John Wells

Relief Construction


Not on display

John Wells 1907–2000
Gouache, graphite, string, cardboard and plastic on board
Object: 321 × 422 × 45 mm
frame: 348 × 452 × 56 mm
Purchased 1973

Catalogue entry

John Wells born 1907

T01759 Relief Construction 1941

Gouache, emulsion, pencil, string, cardboard and celluloid on cardboard 321 x 422 x 45 (12 5/8 x 16 5/8 x 1 3/4)

Back, top right, 'RELIEF CONSTRUCTION | Made in Isles of Scilly | Cornwall 1941', in black crayon on ground of white emulsion obscuring abstract design
Back, centre, 'John Wells 1941', in pencil
Back, centre, 'John Wells', incised into ground
Original backboard, top right, 'RELIEF CONSTRUCTION | MADE IN ISLES OF | SCILLY. CORNWALL. | 1941'
Original backboard, centre, 'John Wells | Relief Construction'
Original backboard, bottom left, 'ANCHOR STUDIO | TREWARVENETH STREET | NEWLYN | W. CORNWALL'
Original backboard, bottom right, 'John Wells 1941.'
Inside of backboard, 'John Wells 1941'
Inside of backboard, label inscribed 'Relief Construction I | 1941 | JOHN WELLS | St. Mary's Isles of Scilly'

Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1973

The planar elements of Relief Construction are pieces of varying grades of cardboard attached with glue. The margin created by the difference in size between the main cardboard support, which is an integral part of the work, and the second layer is painted with grey emulsion. On to the second layer are applied four distinct pieces of card: a thin, black square on the left, a rectangle of thicker card and, in the centre, a thin, irregular beige square upon which are painted a white circle and an orange-brown outer circle, diffusing towards the centre. On the right is a darker piece of card on which a further, lens-shaped layer has been laid. Between them is a cardboard cylinder with three rows of regular holes drilled in it. A thin, curved piece of transparent plastic 22 mm (7/8") high is inserted into the rectangular piece of card to form a bridge for seven white threads which, continuing seven painted lines, run from the black square, through holes along the top of the bridge and through the cardboard cylinder to fan out along the nearer arc of the lens-form. A green thread runs from the circle on the left, around the ends of the plastic bridge, through the cylinder and back to its point of origin, while an orange nylon thread runs from one end of the darker card, through the cylinder to the other end. A further seven white threads run from one of two pencil arcs, through the cylinder and down to the lower edge of the rectangular card. All the threads are secured between the different layers of card. Though the plastic bridge was formerly thought to be perspex, Wells, interviewed on 30 December 1995, thought that in 1941 he was more likely to have used celluloid; the yellowing of the material would support that suggestion.

In a letter to the Tate Gallery (3 January 1974) the artist explained that the painted circles were produced using a hand-propelled turntable, 3 1/2" in diameter, which had been used in the preparation of microscope slides by his father, a bacteriologist and colleague of Sir Alexander Fleming. 'Forgive me for introducing this tenuous connection', he added, 'but I do feel deeply about this'. 'Since discovering an artistic use for the "machine",' he wrote, 'I have employed it sporadically, that is for over more than thirty years'. The paint, white on the black card and white and orange-brown on the central square, appears to be watercolour. 'The materials used' in Relief Construction, Wells wrote in a slightly earlier letter (18 December 1973), 'reflect I think what painterly sensibility I may have'. The textural effect of the different grades of cardboard is certainly in marked contrast with his collages of the same period, which, in the use of strong, flat colours, are comparable to the very pure, geometric abstracts Ben Nicholson made between 1936 and 1946. Wells purchased one of these, Painted Relief 1941: version 3 (repr. Ben Nicholson: Paintings, Reliefs, Drawings, 1948, pl.129), during the war. In the same letter, the artist went on, 'The cylinder with the holes in R-C No. I is the central core from a plaster bandage - a useful spin-off from my medical work!' The work is in its original, grey painted box-frame, similar to the type favoured by Ben Nicholson.

