Margaret Mellis

Number Thirty Five


In Tate St Ives

Margaret Mellis 1914–2009
Household paint on wood
Object: 540 × 755 × 60 mm
Purchased 1987

Display caption

Mellis trained as an artist in Edinburgh and Paris. Between 1939 and 1946 she became part of the community of avant-garde artists living and working in and around St Ives. This included Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who lived briefly with Mellis and her husband Adrian Stokes in 1939. Impressed by the work of Nicholson and Naum Gabo she became a constructivist. This work comprises pieces of driftwood, including mahogany, pine and plywood, which she collected from the beach at Southwold, where she moved in 1976. Some of the pieces of wood were already painted when found, others were painted by the artist. She refers to her walk on the beach as a hunt and the driftwood collected as her trophies.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T04930 Number Thirty Five 1983

Painted wood relief construction 540 × 755 × 60 (21 1/4 × 29 3/4 × 2 3/8)

Inscribed ‘THIRTY FIVE (35) | 1983 (March)’ on back at centre
Purchased from Redfern Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1987

Exh: Margaret Mellis: A Retrospective Exhibition 1940–1987. Constructions in Wood and Paintings, Redfern Gallery, April–May 1987 (42)
Lit: Peter Hill, ‘George Wyllie at Third Eye, Glasgow, Margaret Mellis 1940–1980 at the Pier Arts Gallery, Stromness, Orkney and at New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh’, Artscribe, no.38, Dec. 1982, p.59
Repr: Times, 5 Sept. 1987, p.13, as ‘No.35’

T04930 is the thirty-fifth work in a series of non-figurative, driftwood reliefs which Mellis made between 1978 and 1983. It consists of thirteen sections. Although it has not been possible to identify all the wood types used, the following varieties have been identified: mahogany, pine, plywood and softwood. The artist recommends that T04930 be displayed on a bright, white wall so that the wall shows through the hole in the centre of the work. It should not be placed in a box frame.

The artist first made constructions when living in Cornwall between 1940 and 1945, where she made collage and relief carvings in paper, cardboard, wood and slate, as well as free-standing stone and marble sculptures. From 1969 she worked on painted wooden reliefs and since 1978 has made driftwood reliefs. When asked if these three phases were connected, Mellis wrote on 19 August 1991 in reply to a questionnaire sent by the compiler: ‘Only in so far as they come after each other. I.E. I c[oul]d n[o]t have done the second lot IF I hadn't done the first nor the third without the second. You accumulate a sort of all over knowledge which is a very slow process & of which you are unaware until you need it.’

The driftwood reliefs can be divided into two types: abstract works executed between 1978 and 1983, and those made after the death of Mellis's second husband, the collagist Francis Davison (1919–84), which have figurative references. The artist has described how she began to collect driftwood after she moved to Southwold on the Suffolk coast in 1976: ‘We picked up drift wood to burn. We burnt unrepeatable bits of wood. One day I rescued a fat round red bit. It stayed in my studio. Other bits accumulated. In 1978 I made one relief - partly driftwood. In 1979 two and in 1980 a great spate of them. All non-figurative’ (quoted in Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition, exh. cat., Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries 1990, p.104).

Twenty-eight of the reliefs, dating from 1978 to 1981, were exhibited in Margaret Mellis 1940–80: Constructions Paintings Reliefs, Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, May–June 1982. Although the artist is unsure of the total number of reliefs made, ‘Number Thirty Five’ was one of the last works in the series. She does not feel that any one relief was directly influenced by the one that preceded it. T04930 was ‘a Brighter colour & perhaps bigger than the others in that batch. I thought it was the best one’.

T04930 was made in March 1983 at the artist's studio in Southwold, Suffolk, ‘after I had shown the others at the Pier Art Centre in 1982. I was making up the no I had sold. Then I went back to painting. When my husband got ill I had [to] stop altogether. I did work continuously & I can't remember how long. Quite long’. In making works of the type represented by T04930, the starting point for Mellis is her walk on the beach to collect driftwood. Her choice is determined by shape, colour and texture. On her return to the studio she adds the found driftwood to the woodpiles situated both inside her house and outside in the garden. The period between selecting the wood and using it in a work is very important. ‘It is almost the most important - that is which bits I select to go together out of the pile.’ Although the appearance of a piece of driftwood will be determined by the degree of weathering it has been exposed to, it is the resulting appearance and not how this came about which interests Mellis. She views the walk as analogous to a hunt and the pieces of driftwood as her trophies. Douglas Hall commented on this aspect of the working process:

Each found object or discarded piece of wood, in which a rural coastline is rich, is carefully assessed for its potential and put aside against the time when it too can be absorbed into a dynamic, working whole. In this way the so-called abstract artist may come into a closer relationship with the world outside, than the artist who is concerned only to paint it from a distance.

