John Wells 1907-2000
"So all around the moving air and the sea's blue light, with points of diamond, and the gorse incandescent beyond dark trees - countless rocks ragged or round and of every colour - birds resting or flying, and the sense of a multitude of creatures living out their minute lives ... All this is just part of one's life, and I want desperately to express it - not just what I see but what I feel about it and beyond it. If I paint what I see the result is deplorable. 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?" John Wells to Sven Berlin, 1945
John Clayworth Spencer Wells was born in London on 27 July 1907 to a Cornish mother and a bacteriologist father who was a colleague of Alexander Fleming. It is not surprising therefore that his formative years see him pulled between medicine and his ultimate artistic career in Cornwall. His father died when John was 2 and he was brought up by his mother in Ditchling, Sussex. The family owned a home in St Merryn which along with his mother’s birthplace, provided Wells with an early association with Cornwall. From a relatively young age Wells was interested in art and took evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art from 1927-28 concurrently with his medical training at University College and Hospital, London from where he qualified in 1930. John Wells paintings enjoyed some early recognition at the Daily Express Young Artists Exhibition in 1927, at the Royal Society of British Artists. His submissions sold immediately.
In 1928 Wells briefly attended Stanhope Forbes School of Painting and was also introduced to Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood. At the time Nicholson worked from his Hampstead studio which allowed Wells to maintain contact whilst working at the London hospital.
Between 1936 and 1945 Wells was based on the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off the Cornish coast, as a practising GP. The islands afforded Wells the time and inspiration to pursue his passion. During this period, he was able to make trips to the mainland; to St Ives visiting Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth who introduced him to Naum Gabo. Wells was shown Gabo’s iconic Constructed Head No2 as a very early introduction. Gabo was to become a significant and lasting influence on the young artist introducing him to the theories and possibilities of Constructivism. It’s clear that Well’s medical training and scientific knowledge aided his empathy and understanding of Constructive forms. On his return to the Scillies, Wells fashioned his response to Gabo with Construction 1940/41. Gabo recalled this piece to Nicholson describing it as “the perfect first effort in special construction”. With Nicholson’s encouragement and support Wells was included in the exhibition; New Movements in Art: Contemporary work in England held at the London Museum in 1942.
Wells began to experiment with collage and in particular with tightly stringed surfaces echoing Gabo’s employment of stringing and contemporary materials. His work of this period also evidences the influence of Nicholson and Hepworth. The cross fertilisation of ideas was a conscious effort of the early St Ives Modernists. As Hepworth expressed in a letter to Gabo, “it is our common duty to pool our thoughts …. Unless we share things, we are but empty shells of a past culture”.
Matthew Rowe in his short but excellent book ‘John Wells’, suggests that Wells’ constructions, combining geometry and modern, often medical materials, can be seen as metaphors for the human renewal required after the destruction of World War II. Rowe points to Nuclear Dance (1945) as a good example of this purpose. Wells shared this vision for post-war social renewal and the necessary contribution of the visual arts, with other Abstract Modernists who had experienced the horrors of war first hand, perhaps most notably Adrian Heath.
Wells befriended the RAF pilots and crew stationed on the Scillies. “Yesterday four Hurricanes flew over and played about in a 70mph gale. To watch them all describing different curves in different directions at different speeds is very exciting”. Many of the artist’s works show the influence of flight and aerial movement, an inspiration famously shared by Peter Lanyon a decade later.
Towards the end of WW2 Wells felt confident enough in his artistic progression to devote himself full time to the pursuit. He moved to the mainland settling in Newlyn where he purchased from Stanhope Forbes the studio at Trewarveneth Street, which he named Anchor Studio after discovering an old iron anchor in its abandoned garden.
The next 15 years were a halcyon period for Wells which saw him at the centre of St Ives and thus British Modernism. In 1946 he was a founding member, with Lanyon and others, of the Crypt Group and in 1949, of the Penrith Society of Arts, a breakaway from the St Ives Society of Artists.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Wells spent an increasing amount of time in the company of Peter Lanyon exploring the countryside and coastline of Penwith, West Cornwall. The geometric forms and scraped back planes reprocess Wells’ experience of this dramatic land and seascape, and an understanding shared with Lanyon and other Crypt Group artists, of the history, geology, and subterranean dimension of the place; it’s tin mines with their shafts and adits running out beneath the sea. Watching the effortless flight and soaring of gulls and gannets from the West Penwith cliffs also re-evoked Wells’ interest in flight; the way seabirds, with their rise and twist in air currents, trace arcs and articulate form in an otherwise void space. Works such as ‘Aspiring Forms’ (1951) express this central interest.