The artist told the Tate Gallery in 1973 that Relief Construction was one of '5 or 6 similar works', though it is not completely clear whether he meant by this five or six relief constructions, or constructions in general. If the latter then it is a series of considerable diversity. In 1974 Wells told Christopher Johnstone that he made constructions from 1941 to 1945, recalling that he was still working on them when he moved to Newlyn at the end of the war. The surviving photographs of these works were all found at that time to be dated 1942, but a small concrete construction in the artist's collection, reminiscent in its more organic form of Henry Moore's pre-war stringed pieces, is dated 1945 and the first Crypt Group exhibition catalogue lists a relief construction by Wells dated 1946. Relief Construction was clearly made after Construction, 1940-1 (artist's collection, repr. Rowe 1993), which Gabo described to Ben Nicholson as, 'a perfect first effort in spatial construction' (Reported by Nicholson in a letter to Herbert Read, 10 June [1941], TGA 8717.1.3.41). It would appear that it also post-dates a vertical construction which Wells described to Ben Nicholson on 24 June 1941 (TGA.8717.1.2.5304) and which, though in need of repair, survives in the artist's collection (repr. Rowe 1993). It is likely that this letter shortly predates Relief Construction, as in it he also mentions, 'an idea for producing lovely coloured circles', which would appear to refer to his re-discovery of his father's turntable. As the Tate's work was the artist's first relief construction it must have been complete by 18 September 1941 when Wells, recently returned from a visit to St Ives, sent Nicholson photographs of 'the relief construction you saw last week', and of, 'a relief construction I am battling with at present'. This second relief, described by the artist as having a recessed circle painted white and crossed by radiating strings, would appear to be Relief Construction II (formerly in the collection of the late Anthony Froshaug, now thought to be lost, fig.000) which, in 1973, was thought to be the only other surviving relief construction. Like Relief Construction, Relief Construction II, approximately 12 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches in size, was made up of different layers and incorporated a curving, transparent plastic bridge form. By 7 October 1941 Wells was able to tell Nicholson that he had, 'yet another' relief construction, 'just about finished - quite amusing' (TGA.8717.1.2.5308). He described this third relief, of which photographs survive in the artist's possession and the Tate Gallery Archive, as, 'a board painted with shiny grey paint - which somehow gives it a spatial element which I want. There is an aluminium bridge form and an amusing idea of celluloid discs taking a ring of strings through a wire spiral'. Similar photographs also survive of a number of other lost constructions, including one relief and a more three-dimensional piece, either of which could be the work described in Wells's letter to Nicholson of 14 June 1944 as including, 'paint and lines on a board - carved chalk or plaster - perspex, string and surgical sutures!' (TGA.8717.1.2.5328) That Wells referred specifically to perspex rather than celluloid, which he had used in earlier pieces, suggests that he had access to new sources of materials.

Wells recalled that moving to the Scilly Isles, where Relief Construction was made, in 1936 prompted his immersion in contemporary artistic ideas: 'I was very isolated there', he wrote, 'and collected and read everything I could about Abstract and Constructive movements as well as painting and sculpture in general' (letter to Tate Gallery, 18 December 1973). By 1939 he was painting in an abstract style which, in its biomorphic forms, revealed his interest in Surrealism as well as Constructivism. Indeed, the body of work to which Relief Construction belongs displays a striking diversity of styles, from organic forms comparable to Arp to the severely geometric. This range perhaps reflects the sporadic attention which Wells, busy as a doctor during war-time, was able to give to his artistic work. It was undoubtedly, however, the arrival in Cornwall of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo in August 1939 that proved to be the major stimulus to his work. Relief Construction demonstrates how Wells, like Peter Lanyon shortly before him, synthesised Gabo's use of strings and perspex to define space with Nicholson's preoccupation with spatial relations within a two dimensional format. Nicholson set out that preoccupation in a discussion of his painting Au Chat Botté, 1932, in 'Notes on Abstract Art' which appeared in the October 1941 issue of Horizon.

Relief Construction is also close, however, to Hepworth's abstract paintings of the early Forties, two of which Wells purchased on visits to St Ives in September 1941 and January 1943: Drawing for Sculpture 1941 (repr. Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth Carvings and Drawings, 1952, pl.62a) and Drawing for Sculpture, 1942. Wells himself related his painting Listening 1947-8 (artist's collection, repr. not found), which is very similar to Relief Construction, to Hepworth's paintings (Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 1981); and his own Variations 1944 is stylistically very close to them (repr. Alexander Mackenzie, Denis Mitchell, John Wells, exh. cat., Plymouth City Art Gallery, 1975, [p.20] as 73/3). Sources other than the artists in St Ives were, of course, available as well. Wells's debt to his considerable collection of books about modern art is apparent from the parallels which may be drawn between his works of this period and reproductions. For example, in a letter to Ben Nicholson dated 30 March 1942 (TGA.8717.1.2.5316) he referred to Lazlo Moholy-Nagy's book The New Vision, which offered a number of models for the use of threads to create space as seen in Relief Construction. Looking back from October 1954, Patrick Heron noted the various sources for Wells's relief constructions, including Gabo, Hepworth, Nicholson, Mir¢, Klee and Arp. However, he added the qualification that, 'They also showed a degree of sheer taste so exquisite and so personal as to obliterate any suggestion of undue derivativeness.' (The Changing Forms of Art, 1955, p.204).

