Catalogue entry

T04929 Marsh White 1975

Oil on canvas 399 × 425 (15 3/4 × 16 3/4) laid on oil on board 569 × 618 (22 3/8 × 24 3/8)
Inscribed ‘TOP [the ‘O’ pierced by a vertical arrow] | Margaret MeLLIS | MarSH WHITE | OIL ON CANVAS | (unprepared) | about 1975 22 1/4 × 24 1/4 "ins' on back of board and cross batten
Purchased from Redfern Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Exh: Margaret Mellis: Paintings and Relief Paintings, Compass Gallery, Glasgow, June–July 1976 (45, as ‘Will O’ The Wisp’, repr. on front cover); Margaret Mellis: Constructions, Paintings, Reliefs 1940–80, Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, May–June 1982 (12); Margaret Mellis: A Retrospective Exhibition 1940–1987. Constructions in Wood and Paintings, Redfern Gallery, April–May 1987 (35, dated 1972)

‘Marsh White’ has yellow, orange and white geometric shapes painted onto a square piece of unprimed canvas. This is mounted onto a larger board which is painted white. Three of the edges of the canvas are frayed, and nearly a third of the canvas remains uncovered by paint.

In conversation with the compiler on 2 October 1991 the artist said that she wanted to bring the colours together in order to make them ‘glow’. The artist explained that she likes strong colours, such as red, blue, green and yellow, to be positioned next to each other so that the coloured shapes relate at ‘full strength’. In T04929 Mellis wanted the canvas to ‘equal’ the paint, so that both would be read as positive elements, either canvas on top of paint or vice versa. The artist applied just one relatively thin layer of paint onto the board, so that it would not compete with the thicker layers of white on the canvas. When the work was in the artist's studio, it was displayed in a box frame originally made for painting by the artist Alfred Wallis (1855–1942). Mellis's first husband, the writer and painter Adrian Stokes (1902–72), bought the painting from Wallis, whom Mellis and Stokes knew when they lived in Cornwall. Mellis subsequently used the box frame for T04929 because the Wallis had been put into another frame; she later transferred T04929 to its current frame.

When living in Cornwall, in the period 1940–5, Mellis had worked in an abstract mode. Subsequently, the paintings she made when living near Nice from 1946 to 1950 were concerned with colour and space but were figurative. After her return to England in 1950 her paintings gradually became abstract once more and larger in scale. She has called the work produced between 1963 and 1969 ‘colour structures’. In reply to a questionnaire sent by the compiler on 19 August 1991 the artist wrote that these ‘colour structures’ were ‘large canvases in dense paint completely abstract. Colour against colour same texture’. By slowly building up the paint within abstract shapes, the artist was able to determine the exact colour and tone of the image, as in ‘Violet and Green’, 1967 (repr. The Women's Art Show 1550–1970, exh. cat., Nottingham Castle Museum 1982, p.81). Colour is juxtaposed against colour and the entire canvas surface is covered with smooth layers of paint. Mellis found that this style of painting allowed her maximum control and gave her a clear understanding of colour relations.

By 1969 Mellis felt she had fully explored this way of working. She sought to loosen her brushstrokes and to engage with the relation between canvas and paint textures. At the same time she dramatically reduced the size of her canvases. ‘By 1969’, Mellis has stated, ‘I wanted to make small paintings as powerful as large ones (sometimes large ones look impressive because of their size)’ (quoted in Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition, exh. cat., Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries 1990, p.104). During this period she experimented with small constructions, sometimes referred to as relief paintings, made up of layers of wood and oil paint (see, for example, ‘Rose Diamond’, repr. Margot Peryman, Margaret Mellis, Jake Kempsell, Norman Adams, exh. cat., Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh 1970, p.[3]). Mellis also worked on a series of small paintings which included T04929.

T04929 is one of a group of works, each consisting of unstretched canvas mounted onto board, which Mellis executed between 1969 and 1975. They were not painted as a single unbroken sequence: ‘There were big gaps between these paintings. “Moonlit Houses” and “Burnt House” were from the same idea. There were others from that idea but “Marsh White” was quite different’ (questionnaire dated 19 August 1991). ‘Burnt House’, 1975–6 (repr. Margaret Mellis, exh. cat., Redfern Gallery 1987, p.[13]) consists of an octagonal shaped piece of unstretched canvas mounted on board. Although similar to ‘Marsh White’ in its use of geometric shapes, most of the canvas in ‘Burnt House’ has been painted.

The idea for ‘Marsh White’ came out of an earlier painting: ‘There wasn't a trial one’, she wrote to the compiler, ‘only one which I used for the actual shape & it was quite different’. The artist continued, ‘I tried to use the idea [of ‘Marsh White’] again & never succeeded. There is one small canvas which gave me the idea & one after but neither of them are marsh or white’. The work executed immediately after ‘Marsh White’ had an arrangement of geometric shapes similar to that in T04929, but a different range of colours, including dark blue. The artist was dissatisfied with this work and destroyed it.

In September 1950 Mellis moved to Church Farm Cottage, Syleham, near Diss in Norfolk, and T04929 was made there in January 1975. Mellis titles her works after they are completed and has occasionally changed the titles subsequently. Syleham Marsh is noted for a visual phenomenon known as ‘Syleham Lights’, which are formed by natural gases and are referred to locally as ‘will-o’-the-wisps’. Mellis initially called T04929 ‘Will-O-the-Wisp’ but, dissatisfied with the title, changed it to ‘Marsh White’. On a visit to the Tate Gallery on 3 August 1987 the artist commented that the white area to the bottom left of the canvas was like ‘a snow field’ and that the orange area across the top of the canvas was ‘like a sunset on the marsh’. Furthermore, she likened the diagonal from the bottom left corner to ‘somebody rushing across the marsh’. The artist read these associations into the work after it was completed. However, she believes that her experience of being physically acquainted with Syleham Marsh subconsciously contributed to the making of T04929, so that ‘afterwards that is what it meant & means to me’ (questionnaire dated 19 August 1991).

In ‘Marsh White’ Mellis was concerned with the relationship between the different colours and between the different textures of paint and canvas. When asked by the compiler if the colour theories of her first husband, Adrian Stokes, and in particular his book Colour and Form, 1937, had an influence on the development of her ideas, the artist replied, ‘No. When I first met him in 1936 in Paris he hadn't written colour & form & we talked about it a lot, his ideas about the importance of colour & mine were the same’. Piero della Francesca, she added, ‘was both his & my most favourite painter’. ‘The qualities of space by colour-shape were what we both thought most important. No-one else thought in that way it was all “significant form”’. Mellis went on to say, ‘Adrian had his own ideas about specific colours all to do with him personally[.] I had mine & they were different’.

There were no preparatory drawings for T04929 and Mellis did not have a clear end in view when she began work on it. ‘I find it out while I'm doing it’, she wrote to the compiler. T04929 was painted flat on the studio floor, using brushes, and has always had its present orientation. Mellis found working on unprepared canvas quite difficult because the paint tended to drag on the canvas and each mark had to be thought about carefully before being made. As she did not have to stretch the canvas (an activity she dislikes), she was able to work directly on to the unprimed canvas and thus could start at once, which gave her a great sense of freedom. Mellis inscribed the work on the back of the board and across the batten in pencil into wet white paint.

Mellis has not painted on canvas since 1984 when her second husband, Francis Davison, died. Instead, she has concentrated on wood for constructions and unfolded envelopes for chalk drawings.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996