The British Council of Fine Art invited Wells to exhibit at Salon des Realities Nouvelles in Paris in 1949 and in the San Paulo Biennial in the Festival of Britain year of 1951. Also, in 1951 Wells was one of only five St Ives artists invited to submit works to the 15th Annual Artists' International Association Abstract Art exhibition in New York. This was the first time a British section had been included in the New York show, in fact the first significant showing of British Abstract painting in the USA, and Wells’ work hung alongside those of Hepworth, Nicholson, Lanyon, Frost and Barns-Graham as well as the titans of American Abstraction; Rothko, de Kooning and Motherwell.
Following this successful introduction to the American market and collectors Wells held one-man shows in the Durlacher Gallery in New York in 1952, 1958 and 1960. In 1958 the International Association of Art Critics awarded him the Critics’ Prize for ‘Vista’ (1955); one of the artist’s powerful Cornish landscape-inspired works of the mid 50s. Of this award, JP Hodin wrote in the Studio Magazine, “The art of John Wells is one of the most mature expressions in England today of the abstract and lyrical qualities inherent in his native landscape.”
Wells’ work of this period is in part notable for its relatively diminutive scale. This runs against the trend in American and British modernism of the 1950s for increasingly monumental canvases; the dimensions of works by Rothko or Frost regularly exceeding 6 or 7 feet. Matthew Rowe suggests that the modest proportions of Wells’ paintings reflect his interest in the microscopic and the work of Paul Klee, who worked mostly on an equally small scale. It clearly suited his techniques such as partially scraping back much of the painted surface; a task that would have been exceeding arduous on a much larger scale and which better suited smaller stiff panels, rather than pliable canvases.
Wells’ work of the mid-1950s evoke a sense of movement over and in fact, through landscape. Explicitly titled works such as Journey (1955), which depicts an actual journey to Bath Academy of Art and Vista (1955) are well documented. Land and Sea (1956), the larger of two Wells’ paintings owned by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, appears to traverse and enter the West Cornwall landscape with evocations of sea and boats, a subterranean passage through landscape, cliffs, and engine houses. As Rowe observes: “These (Wells’ landscapes of the 1950s) are products of Wells’ immense knowledge of his surroundings and their forms gained over time … However, they combine this with an interest in formal geometrical structure, subtle colour harmonies, a distilled study of natural forms and a painstaking technique to create a complex but ordered, constructed landscape”.
In the late 1950s Wells’ style further loosens and he executes some notably larger works such as ‘Landscape Elements’ (1960) which is over 4 feet wide. Whilst this development echoes that in British and even American Modernism and Wells exhibited in the USA throughout the fifties, Rowe suggests that Wells may have been more influenced by Pierre Soulages, whose work marries tight structure with expressive brushwork. Wells visited Paris in 1959 accompanied by Patrick Heron.
The auspicious Waddington Galleries gave Wells a solo exhibition in 1960 followed by another in 1964 with participation in a group show in 1962. In 1965 Wells acquired a second studio in Newlyn which he shared for nearly thirty years with the sculptor and his friend, Denis Mitchell.
In 1950 Patrick Heron had described Wells as “certainly the most important abstract painter of his generation in Britain”. Throughout the 50s Wells had numerous successful shows in London, New York and other fine art meccas. Despite this success and his undeniable status amongst the St Ives Modernists, the painter, rather like Terry Frost, fell out of favour in the 70s and 80s, interest being somewhat reignited by the Tate Gallery's 1985 exhibition ‘St Ives: 25 Years of Painting‘, which included seven works by Wells.
John passed away at the turn of the century in 2000. A fitting tribute to the artist took place in 2021 when the Penlee House Gallery & Museum staged a celebration of Wells and Stanhope Forbes in their exhibition ‘Discovering Anchor Studio: an artists’ haven in Newlyn’ which ran until January 2022. After Forbes’s death in 1947 the Anchor Studio in Newlyn was bought by Wells. Wells bequeathed the historic studio to what is now the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust. The full-scale restoration of the Grade II* building was completed in March 2021.
The 2021/22 exhibition featured paintings by Stanhope Forbes and John Wells – two artists whose work spanned over a century. The show also included contextual works by prominent contemporaries of John Wells; Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Christopher Wood and Bryan Wynter. John Wells’ position as a pioneer of the St Ives Abstract school of painting and his artistic legacy is once again secure with the restoration of the Anchor Studio, a renewed acknowledgement and celebration by the Tate and Penlee and a revival of interest amongst collectors and galleries around the world.
David Lewis and Sarah Fox-Pitt, Recorded interview with John Wells, 13 April 1981,
Matthew Rowe, 'John Wells and St Ives: A Study in the Importance of Place', MA Report, University of London, Courtauld Institute of Art, 1993
Matthew Rowe, 'John Wells: The Fragile Cell', Tate Gallery Publishing, 1998