(Margaret Mellis 1940–80: Constructions Paintings Reliefs,, Pier Arts Centre 1982 [p.2])

T04930 probably took two to three months to complete and was the only construction on which she was working. When asked which beach the driftwood for T04930 was collected from the artist replied, ‘I think the round bit [3] (which I painted blue as soon as I got it home, because it was a nice shape but a boring colour) was Covehythe [Covehithe]. The others may have been Southwold’. Mellis explained in a letter to the compiler dated 4 June 1993, ‘I sometimes lay out several possible ideas (or balance them up against my studio wall[)]. Then I start on one of them, the most exciting one, & then keep going until it has turned into something or collapsed into nothing’.

All the pieces were selected from the woodpile in Mellis's studio. The main colour of the relief is blue. This was determined by the bluey-brown piece of driftwood which formed the backboard and was the starting point for the composition. Mellis was attracted to the rough surface texture of this piece. Most of the pieces were found already painted and then some were selectively overpainted in blue. The paint used was a combination of white gloss paint and Winsor and Newton oil paint, applied with brushes. On a visit to the Tate Gallery on 3 August 1987 the artist indicated the order in which the pieces were assembled, as far as she could remember, as follows:

1. The backboard, made of plywood with a central hole, approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The board has four or more layers of the original paint (dark blue, bright blue, red, and a top layer of dark blue).

2. The left edge of the work, formed by a ragged and cracked piece of shaped plywood with the original red and blue paint.

3. The circular piece of softwood, at bottom right, previously the top of a barrel. When the artist found the piece she disliked its colour and so painted it blue before placing it on the woodpile. The piece was subsequently selected from the woodpile and incorporated into T04930.

4. The smaller piece of curved wood on top of the third piece, painted blue by the artist.

5. The mahogany rectangle, neither painted nor varnished, placed behind the circular barrel top.

6. The two pieces of horizontal softwood placed above piece no.4; cut by the artist on the left to fit under piece no.8. The original red paint has been applied to bare wood, with only half the length of each piece painted.

7. The rectangle at top right, made of plywood with the original grey priming and dark blue over-paint. Splashes of blue paint applied by the artist can be seen on the left edge.

8. The circular shape, at the top centre. The remains of the original paint were overpainted by the artist in blue.

9. At top left the L-shaped composite section of plywood with the original white and green paint has two softwood pieces underneath.

10. The curved wedge section at bottom centre, made of varnished, pine tongue and groove panel. This wood was obtained by the artist from the sculptor, Robert Adams, a year or so before being used in T04930.

11. Part of a varnished pine coat hanger, without its metal hook, placed off-centre with splashes of blue paint applied by the artist.

12. Along the right edge of the relief are pieces of softwood, screwed together and covered by the artist with blue paint.

13. Along the bottom edge a piece of hardwood. The original blue paint was repainted blue by the artist in order to obtain the desired tone.

T04930 was assembled flat on the studio floor, and the pieces temporarily screwed into position, and placed vertically to view. The construction was then returned to the floor and re-assembled many times before Mellis was satisfied. The many holes in the work indicates where the artist has removed unwanted old nails found in the pieces of driftwood. The final arrangement was screwed and glued together using brass screws and non-corrosive, alloyed metal screws, and araldite glue. The crudeness of the attachment of the pieces, is an essential feature of the work, as is the degradation of the driftwood - the laminated plywood, the cracks, the rough edges and broken screws. Mellis found that T04930 ‘started very well but I think there was a struggle in the middle but when it finally worked I was extremely elated & satisfied’.

Mellis titled the series of driftwood reliefs sequentially, once each construction was completed and purely for the purpose of identification. Her reason for numbering the reliefs sprang from the fact that she could not think of suitable titles. ‘Later on after 1984 (when my husband died) they seemed to have fairly obvious titles after they had been made. Although they were made in an abstract way as before’. She added, ‘I found nos were impossible to remember and started giving them titles’. In her letter of 4 June 1993 the artist stated that the title should not have a hyphen.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

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


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