Catalogue entry

This page comprises two separate full catalogue texts.

John Wells born 1907

T03957 Painting 1956

Oil on hardboard 915 x 1220 (36 x 48)

Inscribed on back in pencil over two areas of white paint at centre 'John Wells | 1956' and 'Anchor Studios | Trewarveneth Street | Newlyn W. Cornwall'

Presented by Ken Powell 1985

John Wells told the Tate Gallery in a letter of 14 January 1988 that Painting 1956 (T03957) 'is a purely abstract work' and, unlike many of his paintings, not inspired by natural forces or events. The painting is certainly larger and more severe in its abstraction than most of his work. He has said elsewhere, however, that 'even the most abstract things, I feel they come out of landscape for me because landscape is what I love' (Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 1981). Looking at this work in 1995, he identified the black arc as a favourite shape which he had used throughout his career; it can be seen, for instance, in Relief Construction (qv) (interview, 1995). Though an abstract geometric form, he believed that it was probably derived, unconsciously, from the shape of a sailing boat; specifically, of the jib sail when sailing close to the wind. The painting's composition is based on the Golden Section and on a grid of six-inch squares, the pencil lines of which are visible in places. A series of diagonals, from the top left hand corner to six-inch divisions along the right hand edge, and from the bottom right hand corner to a Golden Section point along that edge, dominate the picture's underlying pattern. It is this that gives the composition's sense of movement towards the right-hand edge.

Though Wells wrote in 1988, in relation to Painting 1956, that his choice of colours was intuitive, in 1995 he observed that the colouring was 'quite crude' (ibid.). The colours have been applied in a single layer on to a magnolia ground which gives them their luminosity. The uneven appearance of the large blue area to the right suggests that the paint was applied when the ground was still wet, allowing the paint to mix and producing areas of differing density. Wells clearly took great care to paint each area up to the pencil lines, which are visible in places, so that the different colours never overlapped. It is possible to see, however, that the lower area of white has been applied over part of the red section, suggesting that in this instance the artist had a change of mind.

Wells told the compiler in January 1993 that the intention in his purely abstract works was the 'balance of line and colour, or mass and colour, derived from Ben Nicholson's rectangular paintings' (interview, compiler, Jan. 1993). Wells owned a number of Nicholson's painted reliefs from the 1930s and 40s and the Tate Gallery's painting 1937 (T00050) was also a favourite of his. The combination of different pale blues with black and bright red in Painting 1956 is certainly very close to the colouring of the Nicholson. Wells balanced the composition of the picture by countering the movement towards the right with the use of smaller, more complex forms on the left. This might explain why he painted over part of the red area which would have given the arrangement an even greater sense of momentum to the right. Wells related Painting 1956 to the later hard-edged paintings that he showed in his 1964 Waddington Galleries exhibition. 'You can only do a certain number of such works', he said, 'then you can't do any more'.

Provenance:
Purchased from the artist via Waddington Galleries by Ken Powell 1960.

Exhibited:
The Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall, Arts Council tour, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nov.-Dec. 1957, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull, Dec.-Jan. 1958, Leicester Art Gallery, Jan.-Feb., Mansfield Museum and Art Gallery, Feb.-March, Birmingham City Art Gallery, March-April, Hereford Art Gallery, May-June, Kettering Museum and Art Gallery, June-July, Bolton Art Gallery, July-Aug., Cooper Art Gallery, Barnsley, Aug., Turner House Museum, Penarth, Sept., Arts Council Gallery, Cambridge, Oct.-Nov. 1958 (37)
John Wells, Waddington Galleries, Sept. 1960 (29)
Malerei der Gegenswart aus Sudwestengland, Kunstverein, Hanover, June-July 1962 (76, repr., as Komposition 1956)
Aspects of Abstract Painting in Britain 1910-1960, Talbot Rice Art Centre, Edinburgh, Aug.-Sept. 1974 (88, repr.)
St. Ives, 1985 (183, repr.)

Literature:
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-6, pp.290-1, repr.

Chris Stephens
March 1996

Full catalogue entry from The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84

John Wells born 1907

T03957 Painting 1956

Oil on hardboard 915 x 1220 (36 x 48)
Inscribed `John Wells 1956' and `Anchor Studio, Trewarveneth Street | Newlyn. W. Cornwall' on centre of backboard
Presented by Ken Powell 1985
Prov: Waddington Galleries 1960, from whom bought by Ken Powell 1960
Exh: John Wells, Waddington Galleries, Sept. 1960 (29); The Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall, AC tour, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nov.-Dec. 1957, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull, Dec. 1957-Jan. 1958, Leicester Art Gallery, Jan.-Feb. 1958, Mansfield Museum and Art Gallery, Feb.-March 1958, Birmingham City Art Gallery, March-April 1958, Brighton Art Gallery, April-May 1958, Hereford Art Gallery, May-June 1958, Kettering Museum and Art Gallery, June-July 1958, Bolton Art Gallery, July-Aug. 1958, Cooper Art Gallery, Barnsley, Aug. 1958, Turner House Museum, Penarth, Sept. 1958, Arts Council Gallery, Cambridge, Oct.-Nov. 1958 (37); Malerei der Gegenwart aus Südwestengland, Kunstverein, Hanover, June-July 1962 (76, repr.); Aspects of Abstract Painting in Britain 1910-1960, Talbot Rice Art Centre, Edinburgh, Aug.-Sept. 1974 (88, repr.); St. Ives 1939-64, Tate Gallery, Feb-April 1985 (183, repr.)

In a letter to the compiler dated 14 January 1988 Wells wrote: `It [T03957] is a purely abstract work ... generally my work can be divided into two classes 1. Geometric, constructive. 2. More organic and generally related to landscape. But there are many works which fall between the two categories'. The artist points out in the same letter that this work, unlike many of his paintings, was not inspired by any natural forms or events and the choice of colours was intuitive.

Wells discussed colour in his paintings in a taped interview with David Lewis and Sarah Fox-Pitt on 13 April 1981 (Tate Gallery Archives TAV 251 AB): `I generally [use] lots of greys to start with and then try and boost that up with one or two bright saturated colour areas.'

Wells later recalled in a letter to the Tate Gallery dated 10 March 1988:

After meeting Ben Nicholson in 1928, I think it was quite a long time before I became aware of Abstraction in Art ... I must have started making experiments during the war (in Scilly). I remember N. Gabo saying to me `you do not want to do circles and squares all your life do you?' The curve in `Painting' 1956 is still part of a circle.


This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.290-1