John Wells

Sea Bird Forms


On loan

Hastings Contemporary (Hastings, UK): Seafaring

John Wells 1907–2000
Oil paint on board
Support: 431 × 493 mm
frame: 546 × 605 × 48 mm
Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Catalogue entry

John Wells born 1907

T02230 Sea-Bird Forms 1951

Oil on board 431 x 493 (17 1/2 x 19 7/16)

Inscribed on back in pencil on three areas of rubbed paint over obscured painting: 'SEA-BIRD-FORMS 1951 | 11' t.l., 'John Wells | Anchor Studio | Trewarveneth | Newlyn' centre, '25 gns' b.l., and possibly in another hand, 'Mrs. Hodgkins | Hedlands Road [sic] | C. Bay' b.r.

Bequeathed by Miss. E. M.Hodgkins 1977

Though visible pencil lines show that the design of Sea-Bird Forms was carefully delineated before painting, the artist has said that he developed the forms in the course of painting. This is borne out by further pencil lines which have clearly been applied over the paint. Like Aspiring Forms (qv), the composition is based upon a Golden Section grid. For example, the most prominent vertical division and the horizon-like line make a Golden Section in each dimension. A series of diagonals are generated from the points at which those divisions cross the bottom and left-hand edges of the board, becoming further elements in the composition. The parabolic form which dominates the painting is a common feature in Wells's work and one which the artist associated with Naum Gabo. The parabolic curve is a particularly marked feature of Linear Construction in Space which Gabo had worked on in Cornwall during the war. Gabo had left Britain in November 1946, but his influence persisted in the work of Wells and Lanyon.

The title, Sea-Bird Forms, which Wells gave the work after completion, reflects his association of these forms and this colouring with the flight of sea gulls. It is closely related to Aspiring Forms in its use of small areas of strong colours - black, yellow, orange and green - in a composition dominated by tones of grey. As Wells said in 1981, 'I generally [use] lots of greys to start with and then try and boost that up with one or two bright saturated colour areas' (Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 1981). The suggestion of seascape made in both pictures by the horizon line dividing different areas of blue-grey is taken further in Sea-Bird Forms with the reference to the sun in the yellow triangle in the top right quarter of the composition. The subject of inshore gulls and the parabolic curve recalls Bryan Wynter's Foreshore with Gulls, 1949 (British Council, repr. St Ives: 25 Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery 1939-64, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1985, p.189), with which Wells, a close friend of Wynter's, would have been familiar.

Wells applied the paint in a series of thinly washed, scraped and scumbled layers over a strongly brushmarked ground. This use of the ground to provide texture and the application of pencil over oil are technical devices particularly associated with the work of Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood and were popular with a number of St Ives painters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Specifically, Wells often used a white ground of Coverine, the thick, quick-drying, white paint to which Ben Nicholson had been introduced by Wood in the 1920s. The qualities of Coverine made it suitable for achieving a textured ground and for obscuring earlier paintings; an earlier composition would appear to have been obscured in this way on the reverse of Sea-Bird Forms. Talking about his grounds in 1981 Wells said that sometimes they were 'put on with a knife perhaps, and then rubbed off, and scraped, and generally messed about with' (Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 1981). Slightly to the left of the centre of the bottom edge the soft laminated paperboard support has been damaged; the paint over the affected area shows that this must have occurred before the work's execution. As well as being expedient, the use of an old board reflects Wells's interest in Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis which J.P. Hodin remarked upon in a profile of the artist in 1959 (J.P. Hodin, 'John Wells', Quadrum, 7, 1959, pp.150-1).

Purchased by Miss E.M. Hodgkins from the Penwith Gallery, St. Ives c.1952

St. Ives, 1985 (127, repr.)

Tate Gallery Report 1976-8, p.109, repr. p.60
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, p.139

St Ives, exh. cat., Setagaya Art Museum/The Japan Association of Museums, 1989, p.28

Chris Stephens
March 1996

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