Born in 1914, in China, Margaret Mellis and her family returned to Scotland soon after her birth. She studied at Edinburgh College of Art, where she was taught by SJ Peploe and WG Gillies, and learnt alongside Wilhelmina Barns-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; the couple married in 1938. Together, they moved to St Ives, Cornwall, arguably heralding the next wave of artists to the area, with 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. This move to St Ives coincided with Mellis exploring collage and relief. Created from found materials and paper, these collages were exhibited in New Movements in Art, at the London Museum in 1942. In 1946, following her divorce from Stokes, Mellis met the artist Francis Davison, with whom she moved to London, and then to Cap d’Antibes, in 1947. They married in 1948, and relocated to Walberswick, and later Syleham, Norfolk, in 1950, and then to Suffolk. For much of this time, though both continued to create artworks, neither was widely exhibited in London - they were geographically and, at times, conceptually, distant from life in the capital. This began to change, after Mellis embarked upon a series of large abstract paintings known as 'colour structures'. These were exhibited in London, with solo shows at Grabowski Gallery, in 1969, and then at Basil Jacobs Gallery, in 1972. From both shows, Mellis sold work to important public collections; the Government Art Collection bought a painting from the Basil Jacobs show, in 1972, while a painting had earlier been purchased by the Arts Council of Great Britain, in 1969.
In 1978, Mellis started creating driftwood reliefs, which she found while walking along the local coast at Southwold, and likened the creative process to Surrealist automatism. In the mid-'80s, Mellis was included in several high-profile exhibitions, including the important survey show of St Ives 1939-64, staged at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1985, and later Scottish Art since 1900, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. In 1987, the Redfern Gallery staged a retrospective exhibition, from which the Tate and Arts Council bought recent driftwood reliefs. The exhibition was also attended by a young Damien Hirst; intrigued by the driftwood constructions in particular, Hirst wrote to the artist, and was invited to visit Mellis in Southwold, forming a lasting friendship. Mellis was part of the Tate St Ives' inaugural exhibition in 1993, and was the subject of a retrospective that opened at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, and toured the UK, in 1997. Recent exhibitions include Modern Scottish Women 1885-1965, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and a joint-show with Damien Hirst at Pier Arts Centre, Orkney. In 2018, her work featured in an exhibition inspired by Virginia Woolf and her writings, at Tate St Ives.
The Redfern Gallery represents the Margaret Mellis estate.