John Wells Reaching beyond the world’s edge 15 Oct - 7 Nov 2003
Biography | Selected solo exhibitions | Selected group exhibitions |

John Wells is best known for an often quoted letter written to fellow artist Sven Berlin in May 1945 in which he outlined his approach to a perceptually based art:

So all around the moving air and the sea’s blue light, with points of a diamond, and the gorse incandescent beyond dark trees - countless rocks ragged or round of every colour - birds resting or flying, and the sense of a multitude of creatures living out their minute lives ..... All of 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 whence and whither?

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The last sentence of this quotation has almost come to define his fellow St Ives artists’ immersion in the dramatic landscape of West Cornwall during the twenty years after 1945 when this small fishing town became an epicentre of the British avant garde. Wells’ own position within the development of this small community was central through his close friendship with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon and others. He was a founder member of the legendary Crypt Group with Lanyon and fellow artists of the younger generation in 1946 and later the Penwith Society of Arts in 1949. Throughout the 1950s Wells exhibited nationally and internationally in many group shows of St Ives art and he was described by Patrick Heron as ‘certainly the most important abstract painter of his generation in Britain today’ (1950).

For all of this Wells still occupied the curious position of being better known for what he wrote and where he exhibited than for his distinguished artistic output. This resulted in limited discussion of his work and the neglect of a passionate and unique artist until his acclaimed Tate St Ives Retrospective in 1998.

The traditional account of the development of his career is that, through visits to Gabo and correspondence with Nicholson, he undertook a highly productive schooling in the language of Constructivism, whilst serving during the war as the Doctor on the Scilly Isles. This resulted in some of the purest and most refined expressions of spatial and rhythmical harmony occurring in British art. Following his decision in 1945 to abandon his medical career at the age of 38, Wells was seen to rapidly produce a major body of work, which illustrated a trajectory from the radicalism of his war time experiments to a landscape inspired abstraction, characteristic of the St Ives school. Following a commercially successful solo exhibition held at Waddington Galleries in 1960, Wells developed a challenging hard edge style that tended to be ignored by critics as it fell outside the accepted scope of St Ives style. Thus Wells has been categorised as an artist whose outstanding constructivist beginnings were later tamed by the Cornish landscape.

In reality, whilst other St Ives artists around him such as Lanyon, Heron and Wynter radically altered their work in response to the impact of mid century American painting from the mid 1950s, Wells continued to look back to inspirations of a pre-war nature, namely the International Modernist movement and the work of Paul Klee. By consistently extending this abstract formal language of the 1930s within a local context, Wells achieved a unique coalition between his scientific training, the work of his early mentors, Nicholson and Gabo and an in depth awareness of the ancient Cornish coastline. His romantically inspired perspective linked the formal language of modernism with a love of landscape forms and natural processes, extending back to Klee’s vision of a modern art that retained a level of human spirituality. Wells also shared with Klee, an interest in broader abstract composition such as music and poetry, resulting in a heightened sense of academic rigour in his work, often lacking in the work of his peers. There is a poetic quality in his consistent search for an art that reveals universal structures of rhythm, growth and proportion symbolising our position in relation to the natural world. His subsequent adoption of a more austere hard edge style in 1960 brings the search for balance and harmony to the fore and is a wholly logical extension of his oeuvre.

The relative critical neglect of Wells’ work and until recently the absence of its serious evaluation, was exacerbated by his retreat from the London art scene following what he felt was an unsuccessful second one man show at Waddingtons in 1964. Furthermore the public exhibition of his work being financially unimportant, he was able to hoard many of his most significant works at his Newlyn studio, so that with the exception of a few examples on view at the Tate and some other public collections, much was hidden from public scrutiny by his intense privacy.

