Catalogue entry

John Wells born 1907

T02233 Untitled Drawing 1952

Oil, pastel, coloured pencil and watercolour on paper 236 x 290 (11 3/8 x 9 1/4")

Inscribed 'John Wells 1952' b.r.

Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Though depicting a bird, and also a fish, this drawing probably started out as an abstract pattern. Wells appears to have begun by making a rapid swirling pattern with a hard brown crayon, over which he rubbed pastel: towards the lower left is a lemon yellow area and to the upper right, an orange one. Where it was obscured by the orange pastel he strengthened the brown line with black oil paint. He then echoed it with a more carefully drawn line in red crayon, starting and finishing at the point near the beak of the bird in the top left part of the composition. There are two black lines, one forming the head and body of the bird, the other a 'W' form towards the right which suggests its wings, which have been made using an off-set drawing technique. That is to say, a second sheet of paper covered with a thick wax and oil paint mix has been lain onto this sheet and the pattern drawn through. This is consistent with the blobs along the lines and with traces of black pigment over the paper as a whole. Wells told the compiler (recorded interview, 30 Dec. 1995) that with that technique, 'the fact that you can't see what you're doing is rather good because you don't get so tense'. He also thought that, as the black lines appeared to be 'fairly organised', the depiction of a bird had, at that stage, been intentional. In 1977 Wells told David Brown (conversation, 8 Nov. 1977) that the off-set had been applied twice, presumably referring to the two distinct black lines. In addition, the black triangle, bottom left, was twice applied over the drawing by pressing a triangle of card painted with watercolour onto the paper. An oblong object or piece of card was also used to print a series of marks near the centre of the composition in red watercolour. In 1995, Wells was pleased to recognise his characteristic semi-parabolic curve forming the head of the bird. He believed it was particularly common in his work around 1952 and can be seen in Aspiring Forms and Sea-Bird Forms (ibid.).

In 1995 Wells associated this drawing with advice he had received from Ben Nicholson (interview, 1995). 'Ben said to me once', the artist had recalled earlier (Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 1981), '"you know, if you get stuck just draw a few lines". I've always done that, very evocative a few lines'. The transition from what appears to be an automatist drawing, in the style of André Masson, to the representation of a bird is typical of Wells's use of abstraction to depict natural subject matter. In contrast to the freedom of the first brown line, the red and black lines have been carefully applied. With the red line Wells diligently followed the brown, and with red and black lines he took great care to ensure that the lines start and end at the same point. The sense of continuity and wholeness this creates, which is also characteristic of Nicholson's drawing, reflects Gabo's advice. Wells recalled in 1981 that Gabo had advised him, 'if you draw a line you must make it go somewhere' (Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 1981).

On the reverse of this work is a conté drawing of a pair of human legs, apparently part of a larger figure. In 1977 John Wells told David Brown in conversation that he did not recognise this fragment and thought it might be by another artist, though he did not suggest who that could have been.

Provenance:
Purchased by Miss E.M. Hodgkins from the Penwith Gallery, date unknown

Literature:
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, p.140

Chris Stephens
March 1996