Born in 1914, in Wukingfu, Swatow, China, Margaret Mellis’ family returned to Scotland soon after her birth. She began studying at Edinburgh College of Art at fifteen, where she was taught by Samuel John Peploe and W. G. Gillies, and learnt alongside Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and William Gear. In 1933, she went to Paris to study under André Lhote, followed by another visit in 1937. In between, in 1936, she met Adrian Stokes, marrying him in 1938. Together, they moved to St Ives, Cornwall, arguably heralding the next wave of artists to the area—among these: Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, and Roger Hilton. Before this, she studied for a time at the Euston Road School, before fleeing to Cornwall following the outbreak of war.


When she moved down to St Ives, Mellis explored collage and relief. The former of these were created from paper, and reflected Nicholson’s abstract paintings. She exhibited these at New Movements in Art, in 1942, which introduced an abstraction that was not accepted until far later. Mellis was also renowned as a colourist, and treated colour with bold contrasts and striking juxtapositions.


In 1946, Mellis left St Ives with her son, Telfer, following her divorce from Stokes. Before she left, she met the artist Francis Davison, with whom she moved to London, and then Cap d’Antibes, in 1947. They married in 1948, and then went to Walberswick and, later, Syleham, Norfolk, in 1950. Her divorce had pushed Mellis back to figuration, but she soon recovered her interest in abstraction. Mellis and Davison worked together on their art and on the land, until Mellis was forced by rheumatoid arthritis to move to Suffolk. She recovered a little, and continued to work and to promote her husband’s art. However, neither was widely exhibited in London—they were geographically and, at times, conceptually, distant from life in the capital. Her paintings from this period are primarily abstract dialogues between shape and bright colour.


Mellis began the work for which she is probably best known, her driftwood reliefs, in 1978. These played with the forms and colours of the pieces as she found them, although she painted these at times, in vibrant, contrasting colours. She said that these pieces simply emerged, a process akin to Surrealist automatism. Francis Davison died in 1984, and Mellis, no longer having to care for her ailing husband, found a new lease of working life, and a new success. She lived until she was ninety-five, dying in 2009, and, in the 1990s, became a mentor to Damien Hirst. She has had several high-profile posthumous retrospectives, and was included as a major part of the Tate St Ives Summer exhibition in 2011.


Margaret Mellis’s Estate is represented by the Redfern Gallery.

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Margaret Mellis

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