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 Margaret Mellis  (1914 - 2009)

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Lived/Active: United Kingdom/China      Known for: Painting, relief sculpture

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Margaret Mellis (1914-2009)

Born at Wu-Kung-Fu, China on 22 January 1914, to a Presbyterian missionary father, spending her first birthday on the boat returning the family to their native Scotland five months after the outbreak of the first world war.  Switching from piano studies to painting, at the age of 15 Margaret entered Edinburgh College of Art where her teachers included the Scottish colourist Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935) and fellow students were William Gear (1915-1997) and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004).  She went to Paris on a scholarship to train with André Lhote (1871-1935) and when returning there for a Cézanne exhibition in 1936 met Adrian Stokes (1902-1972), an established art theorist and emergent painter with magnetic looks and charm.  They married two years later, and visited Ezra Pound during their Italian honeymoon.  Margaret and Adrian searched for a coastal refuge from the predicted bombing of London and the discovery of their ideal house, at Carbis Bay, near St Ives, Cornwall changed the course of modern British art, for in August 1939 they were joined in Cornwall by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) - plus their triplets, nursemaid and cook.  The constructivist Naum Gabo (Naum Neemia Pevsner 1890-1977) and his wife, Miriam, followed shortly afterwards.  Other visitors included Victor Pasmore, Graham Sutherland, William Coldstream, Julian Trevelyan and Peter Lanyon.  Nicholson went on to incorporate aspects of local landscapes into his abstracted paintings, to teach Lanyon and to influence the next wave of artists drawn to the St Ives area - Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Bryan Wynter.  Hepworth remained in Cornwall for the rest of her life.

Far from the social realism of London's Euston Road School, to which Stokes had unwisely steered her, Margaret was encouraged by Nicholson and Gabo to produce small abstract compositions - springboards to all her daring works of the future.  But conflict abounded, the St Ives artists were said to fight 'like ferrets in a sack' and Adrian was the most jealous of all, having expected Margaret to play the role of submissive housekeeper.  It was not long before her husband's attentions shifted to her sister, Ann.  In 1946 the marriage ended.  Adrian left and Margaret would have killed herself, but for the need to care for their young son, Telfer.  Patrick and Delia Heron came to stay with them and invited along a lately divorced school friend of Patrick's, Francis Davison [q.v.].  In similarly wounded states, Margaret and Francis established an immediate rapport and they married in 1948 and were seldom parted thereafter.

At first, Margaret and Francis, together with Telfer, traveled to the French Riviera and camped in the Davison chateau on the Cap d'Antibes.  They returned to England in 1950, borrowing a fisherman's shack at Walberswick, Suffolk.  There their lives of self-sufficiency and mutually supportive creativity really started.  Margaret explored still-life painting; Francis pared down his pictures into simple flat forms, switching to collage from 1952.  Both artists journeyed into abstraction along personal but parallel routes.  Soon a legacy paid for a cottage and four-acre smallholding at Syleham, Suffolk.  There, for the next twenty-five years, they thrived by selling eggs and chickens, growing barley and the herbs, fruit and vegetables of a French-style kitchen garden.  Only a few painter friends were welcomed, among them Heron, Hilton, Mary Potter and Mary Newcomb.  The artists had produced a mass of mostly unseen work when fowl pest and Margaret's rheumatoid arthritis made life at Syleham untenable.  With help from her sister Ann, by then Adrian's widow, in 1976 they moved to Southwold, Suffolk.  Margaret, through rigorous exercise and rigid diet, regained her lithe form and boundless energy.

By 1978 she had turned from painting to driftwood constructions, combining beachcomber finds of vividly colored bits of boats and beach-huts, kippering boards and medieval timbers gouged by deathwatch beetles into honeycomb.  Working solely on colour, as affirmed and amended by form and structure, she produced relief sculptures of wit and verve, in which semi-representational images unintended at the outset, soaring angels, dipping boats, surging seas.  Francis, exhilarated by the coastal light and views, worked in a frenzy on ever-brighter and more complex collages. Just as Margaret recovered, Francis began to ail with the brain tumour that killed him in 1984.  Margaret worked on in Southwold, filling her attic studio and garden with driftwood.  In 1986 she received a card from a would-be art student, Damien Hirst, who had "been equally blown away" by her constructions and Francis's collages.  He visited and they swam, walked and worked together.  In a foreword to Margaret's 2001 show in Newlyn and at Austin/Desmond Fine Art in London, Hirst recalled: "We lost touch.  I don't really know why.  Maybe it was the age difference, maybe it was because I got into art school.  I think it was also because I felt such an affinity with her."  The 1995 Turner Prize-winner concluded that Margaret had been neglected by critics and curators and deserved to be "up there - large on the map with her contemporaries" and that her work should be in "the museums where it belongs".  Filmed in Suffolk and Cornwall in 1992, for a profile screened on Anglia TV, Margaret swam, danced, bicycled and created a construction on camera called Marsh Music.

She died on 17 March 2009 and was survived by her son, Telfer, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Information provided by Tony Copsey, researcher of artists in Suffolk County, England

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