John Wells



Not on display

John Wells 1907–2000
Oil paint and graphite on wood
Support: 279 × 368 mm
Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Catalogue entry

John Wells born 1907

T02232 Profiles 1949

Oil and pencil on panel 279 x 368 (11 x 14 1/2)

Inscriptions: Back, over partially obscured earlier work, 'John Wells | FEB 1949'
Label, 'No. 6 PROFILES | JOHN WELLS | Anchor Studio | Trewarveneth | NEWLYN'

Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Profiles has a thick, though fairly smooth, white ground, characteristic of much of John Wells's work. Equally typical is the use of both oil paint and pencil in the execution of the picture and the achievement, through varied paint applications and abrasion, of a delicately textured surface. This concentration upon surface quality and delight in materials was evident in the work of many St. Ives artists and derives, principally, from Ben Nicholson's technique of scraping hardboard with a razor blade. The textural quality is further enhanced by Wells's use of different tones of only one, or perhaps two, grey-green colours applied in different densities. While the right-hand profile is incised through the paint to expose the ground beneath and the central profile is painted in black oil, much of the design, including the shading of the left-hand face, is executed in pencil. The parabolic turning form which suggests the cheek of the left-hand face is seen in many of Wells's works and derives from the work of Gabo and from mathematical models such as those illustrated in Moholy-Nagy's The New Vision.

A number of drawn and incised straight lines serve to strengthen the composition and to suggest a setting for the three profiles. The use of a formal grid to generate an image is a common feature of Wells's work and can be seen in Aspiring Forms (T02231) and Painting, 1957 (T02234), for instance. According to the artist, Profiles was based upon an off-set drawing and traces of compositional lines, possibly from the transfer of the original design, are just visible in the two left-hand corners. The reverse of the board bears the traces of an earlier composition, in which the picture has been divided into five rectangular areas of differing sizes, in a similar way to his Variations, 1944. Within each compartment is an egg-like form which was particularly common in his work of the late 1940s. This 'triangular oval', Wells said, 'comes into a lot of things ... [and is] something to do with Barbara [Hepworth] ... a bit of sculptural form' (Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 1981).

In conversation on 9 March 1996 Wells could not recall why this work was inscribed 'No. 6 Profiles'; he did not think that the number referred to a series of paintings of profiles. This confirmed an earlier conversation between the artist and the Tate Gallery's Dr David Brown in which Wells stated that Profiles was one of only two or three paintings of heads which he made (8 November 1977). He thought he was probably influenced in these by Ben Nicholson's and Barbara Hepworth's depictions of heads. One of these works, Profile, which is of the same year as the Tate's picture and remains in the artist's possession, recalls with its heavily textured ground and pink colouring Nicholson's work around 1932. It is particularly reminiscent of 1932 (head with guitar) (Niigata City Art Museum), for instance. In Profiles, the left-hand face is similar to Nicholson's profiles of Hepworth of 1933 in general, but seems to relate to 1933 (St Rémy, Provence) (private collection) in particular. Though St Remy was in Helen Sutherland's collection in Cumbria, Wells would have known it from its reproduction in Nicholson's 1948 monograph (Herbert Read, Ben Nicholson: Paintings, Reliefs, Drawings, 1948, pl.53). Wells's profile, in its use of a single line to define a dual aspect of frontal eye and brow and side-on nose and mouth, appears to be a slightly more angular version of Nicholson's central face. Both use shading along one side of the line to define the form and both have an eye made up of concentric lines. The profile on the right in Wells's picture, on the other hand, seems to relate to Hepworth's contemporaneous return to incised profiles in her sculpture. Specifically, its sharply defined, angular nose and circular eye recall The Cosdon Head, 1949 (Birmingham City Art Gallery), which Wells, working as her assistant, helped to carve. Indeed, The Cosdon Head was of particular significance to Wells as the blue marble was especially hard to carve and the shards that flew off as he worked smashed the glass roof above and cut his face, narrowly missing his eye.

More generally, Wells's inclusion of three profiles, the central one slightly less emphasised than the others, echoes St Remy. However, apart from the two ovals suggesting heads, the faces in Profiles are disembodied. Similarly, whilst the Nicholson painting seems to concentrate attention upon the relationship between the three figures, here the three profiles are independent of each other, a fact stressed by the use of different techniques for each. Whilst the incised straight lines, apparently randomly arranged, provide a rather perfunctory architecture for the picture, the contrast of colouring between the two main profiles seems to emphasise their separation. The late 1940s were, perhaps, the period when Wells was in closest contact with Nicholson and, as her employee as well as friend, with Hepworth. The references within Profiles to both of their work, including the use of incised line which was a characteristic of both St Remy and The Cosdon Head, becomes, then, a tribute to his association with them.

Profiles is one of six works by John Wells bequeathed to the Tate Gallery by Miss E.M. Hodgkins in 1977. Ethel Hodgkins was the next-door neighbour of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in Headland Road, Carbis Bay, outside St. Ives, and the collector of the work of a number of St Ives artists. In addition to Wells, the Hodgkins bequest includes the work of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Terry Frost, Patrick Hayman, Barbara Hepworth, Alexander Mackenzie, Denis Mitchell and Ben Nicholson. Letters to Sir Norman Reid reveal that Miss Hodgkins bequeathed the large part of her collection to the Tate Gallery through the mediation of Dame Barbara Hepworth.

Purchased by Miss E.M. Hodgkins from the Penwith Gallery, St Ives 1955

David Haughton and John Wells, G.R. Downing's Bookshop, St Ives, June-July 1949 (20)
Spring Exhibition, Penwith Gallery, St Ives, 1955 (5)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, p.139

Chris Stephens
March 1996


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