John Wells Microcosm 1957–9

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Artwork details

Artist
John Wells 1907–2000
Title
Microcosm
Date 1957–9
Medium Oil paint on hardboard
Dimensions Support: 253 x 406 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977
Reference
T02229
Not on display

Catalogue entry

John Wells born 1907

T02229 Microcosm 1957-9

Oil on hardboard 253 x 406 (10 x 16) on hardboard support 305 x 457 (12 x 18)

Inscribed on back in black crayon on area of white paint, 'John Wells 1957-9 MICROCOSM 10 | ANCHOR STUDIO | TREWARVENETH STREET | NEWLYN | CORNWALL', and in pencil, '18 x 12'

Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Typically of John Wells, a wide range of different techniques has been employed in the painting of Microcosm. As in Painting, 1957, the artist has applied a series of superimposed oil glazes on to a white ground. These have been abraded and scratched with a blade and sandpaper so that under-lying layers of paint are revealed and the surface becomes a complex pattern of swirling incisions. As a result the picture has a range of matt and glossy surface effects and a sense of depth and luminosity. Wells again used a geometric grid to generate an abstract pattern into which he inserted areas of strong colour.

However, in contrast to Painting, 1957, Wells then added some more painterly touches. He told the Tate Gallery (in conversation, 8 Nov. 1977) that the black and white swirls on the left hand side were applied using an 'oil and wax off-set' technique. Oil paint, mixed with wax to make it slow drying, was painted onto waxed paper and then transferred to the painting by drawing the pattern on the back of the paper. As a result the lines are impasted but flattened off. The central area of burnt sienna that dominates the picture appears to have been applied with a knife. This area obscures much of the underlying abstract pattern, so the red triangle near the middle of the picture would appear to have been added last to draw the composition together. Though dated '1957-59', the execution of this work is unlikely to have taken place throughout that period. It was common practice for Wells to make minor adjustments to works some time after he originally painted them and that is most probably the case here.

In 1977 Wells said (ibid.) that the picture's mounting board should be considered to be an integral part of the work. This is consistent with the fact that the board appears to have been painted after the main support was attached to it. In addition, the main painted board is of uneven proportions, it being 1/4 inch wider at the top. Wells thought it unlikely that his use of old boards reflected the influence of Alfred Wallis, suggesting it was more probably the need to 'just get on with it as quick as you can'.

Wells said in 1977 (ibid.) that the imagery of Microcosm was based on an imaginary landscape and was not intended to evoke anything specific. He also thought that it had probably been one of a series. Microcosm would appear to fall between Wells's abstract work and his more literal depictions of landscape. The image has been generated in much the same way as in Painting, 1957. However, the rich red and brown colouring of Microcosm is seen in a number of more representational landscapes of the late 1950s, like Tin Country, 1959 (private collection), in which it suggests the staining of the iron ore which is a characteristic of Cornish cliffs. In addition, the sense of a foreground at the bottom of Microcosm, achieved by the apparent recession of the diagonal lines, recalls a painting like Vista, 1955 (repr. Studio, June 1959, p.191). Vista is remarkable in that one apparently sees a landscape as if moving above it, suggesting that it might relate to Wells's interest in flying. During the war Wells had been pleased to learn from the RAF pilots that a painting of his based upon rock pools also looked like the Isles of Scilly seen from the air. In January 1993 he told the compiler that he liked the idea of formal consistency between microcosm and macrocosm and, later, thought a similar idea might have been in his mind when he titled this work.

Provenance:
Purchased by Miss E.M. Hodgkins from the Penwith Gallery, St Ives 1959

Exhibited:
Spring Exhibition, Penwith Gallery, St Ives, 1959 (47)

Literature:
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, p.139

Chris Stephens
March 1996


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