The formal precision and use of man-made materials in Relief Construction reflects Wells's interest in machines; at that time he was particularly fascinated with the Hurricane aircraft stationed on the Scillies during the war. He became acquainted with the RAF pilots and was pleased that, though hostile to abstract painting, they were highly appreciative of his constructions. As a doctor having to deal with the victims of bombing raids on the islands, Wells was more aware than many of the destruction of war, a context which seems crucial to his work of the period. His constructions can be seen as counters to the devastation of war, especially in their re-use of materials. In Relief Construction the cylindrical form is made from the inside of a bandage and in his 1995 interview Wells thought the celluloid for the bridge might have come from an RAF aircraft. Similar works by Wells incorporated surgical sutures, knitting needles and an aluminium strip used as a splint for broken fingers as well as driftwood and lumps of cement, possibly from the building of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, washed up by the sea. In the same period Peter Lanyon made a number of constructions from old aeroplane engine parts; Wells had access to these works through Nicholson who had permission to show them. Though Lanyon related his re-use of found materials to a reintegration of the self, Wells saw his as purely expedient. Even then such an engagement with everyday wartime work relates more closely to Gabo's use of industrial materials than to Nicholson's more rarefied approach. It was also consistent with Gabo's definition of 'the Constructive Idea', published in 'Constructive Art: An Exchange of Letters Between Naum Gabo and Herbert Read', Horizon, vol. 10, no.53, July 1944. There he described his forms as invocations of, 'the image of good - not of evil; the image of order - not of chaos; the image of life - not of death'. 'I try to guard in my work', he went on, 'the image of the morrow we left behind us in our memories ... and to remind us that the image of the world can be different'.

In his 1973 letter to the Tate Wells also related the relief constructions to a more natural source, stating that they 'express (unconsciously perhaps) my deep awareness of the living tensions of the environment of the Islands. I mean the weather at all seasons, the wind and the sea, boat and bird movements and the changing reactions of green growing things'. On the Scillies Wells relied upon a small motor boat to visit patients on the different islands. His boat typified many of the artist's characteristics: a practical approach to life; a love of a rugged life style; and an awareness of natural processes through experience and observation. As he later wrote (18 December 1973), 'My boat was an important part of my life and I observed and experienced a great deal on my journeys in calm or awe-inspiring storm'. During the war he found abstract art to be the best means of expressing the experience of natural phenomena. This was to become the basis for most of his subsequent work and was explained in his now famous letter to Sven Berlin of 8 April 1945: 'But how can one paint the warmth of the sun, the sound of the sea or the journey of a beetle across a rock or thoughts of one's own whence and whither? That's one argument for abstraction.' (TGA 871.23).

Related to this concern with natural forces is Wells's interest in music and its connection with visual art. His relief constructions appear to embody allusions to the forms of musical instruments: the celluloid bridge in the Tate's Relief Construction recalls the bridge of a violin, whilst the indented circle of Relief Construction II makes the strings across it look like those of a guitar. In Relief Construction, the lens form and the threads, which appear to be refracted and deflected by the different materials through which they pass, conjure up ideas of wave theory and the passage of sound and light. This is a suggestion supported by the work's similarity to Listening, 1947-8 (loc. cit.), the form of which recalls the structure of the inner ear. Wells wrote to Nicholson on 2 July 1944, 'The analogy between great music (which is always abstract) and abstract painting seems to me of fundamental importance and not stressed nearly enough' (TGA.8717.1.2.5329). He united this interest in music with a use of mathematical systems in works which appear to be based upon harmonic theory. The repetition of seven threads in Relief Construction and in other relief constructions would seem to derive from such a source. In 1995 Wells agreed with the compiler that music's reliance upon a deceptively rigid formal system was a useful analogy for much of his work (interview, 1995).

In the early 1940s Relief Construction was one of a number of works by Wells used by Ben Nicholson in his attempts to promote the cause of constructive art in Britain as a counter to the wartime rise of Neo-Romanticism. Though a number of planned projects, including the publication of a second issue of Circle and of a history of Constructivism, never materialised, Nicholson's campaign had success with the 1942 exhibition, New Movements in Art: Contemporary Work in England. Organised for the Museum of London by Nicholson's friends Margot Eates and E.H. Ramsden, the exhibition introduced the work of other younger artists, Margaret Mellis and Peter Lanyon, as well as John Wells. Relief Construction (as Relief Construction I) was one of the works by which Wells was represented, along with Relief Construction II, which was sold at the show, and a collage. Relief Construction II was also illustrated in New Road (1943, pl.VIII), World Review (May 1942, p.8) and in an article on 'English Abstract Painting' by George Morris in Partisan Review (May-June 1943). Reviewing New Movements in Art for Horizon, Herbert Read noted that, despite the modern movement's embattled position, 'as far as constructivism is concerned ... the column is advancing ... and there are new recruits to the movement', among whom he named John Wells. He went on to observe that constructivism had achieved, 'after twenty-five centuries of irrelevant groping, the kind of art envisaged by Plato as the basic art - the art of pure relationships.' ('Vulgarity and Impotence: Speculation on the Present State of the Arts', Horizon, vol. 5, no.28, April 1942).

New Movements in Art: Contemporary Work in England, London Museum, March-May 1942, Manchester City Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct. (38, as 'Relief Construction I')
Recent Paintings by Winifred Nicholson and John Wells, Lefevre Gallery, April 1946 (50)
Crypt Gallery, St Ives, 1946 (36, dated 1942)
Decade 40s, AC tour 1972-3 (144)
St. Ives, 1985 (72, repr.)

Tate Gallery Report and Acquisitions 1972-4, pp.254-5 (repr.)
Cross 1984, repr. p.67 pl.41

John Wells July 27 1987, exh. cat., Wills Lane Gallery, St Ives 1987, p.1

Chris Stephens
March 1996

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