John Wells

Brimstone Moth Variation


Not on display

John Wells 1907–2000
Oil paint on hardboard
Support: 1219 × 760 mm
Purchased 1960

Catalogue entry

Draft catalogue entry

John Wells born 1907

Brimstone Moth Variation 1960


Oil on hardboard 1219 x 760 (48 x 30)

Inscribed on back '30 x 48' and, on three areas of white paint: 'John Wells 1960', 'Brimstone Moth Variation', 'Anchor Studio. Trewarveneth Street. NEWLYN. W. CORNWALL'

Purchased from Waddington Galleries (Knapping Fund) 1960

Brimstone Moth Variation belongs to a group of works from the end of the 1950s, shown in Wells's first exhibition at the Waddington Galleries in 1960, in which he experimented with a looser and thicker painting style. Wells's desire for a more painterly technique reflects the interest in Tachism and Abstract Expressionism that had been shown by many of his close friends, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Bryan Wynter for example. There were strong connections at that time between St Ives and American artists and, in 1959, Wells had met the critic Clement Greenberg while he was staying in Cornwall. Unlike many of Wells's more painterly works, the composition of Brimstone Moth Variation is based upon a geometric construction similar to those used in works like Painting, 1957 and Microcosm. In contrast to his earlier paintings, however, Wells employs a far greater degree of impasto, which was applied with a fine brush and a palette knife. He also continued to employ familiar techniques like the use of thin oil glazes and of sandpaper to achieve scratched surface effect. Parts of the picture were painted after it was framed. Despite the success of his 1960 exhibition, Wells later concluded with regret that he found this more expressive style too difficult, because, he believed, his drawing ability was not strong enough (interview, 1995).

In a letter dated 17 October 1960 the artist told the Tate Gallery that he found it difficult to comment about the source of this picture, which 'began with some colour relations associated in my mind with the Brimstone Moth. An abstract organization was laid down out of which, by various stages of repainting the final form grew'. The Brimstone Moth is a common moth, native to Great Britain, which is unmistakable because of the sulphurous colouring from which it gets its name. Its wings are a bright lemon yellow with reddish-brown patches along their leading edges and whitish circular markings. Wells's use of two bright yellows, orange, brown and black reflects, then, a close adherence to his source. The development of an abstract painting from a natural source is typical of Wells and indicative of his interest in and knowledge of nature.

John Wells, Waddington Galleries, Sept. 1960 (9)

Tate Gallery Report 1960-1, p.33
C, F & B II, 1965, p.765

Chris Stephens
March 1996

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