John Wells

Aspiring Forms


John Wells 1907–2000
Oil paint on board
Support: 1067 × 714 mm
frame: 1106 × 758 × 45 mm
Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Display caption

In a letter written in 1992 John Wells singled out Aspiring Forms as his favourite painting. Painted in 1950, it is one of his largest works and reflects his increasing confidence in his work. The composition follows the principle of the Golden Section, a structure based on ideal proportions that Wells used repeatedly. Its corkscrew forms describe the movement of the birds he watched wheeling around the cliffs of west Cornwall. 'You can see them using the air currents,' he said. 'You can feel the dynamism of their flight and the shapes of their wings all the time.'

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

John Wells born 1907

T02231 Aspiring Forms 1950

Oil on hardboard 1067 x 714 (42 x 28 1/8)

Back, bottom right,'John Wells 1950 | Anchor Studio, Trewarveneth | Newlyn Cornwall'
Back, on label at centre, 'John Wells | 1950 | 12' and 'Aspiring Forms'
Back, on label, in another hand 'Ethel Hodgkins owner. This picture was exhibited | at the Penwith Gallery, St. Ives, | Cornwall June 28 1950. & | bought by me no. 7 in | catalogue. | It was later exhibited at the Contemporary British Painting - Pennsylvania | Academy Fine Arts. Philadelphia, U.S.A, | America no.86 in catalogue. | painted by John Wells. 1950, Newlyn, Cornwall'

Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Aspiring Forms, which John Wells singled out in a letter to the Director of the Tate Gallery (3 August 1992) as his favourite amongst his paintings, was one of his largest to date. The increased scale reflects, perhaps, Wells's increasing confidence in his work. It was painted in the first half of 1950 in the Anchor Studio, which Wells had acquired in 1947 after the death of its previous owner, Stanhope Forbes. It followed in the wake of the Arts Council's consideration of Wells for inclusion in their Festival of Britain exhibition, 60 Paintings for '51 , which encouraged artists to produce large scale pictures. Though pencil marks are visible in places, Wells told Dr David Brown in conversation (8 Nov. 1977) that he made no sketches for the painting but worked out the composition on the board in oil. The composition was begun using a Golden Section grid, a favourite method of Wells's, the forms then generating themselves. The Golden Section is a proportional system employed by artists over many centuries; at times it has been invested with a mystical significance. It is, essentially, the unequal division of a line so that the proportion of the smaller part to the larger part is equivalent to the proportion of the larger part ot the whole. In Aspiring Forms the strong vertical which runs up the length of the composition to the right of centre divides the bottom at the Golden Section whilst the horizontal line about two-thirds of the way up does the same vertically.

The predominantly grey-blue tones of Aspiring Forms are applied in layers of paint thin enough for areas of the white ground to remain exposed and the mesh pattern of the hardboard support to be largely visible. The colouring of grey and varying subtle tones punctuated by areas of strong colour is typical of Wells's response to the Cornish landscape. In 1981 he described how he saw Cornwall: 'its real nature is grey', he said, 'and out of that these colours glow from inside' (Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 1981). A patch slightly above and to the right of the centre of Aspiring Forms marks the spot where, the artist told David Brown (8 Nov. 1977), he repaired damage incurred when, in the course of painting, he threw a bicycle lamp at the board in exasperation.

The cork-screw forms relate to the parabolic lines of Gabo's threaded works with which Wells would have been familiar. They create a sense of volume which Wells, in his 1981 interview, also related to the work of Barbara Hepworth, to whom he was especially close at that time as an assistant as well as a good friend (Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 1981). Such a curve is particularly noticeable in one of the Hepworth drawings Wells owned, Drawing for Sculpture, 1942 (repr. not found). These shapes, and the title Aspiring Forms, also reflect Wells's long-standing interest in flight. Interviewed by the compiler in January 1993, Wells characterised himself as a 'frustrated flier' and told how he had been attracted to the youth and innocence of the fighter pilots stationed on the Scillies during the war. Whilst he saw obvious parallels between this interest and Peter Lanyon's gliding, he was keen to distinguish gliding's use of the elements from the primarily mechanical process of powered flight. In the same interview, Wells also related Aspiring Forms to his observation of bird movement. In a reflection of his discussions with Gabo and Peter Lanyon, with both of whom he often went on cliff-top walks, he has described how a bird in flight defines otherwise abstract space. 'You can see them using the air currents and you can feel the sort of dynamism of their flight and the shapes of their wings all the time' (John Wells talking on Painting the Warmth of the Sun, Television South West, 1984).

Aspiring Forms was the inspiration behind a number of Denis Mitchell's sculptures, most notably Turning Form, 1959 (T02235) which, like Aspiring Forms, was part of Miss E.M. Hodgkins's bequest to the Tate Gallery. Despite Miss Hodgkins's label on the back of the picture, this painting is not listed in the catalogue of the Penwith Society's Summer exhibition, 1950; it may, however, have been added after the catalogue was printed. The number '12' in a circle inscribed on the label on the back would appear to relate to the Hodgkins Bequest; Sea-Bird Forms (T02230) is similarly inscribed '11' and Microcosm (T02229) '10'.

Purchased by Miss E.M. Hodgkins from the Penwith Gallery, St Ives 1950

Summer Exhibition, Penwith Gallery, St Ives, 1950 (7)
Contemporary British Painting 1925-1950, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Dec. 1950-Jan. 1951 (86)
Cornwall 1945-1955, New Art Centre, Nov.-Dec. 1977 (146)
St. Ives, 1985 (126, repr.)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, p.139
Cross 1984, p.68, repr. p.69 pl.43 (col.); rev. ed., 1995, repr. on front cover (col.)
Michael Tooby, Tate Gallery St Ives: An Illustrated Companion, 1993, p.68, repr. (col.)

Chris Stephens
March 1996

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