Fifty years on the timelessness and universality of his work can be seen for what it is. This exhibition clearly demonstrates a consistency of vision and attachment to mid century principles of pursuing a lyrical romanticism whilst retaining the formal language of modernism, placing Wells alongside Klee, the late work of Gabo and other constructivists such as Victor Pasmore, Ben Nicholson and Jean Arp. The title of this exhibition is taken from a poem written by Wells during the war, contemporary with his letter to Sven Berlin, beginning this introduction. It eloquently portrays his search for the magical meeting point between man and the elements and stresses the international universality of his art. Wells, an artist almost always solely associated with St Ives, also deserves to be seen within this wider European context confirming his position as an important and unique British constructive artist.

Matthew Rowe August 2003



1907 Born in London.
1908-21 Lived in Ditchling, Sussex.
1916-25 Educated at Epsom College.
1925-30 Studied at University College & Hospital.
1927-8 Evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art.
1928 Met Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in Cornwall.
1930 -6 Qualified as a doctor and spent early career working in various hospitals.
1936-45 Moved to a medical practice at St Mary’s in the Scilly Isles. Made frequent visits to Cornwall during the war years where he spent time with Hepworth, Nicholson & Gabo.
1945 Moved to Anchor Studio, Newlyn, formerly the studio of Stanhope Forbes.
1946 Co-founder of the Crypt Group, St Ives.
1949 Founder member of the Penwith Society.
1950-1 Worked with Barbara Hepworth.
1958 Awarded Arts Critics’ Prize.
1959-2000 Lived & worked in Newlyn where he died in 2000.

Selected solo exhibitions

Durlacher Gallery, New York, 1952, 1958
Waddington Galleries, 1960, 1964
Wills Lane Gallery, St. Ives, 1987
Tate St. Ives, Retrospective, The Fragile Cell,1998
Jonathan Clark Fine Art, London, 2003

Selected group exhibitions

London Museum, Lancaster House, New Movements in Art,1942
Lefevre Gallery (with Winifred Nicholson), London, 1946
Crypt Group, St. Ives, 1946-8
Downing’s Bookshop (with Hepworth, Lanyon & Nicholson), 1947
Downing’s Bookshop (with David Haughton), 1949
Salon des Realites Nouvelles, Paris, 1949
Gimpel Fils, London, British Abstract Art,1951
British Council Tour of Scandinavia, Ten English Painters,1953-4
Montreal City Art Gallery (toured Canada), Six Painters from Cornwall,1955-6
Durlacher Gallery (with Hazel Janicki), New York, 1958
Tate Gallery, Recent British Painting,1967
Richard Demarco Gallery (with W. Barns-Graham, Campbell Macphail &
Denis Mitchell), Edinburgh,1968
Sheviock Gallery, St. Ives, 1970
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, (Arts Council tour), Decade ‘40,1972-3
Talbot Rice Art Centre, Edinburgh, Aspects of Abstract Painting in Britain
1910-1960, 1974
Plymouth City Art Gallery (Alexander Mackenzie & Denis Mitchell), 1975
Tate Gallery, St Ives - 1939-64,1985
Austin Desmond Fine Art, London, Post War British Abstract Art,1988
County Hall, Truro, A Century of Art in Cornwall 1889-1989,1989
Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, Artists from Cornwall,1992
Tate Gallery St. Ives, Opening Exhibition,1993
Montpelier Studio, St. Ives,1993
Montpelier Sandelson, St. Ives,1995

Selected bibliography

J.P.Hodin, John Wells,Quadrum 7, Brussels, 1959.
J.P.Hodin, The 1958 Art Critics’ Prize,The Studio, June 1959, vol. 157.
Plymouth City Art Gallery, Mackenzie, Mitchell & Wells,1975.
Frank Ruhrmond, Art - A Rum Business!(Interview), Aug 1985.
Wills Lane Gallery, John Wells,catalogue introduction by J.P.Hodin, 1987.
Frank Ruhrmond, John Wells,Arts Review, Aug 1987, vol. 39.
Tate St Ives Retrospective, The Fragile Cell,catalogue introduction
M. Rowe, 1998.