Morning Star, 1972
b. 1914, Swatow, China
d. 2009, Haverhill, England
Margaret Mellis was a British artist, and one of the last survivors of the Modernists that gathered in St. Ives, Cornwall in the 1940s. As a teenager, she studied with Samuel John Peploe, William Gillies, and John Maxwell at Edinburgh College of Art, and then used a travel scholarship to study with Andre Lhote at his Parisian atelier. After marrying her first husband, art critic Adrian Stokes, Mellis continued her education at the Euston Road School in London.
Shortly before the beginning of World War II, Mellis and Stokes moved to Little Parc Owels in Cornwall to take refuge from London. They were joined in St. Ives by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicolson, Naum and Miriam Gabo, and a stream of other Modernist visitors—including Graham Sutherland, Julian Trevelyan, and Victor Pasmore. With Nicholson’s encouragement, Mellis began to create small, improvised paper collages in a makeshift studio.
Her early collage constructions announced the start of Mellis’s career-long involvement with quintessentially Modern and abstract processes. These constructions have an intimate hand-made quality that both give a nod to the sophisticated Purism of her Carbis Bay neighbors—Gabo, Hepworth, and Nicholson—and emulate the unmodified directness of working with readymade materials, which she learned from collecting the work of the local St. Ives primitive painter Alfred Wallis.
Later, in 1984, Mellis spoke of becoming “completely hooked” by the tactile delights of arranging components though the collaging process. While this took the very different forms of heavy lumps of colored driftwood, beach flotsam and jetsam, and other found materials, her late architectonic work employed the same guiding constructive intelligence that had stemmed from early wartime works.
Mellis exhibited infrequently during her lifetime. Major exhibitions of her work were held at the Newlyn Art Gallery in 2001 and at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich in 2008, and she was a mentor to the young Damien Hirst. Today, works by Mellis can found in the collections of the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Arts Council Collection, London; and, the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.