John Wells



Not on display

John Wells 1907–2000
Oil paint on board
Support: 762 × 152 mm
Purchased 1964

Catalogue entry

John Wells born 1907

Painting 1962


Oil on hardboard 762 x 152 (30 x 6) on chipboard support 810 x 1825 (31 3/4 x 7 1/4)

Inscribed on back in conté over white paint, 'John Wells 1962' and beneath in graphite pencil 'March' and 'ANCHOR STUDIO | TREWARVENETH | NEWLYN | W. CORNWALL'. Waddington Galleries label on the back inscribed 'Painting March 1962'

Purchased from Waddington Galleries (Knapping Fund) 1964

Reacting, perhaps, to what he saw as his failure to achieve a looser painting style, during the early 1960's Wells started to work in a style which he characterised as 'austere' and more 'hard-edged'. He believed the change to be so great that he insisted that Leslie Waddington should come to Cornwall to see the new works before agreeing to show them at the Waddington Galleries. They were shown there in 1964 but, in marked contrast with Wells's 1960 exhibition which had sold out, only Painting, 1962 (T00682) was sold. Rather despondent in the wake of the exhibition, Wells wrote to Ben Nicholson on 24 January 1965, 'I don't know which way painting is going - present trends confuse me ... I always want to return to the more formal constructional or structuralist (whatever you like to call it) type of work, without adhering to any party line' (TGA.8717.1.2.5333).

The artist told the Tate Gallery in a letter dated 13 October 1964 that the picture, completed on 7 March 1962, 'was one of a series of small abstract inventions in which I was exploring various surface treatments of hardboard'. This attention to the surface quality of the work is a characteristic of Wells's work throughout his career and relates to his close contact with Ben Nicholson. Though Nicholson had moved to Switzerland in 1958, he had started to make the hardboard reliefs which this work clearly recalls before his departure from St Ives. He also maintained contact with Wells and sent him catalogues of his exhibitions throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The range of techniques employed in Painting 1962 illustrates Wells's fastidious and subtle painting practice. Pencil marks at even divisions along the sides of the board show that the composition was based upon a geometric grid. The artist prepared the board by applying a red/brown ground over which other colours were applied using a range of techniques. Beneath the uppermost lilac area the largest section was painted grey, apparently using a sponge, and then rubbed in parts. The two white lines were applied over an incised line when the grey was dry. In the darker area below, Wells rubbed on reddish brown and black paint in successive layers, achieving a weathered effect; in places the brown paint has gone over the grey above. The network of lines in this area were initially incised with a stylus, causing the surface of the board to rise up into weals, before red pigment was painted along them with a brush. This is a technique which Wells employed on a number of occasions. A stylus was also used to incise straight lines into the lowest left hand section of the picture and then white pigment was rubbed on and abraded to achieve the final effect. Apart from the solid lilac area at the top, the artist rubbed the whole picture surface with sand or garnet paper, giving it a complex pattern of swirling incisions. In contrast with the fluency of these scratches, a stylus has been used to make faltering circular incisions in the bottom right hand corner of the composition; the effect of this is to create a sense of recession to the central circle of the original ground. The artist confirmed in conversation that the chipboard support is an integral part of the work, presumably designed, as in Microcosm (T02229), to provide a margin for the main painting (9 March 1996).

In his letter of October 1964 the artist wrote:

I was working on this in the early morning of March 7. A tremendous S.E. gale (force 10) had developed - to which my studio was completely exposed. It was very alarming. Part of my roof started to strip and a bucket was catching the water very near where I was working.

The painting was completed by the vertical white line. Afterwards I saw that this somehow represented the shrieking wind outside. I had experienced many gales when I lived in Scilly, but had never painted one before!

So, despite a desire to pursue an austere apparently abstract style, Wells still conceived of his work in relation to nature and his knowledge and experience of it. Subsequently, his work of the later 1960s and 1970s became even more abstract, consisting largely of squares and rectangles of unmodulated areas of pure colour.

John Wells, Waddington Galleries, Sept. 1964 (1)

Tate Gallery Report 1964-5, p.57

Chris Stephens
March 1996

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