Thursday, October 31, 2013

Margaret Mellis and St Ives Modernism

Margaret Mellis spent only seven years in Cornwall, yet this period would prove the most formative in a long and wide-ranging career. Fear of impending war brought her to Carbis Bay, near St Ives, in 1939 and the breakup of her marriage in 1946 drove her away.
Of course Mellis was not alone in finding sanctuary in the south west, but she and her husband, the painter and critic Adrian Stokes, were the first of their Hampstead circle to move to Cornwall.

A postgraduate travelling scholarship from Edinburgh College of Art in 1936 had taken Margaret to Paris, where the use of colour in the paintings of Matisse and Bonnard made a particular impact on her. While admiring the works of Cezanne on show in the Jeu de Paume, she met Adrian for the first time. She was just 22 while he, aged 34, was writing his book, ‘Colour and Form’. The following year both were in London, where their friendship blossomed. Together they attended the Euston Road School, studying alongside William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore. After marrying in 1938 they remained in London, but the threat of imminent war led them to search for a home of their own at a distance from the capital and ideally within an existing artists’ community.
Evening Landscape
1937 Oil on panel
On a visit to St Ives they fell in love with a rambling country house in nearby Carbis Bay, moving in during April 1939. Built of granite, with several acres and a terraced garden, Little Parc Owles was sheltered from the wind by large trees, yet blessed with a wonderful view of the bay below. There was plenty of room for a studio each. So Adrian was able to focus on his writing while Margaret’s representational canvases revealed the influence of her former tutor, the Scottish Colourist S J Peploe, and also the post-impressionists. The walls were hung with paintings by their friend, the virtually unknown Alfred Wallis. Pots by Bernard Leach, who lived nearby, were in everyday domestic use.

In August their marital idyll was abruptly shattered by the arrival of friends from London to whom Adrian had promised hospitality in the event of war. This would turn out to be a seminal moment in the development of modernism in St Ives. Ben Nicholson, his wife Barbara Hepworth and their five-year old triplets, together with a nurse and a cook, descended on Little Parc Owles, followed soon after by William and Nancy Coldstream, and Naum Gabo and his wife Miriam. Unaccustomed to living in such proximity, these volatile exponents of the avant-garde began to clash both personally and artistically. It was Margaret, as woman of the house, who suffered the slings and arrows of the powerful egos around her, but managed to keep her emotions in check. Coldstream and Nicholson were professionally incompatible, so the former returned to London after a short time, while the latter took over Adrian’s studio. Hepworth and Nicholson were often at loggerheads and tempers would flare, creating a difficult atmosphere. Margaret sometimes painted in her and Adrian’s bedroom, and occasionally even in a corridor, having sacrificed her studio to the Nicholson children and their nurse. The Gabo couple moved into a neighbouring bungalow, somewhat alleviating the rising tensions and professional rivalries within the household.

This dysfunctional domestic milieu offered an unexpected boost to Mellis’ art practice. Observing her creative potential and dedicated approach, Ben Nicholson decided to take the younger artist under his wing. Margaret found that with his encouragement, her work evolved in a new direction. Her experiments at this time also paid homage to the relief constructions of Gabo. Collages incorporating everyday household materials such as labels became the focus of her creativity, making an important contribution to the abstraction which would define St Ives art of the wartime period. Sobranie Collage manifests the artist’s deeply-felt commitment to ‘truth to materials’, a principle which remained central to her work despite its numerous transformations.
Sobranie Collage
1942 Collage, paper laid on board
By early 1940 alternative accommodation had been found for the Nicholson family. But the flow of visitors continued, and a great deal of work was required on their land to maintain the livestock and a good supply of fresh vegetables at a time of scarcity. Alongside her domestic responsibilities, Margaret somehow made time for her art. The intensity of the artistic and intellectual stimulus in this environment energised her, giving rise to a creative force borne of intuition.
Construction with Yellow Oval
1941 Collage, ink and paper
However, Adrian became resentful of the attention Margaret’s work was receiving from Ben. His relationship with Nicholson deteriorated and he became morose and withdrawn. Margaret, now pregnant, became aware that there was a selfish side to her husband, who began to spend increasing lengths of time away from home. She longed for companionship and moral support and so wrote to her mother expressing the hope that her younger sister Ann might be able to come and stay. Her arrival met with Adrian’s approval, and Ann became indispensible to the household, staying on for a year after Telfer’s birth in October. Adrian was a jealous father and felt excluded from the bond between mother and son. Margaret seemed unaware that her marriage was on shaky ground, immersed as she was in a new artistic venture, sculpting in marble.
Divided Forms/
Two Forms

1943/44 Marble
The original circle of artists who had found refuge in St Ives was augmented by Margaret’s close friend and a former student at Edinburgh College of Art, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Like Mellis, Barns-Graham turned to abstraction soon after settling in, amid the maelstrom of modernist debate. Other artist friends and visitors included Sven Berlin, Patrick Heron, and Peter and Sheila Lanyon (who later bought Little Parc Owles).

The discovery, just after the war, of Adrian’s affair with her sister Ann, came as a terrible shock to Margaret. She found this double betrayal incomprehensible. Distraught at the prospect of Adrian seeking a divorce, she insisted on remaining at Little Parc Owles to maintain some security for Telfer. However, at the end of 1946 she moved to London, abandoning abstraction, so closely associated with the disintegration of her marriage. Incredibly, she managed to sustain her relationship with her sister, despite the fact that Ann and Adrian were married the following year.
Fish in Pan
1950 Oil on canvas
Margaret sought solace from a friend of Patrick Heron, Francis Davison, also a painter. He and Margaret, with Telfer in tow, moved to the south of France, and were married in Nice in 1948. Francis did much to restore his wife’s confidence in her artistic ability. She returned to figurative painting, which dominated her oeuvre for the next few years. After returning to the UK in 1950 to make their home in East Anglia, Mellis’ career forged ahead, and from the late 1970s onwards she achieved considerable acclaim for her driftwood constructions.
Scarlet Undercurrent
2001 Driftwood construction
Forty years after leaving Cornwall, her inclusion in the Tate Gallery’s 1985 exhibition ‘St Ives 1939-1964’ attests to her role in the development of modernism during the war years. Margaret Mellis died in Suffolk in 2009, aged 95. In her obituary she was described as ‘a pivotal figure in modernist British art’.

©2013 Helen Hoyle

Further reading: ‘Margaret Mellis’ by Andrew Lambirth (2010)

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