gloriously entertaining anecdotes.
“I once did a drawing of Alf Ramsey heading the ball,” begins one. “I showed it to him to get it signed, but he looked at it and tore it up. ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘Because I don’t head the ball,’ he told me, ‘and I haven’t all season.’”
Another started, “I remember asking the Professor [Prof.Júlio Mazzei, Pelé’s coach and confidant] what the difference was between Maradona and Pelé. He told me that Maradona was the quick-step, but Pelé was the waltz.”
Yet Trevillion is much, much more than a mere arsenal of remarkable anecdotes. His is a life full of adventure, from drawing celebrity portraits on the back of menus to negotiate his way across America, to performing standup comedy alongside Norman Wisdom and Bob Monkhouse; from being crowned world speed-kissing champion to inventing a new golf-putting technique.
And such a fantastically rich life has instilled in him an inspiring ‘no regrets’ philosophy, which I will forever associated with this chirpy sports artist from Tottenham.
“I see people standing in shops doing the same thing every day,” he tells me, “and they say things like, ‘I wanted to do this’ or ‘I was going to be that.’ ‘Well go for it then,’ I want to say. ‘Give yourself a chance. Walk out. If you think you can do it, you probably can.’”
“Everybody dies, but not everybody lives,” he asserts. “You can get over disappointments, so it is always better to fail than not to try. You mustn’t have regrets, Fergus. You must never have regrets. ‘He had a go’ is all I want written on my gravestone.”