John Wells



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
John Wells 1907–2000
Lithograph on paper
Image: 320 × 405 mm
Purchased 1986

Catalogue entry

P77177 Abstract 1958

Lithograph 320 × 405 (12 7/8 × 16) on wove paper 452 × 584 (17 7/8 × 23), printed by Stanley Jones, St Ives and published by St George's Gallery in an edition of 30
Inscribed ‘John Wells.’ below image b.r. and ‘A/P 1958’ below image b.l.
Purchased from Redfern Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Exh: British Prints: The Post-War Years 1945–60, Redfern Gallery, Jan.–Feb. 1986 (117, repr.)

The image of P77177 is composed of rectangular shapes, which are overlaid with numerous scratched lines and textured marks. Despite being titled ‘Abstract’, the composition, which is printed in brown and black, is based on the artist's observation of natural forms and the Cornish landscape (the artist has lived in Newlyn since 1945). On 13 October 1991, in reply to a questionnaire from the compiler, Wells wrote that ‘except for the most severe geometric abstracts, nearly all my work has some reference to landscape’, adding that P77177 was inspired by ‘rock and cliff textures and forms’. He explained that it was related to drawings of cliffs and to ‘some of the “Free” paintings’ of the same period. An example of a ‘Free’ painting is ‘Microcosm’, 1957–9 (T02229), an image based on an imaginary landscape. In this work Wells used an offset technique, placing oil and wax on paper against the support and drawing on the other side of the paper.

Wells first made abstract paintings when he worked as a doctor in the Scilly Isles during the Second World War. He admired the work of Ben Nicholson, whom he first met in 1928, and Naum Gabo who lived in Cornwall from 1939 to 1946. Both of these he met on his trips to Cornwall during the war. In a letter to the compiler of 12 November 1989, the artist commented, ‘It is repeatedly said that I made frequent visits to the mainland to see Ben, Barbara and Gabo. In fact, as the sole G.P. in the Islands (then very isolated) my visits were very infrequent and so greatly treasured’. Wells certainly knew of Nicholson's abstract paintings, which incorporated scratched lines, and these were an influence on him.

After moving back to the mainland in 1945 and settling in Newlyn, Wells began in 1950 to make engravings. The Tate Gallery owns four examples of these prints (P77129-P77132) which involve much use of clear and slender line. In a letter to the compiler dated 14 January 1988 the artist compared P77177 to these earlier engravings: ‘Working with [the lithographer] Stanley Jones directly in the stone was an entirely different technique to engraving and produced very different results. I had never tried this before’. Wells added in a letter of 12 November 1989, ‘I would have liked to make more experiments with lithography, but that was not possible at the time’. P77177 was one of only two lithographs Wells made in the late 1950s. According to the artist in his response to the compiler's questionnaire, the other, also made with Stanley Jones, was rejected.

Stanley Jones was the master printer of Curwen Studio, founded in 1958 as an offshoot of the Curwen Press. He was instrumental in what Pat Gilmour has described as a ‘revolution’ in art lithography, ‘bringing the artist and the printer together’, and worked with many of the major post-war British artists (see Elizabeth Frith, ‘An Extension of Painting’, Artist, vol.105, May 1990, p.33). In a letter to the compiler dated 22 July 1994 Stanley Jones explained how P77177 was made:

This print, one of two which were done lithographically by John in 1958, was drawn and printed in the studio in St.Ives which Robert Erskine of the St Georges Gallery and myself ran in Fore St. This was a preliminary scheme ran by him before Curwen Studio's premises were ready in London. Both the colours in this work (Black and Terra Cotta Brown) were drawn by John on stones prepared with a medium/fine grain. The drawing of the black stone involved the use of indirect drawing through a prepared intermediate sheet of paper, which had been coated with a layer of greasy transfer ink. This formed the basis of the image onto which marks were added in a more conventional manner. The second stone, the brown, was printed on top of the black purposely so that its forms would not be masked by the strength of the black forms. After the work was proofed, the artist worked further on the black stone with mixtures of nitric acid and gum arabic solutions, to open and clarify some of the textured areas.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

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

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