Margaret Mellis: Painter and maker of driftwood collages

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The Independent Online

A beautiful young Scottish painter called Margaret Mellis was among the illustrious group of painters and sculptors, famously dubbed "the gentle nest of artists" who worked in wartime Carbis Bay near St Ives in Cornwall. Aged only 24 when she married the influential art critic Adrian Stokes in London in 1938, Mellis was the baby of the group. Her work, which rapidly shifted from painting to embrace collage and abstract relief-making, was influenced by the Carbis Bay "constructivists" around her. Moving with Stokes to "Little Parc Owles", a smart modern house in Carbis Bay in April 1939, Mellis subsequently shared her home with Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during the pressing first six months of the war.

Margaret Mellis was born in Wu-Kung-Fu, China in 1914. She returned to Britain the next year, at 15 entering Edinburgh College of Art, where S.J. Peploe, W. Gillies and R. Maxwell encouraged a cautiously modern approach to design and colour. Studying there until 1933, Mellis won a travelling scholarship to Paris, where she studied in André Lhote's renowned atelier, and in Spain and Italy. She returned to a fellowship at Edinburgh in 1936 before moving to London in 1938, where she married Stokes and studied at the Euston Road School, recently opened by Stokes, Victor Pasmore and Lawrence Gowing.

Ensconced in her Cornish cocoon throughout the war years, Mellis raised her only child Telfer, worked on the communal market garden and developed her evocative collages and plywood reliefs in tandem with the more rigorously abstract art of Nicholson, Hepworth and the Russian "constructivist" sculptor Naum Gabo, another of the Hampstead refugees who alighted on Cornwall at the onset of bombing. Younger painters like Peter Lanyon, John Wells and Mellis's fellow Edinburgh art student W. Barns-Graham, expanded the personnel of a group that, in response to the irresistible nature of south-west Cornwall's primitive landscape, began infusing the cosmopolitan purism of their elders with oblique but evocative references to the Penwith peninsular.

Mellis's relief constructions like "Construction in Wood" (1941) now in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Tate Gallery's papier coupe "Sobranie Collage" (1942) reflected the influence of Nicholson and Lanyon though the transparent overlapping papers and brand labels of the latter emulated the art of Gabo and Schwitters while anticipating the early abstract collages of Pasmore at the end of the decade. She would soon move on, however, the break-up of her marriage to Stokes (who went on to marry Margaret's sister) hastening her departure from Cornwall late in 1946 and a return to painting.

Marrying the painter and collagist Francis Davison in 1948, Mellis moved to a ramshackle chateau at Cap d'Antibes. They lived and worked there for the next two years, Mellis enjoying with her partner the close personal rapport and working relationship that reflected a thoroughgoing philosophy and lifestyle in which art and life were fully entwined. They returned to England in 1950, Mellis settling in Suffolk, where she would live for the rest of her life. During a decade when the material of paint and the action of painting assumed expressive significance, Mellis ensured that her still lifes were honed down to essences where the surface of paint gave a plastic dimension and a physical presence that transcended the tame and descriptive.

The physical presence of the art object, appreciated not only in terms of paint handling but also of scale, format and overall shape, gave Mellis's art a modernist pertinence and toughness. As the minimalist aesthetic took hold internationally as the late modernist style "par excellence", Mellis started in the 1970s to make driftwood reliefs from pieces of flotsam found on the beach near her home at Southwold on the Suffolk coast to where she moved in 1976. These robust compositions, while owing only a distant debt to the neater, more cerebral "constructivism" of the 1940s, were a great deal more arbitrary and immediate in their expressive character. They have no framing edge but are nevertheless hung to a wall as stable, if irregular, assemblages. They have a rough architectonic quality and do not engage in surrealist games of metamorphosis. The broken or charred fragments – from boats, oars, rudders or other nautical objects – have a sensuous richness of texture and colour that Mellis fully exploited. The ship-in-a-bottle romanticism of the Cornish years was revisited, as was the early inspiration of the Cornish primitive Alfred Wallis, who Mellis knew during the early part of the war and whose rough paintings she avidly collected.

Wallis's significance for the sophisticated Cornish modernists lay in the expressive immediacy of yacht paint and irregular painting supports. By opening up and painting on the inside wrappers of envelopes Mellis began in 1987 to emulate Wallis's use of "found" and makeshift painting supports. Like Wallis she used the "given" of the patterened papers and absorbed them into her mixed media still life compositions of flowers. This idiosyncratic manner of working also echoed the early paper collages in which commercial or brand label wrappers were bent, cut or overlapped into rectilinear patterns.

The fortuitous nature of Mellis's privileged, almost aristocratic artistic pedigree led to a modest, carefree and even cavalier approach to her career. Mellis did not seek undue fame or success though her work was always conducted with commitment and seriousness. Solo exhibitions were never frequent but were timely and held in appropriate locations. Her Scottish and Cornish roots were reflected in one-person shows at the Compass Gallery, Glasgow in 1976 and at the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness in the Orkneys in 1982. She was displayed in all major surveys of St Ives art and her early collages have usually been hung at Tate St Ives since 1993. Encountering her at that gallery's lavish opening in 1993, I felt she never left St Ives in spirit, the maritime associations running through all phases of her work.

In later years she cut a slightly eccentric figure cycling around Southwold well into her 80s and living in a rambling but suitably untidy house near Southwold beach, on which she would regularly beachcomb. One middle floor room was a heap of driftwood and other fragments from which she would compose the later reliefs. Another room was stacked with the large scale collaged "paintings" of her late husband Francis Davison, whose work Mellis ardently promoted as if her own. Visits by Telfer, who lived in Scotland, ensured a more orderly regime in which she never felt entirely comfortable. A major show at Austin/Desmond Fine Art in 2001 heralded a permanent arrangement where her work was at last represented by a respected West End gallery. She enjoys a guaranteed place in the history of the modern movement in St Ives, to whose distinctive landscape-inspired style she contributed personal and original variations.

Peter Davies

Margaret Mellis, painter and collagist: born Wu-Kung-Fu,China 22 January 1914; Fellowship, Edinburgh College of Art 1935-37; married 1938 Adrian Stokes (divorced 1946, one son), 1948 Francis Davison (died 1984); died 17 March 2009.