Margaret Mellis (1914-2009) Lilac Yellow

Margaret Mellis (1914-2009) Lilac Yellow


Solo Exhibitions

1958, AIA Gallery; 1959, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh; 1967, University of East Anglia, Norwich; 1968, Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford; 1969, Grabowski Gallery; 1970, Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh; 1970, Stirling University; 1970, Exeter University; 1972, Basil Jacob’s Gallery; 1976, Compass Gallery, Glasgow; 1982, Pier Arts Centre, Stromness; 1990, Redfern Gallery, London; 1994 Redfern Gallery, London; 1991, Peter Pears Gallery, Aldeburgh (Festival Exhibition); 1997, Retrospective, City Art Centre, Edinburgh; 1997, Weddington Gallery, London; 1997 The Hamilton Gallery, London; 1997, Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford; 2001, Newlyn Art Gallery, Penzance; 2001 Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London; 2008, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich

Group Exhibitions

1942, ‘New Movements in Art’, London Museum, Lancaster House; 1946, St Ives Society of Artists, St Ives; 1952, ‘The Mirror and the Square’, AIA, New Burlington Galleries; 1958, ‘British Section of the International Guggenheim Award’, Whitechapel Gallery, London; 1966, ‘Open Paintings’, Ulter Museum, Belfast (toured to Dublin); 1971, ‘Art Spectrum’, Arts Council; 1977,’ Cornwall 1945-55’, New Art Centre; 1982 ‘The Women’s Art Show, 1950-1970’, Castle Museum, Nottingham


Margaret Nairne Mellis was born on the 22nd of January 1914 in Wu-Kung-Fu, China to Scottish missionary parents who returned home to Scotland on the outbreak of the Great War. At an early age her creativity had yet to be solely fixed on art, studying the piano as well but it was with her enrollment at the Edinburgh School of Art in 1929 that her career training began. Under Hubert Wellington and the colourist S.J Peploe she thrived and was awarded with the Andrew Grant Post-Graduate Award and a traveling scholarship, which proved to be vital for her development.

Departing in 1933 for Paris and the tutelage of cubist André Lhote, the young artist was stimulated by an artistic environment that concerned itself with the experimentation of colour and form. In her early paintings, which where predominately landscapes and still-lifes the influence of her time in Paris and the further year she spent traveling through Italy and Spain are clear to see. When Mellis returned to Edinburgh in 1935 she began a fellowship at the School of Art during which time she went back to Paris to see the 1936 Cézanne exhibition and met fellow artist and art theorist Adrian Stokes.

After completing her fellowship Mellis had a brief spell at Eusten Road School but ‘soon realized that its “realistic” approach to landscape and interior was entirely contrary to the direction she wished to pursue’ and in the same year she left she married Adrian Stokes. They traveled to Italy for their honeymoon, which would prove particularly vital for Stokes whose book Colour and Form attempted to deal with the abstract non-descriptive relationship between the figurative works of the 1930’s and the early Sienese and Florentine painters. It was most probably with Italy in mind that Stokes moved himself and his new wife to St Ives in April 1938, as Mellis recounts, ‘Cornwall had particularly good light and we could get materials and Adrian liked the landscape very much and we both wanted to paint.’

Their relocation to the Carbis Bay retreat of Little Park Owles at the outbreak of war would become a pivotal move for the history of modern British Art, when in August 1939 artists ‘Ben (Nicholson) and Barbara (Hepworth) arrived in a thunderstorm along with the triplets and a cook.’ The arrangement lasted over the winter until the situation became unbearable for the four working artists and the recently pregnant Mellis. Even with these strains Mellis describes how she progressed as an artist under the encouragement of Nicholson and the newly arrived Russian constructivist Naum Gabo, ‘I was simplifying my painting when B & G came to St Ives. B was interested and suggested that I should do a collage. At the beginning of 1940 I did one. I got completely hooked. The 11th one was the first constructivist one, it was Construction with a Red Triangle. Gabo liked it so better than the first one. When he left for America he gave it back. He said it would be useful to me.’ Indeed Mellis showed these works alongside the St Ives group and Mondrain in the New Movements in Art Exhibition of 1942.

The creativity of the next five years would continue for the St Ives group but the strain within the community of artists who were known for fighting ‘like ferrets in a sack’ contributed to the breakdown of Mellis’ marriage to Stokes. After their divorce Mellis departed Little Park Owles in 1946, where before leaving was introduced to fellow artist and recent divorcee Francis Davison by St Ives member Patrick Heron. The couple become close immediately and moved to the Cap d’ Antibes, South of France marrying there in 1948 before returning two years later to live in Syleham near Diss in Suffolk. Their marriage would last until Davison died in 1984 after suffering from a brain tumor.

It was in Syleham that Mellis abandoned Constructivism concentrating instead on more colourful still lives and landscapes. Beginning with her bold flower paintings and her study series entitled Dead Flowers, Mellis then spent a period on large abstract colour structures. She experimented with colour composition using bright patches outlined in primary shapes that were possibly inspired by the Op art and American Abstract Expressionist trends prospering at the time. When Mellis painted Lilac Yellow she minimized the canvas size from these earlier larger abstracts and concentrated on maintaining the power and intensity they produced. She also began introducing light relief back into her work, using shallow layers of paint and wood to create a textured three-dimensional surface.

Upon moving to Southwold on the Suffolk coast in 1976 Mellis discovered her ideal medium and began creating works from found objects retrieved from the beach, most notably driftwood and amending them with colour. Her selection of partly painted shards of fishing boats were based on their size, colour shape and texture with a loose idea of what the abstract form would eventually take. A typical example of this is Bog Man, 1990 where Mellis explains that it ‘looked like a kind of man…I had no idea he would be a Bog Man when I started.’

In 2008 a film was made entitled Margaret Mellis a life in colour, which coincided with the last major solo exhibition to be held during her lifetime at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. Margaret Mellis died the following year on the 17th of March, 2009.

  • Delia Gaze (ed.), Dictionary of Women Artists: Volume 2, (London, Fitzroy Dearborn Pub., 1997), pg. 942.
  • St Ives 1939-64: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, (London, The Tate Gallery, 1985), pg. 22.


  • Delia Gaze (ed.), Dictionary of Women Artists: Volume 2, (London, Fitzroy Dearborn Pub., 1997), pg. 944.


The early exposure of the constructivist artists in St Ives clearly made a seminal impact on Mellis’ future work and in the maturation of her artistic style. After leaving Cornwall and possibly due to the emotional turmoil of her private life, Mellis abandoned the movement but was to take it up again with the emergence of Op Art in the 1960’s. Lilac Yellow exhibits the artist reviving her St Ives experimentation of purely colour/form compositions that had impressed leading constructivist Naum Gabo. Dividing areas of the canvas with a triple colour palette of yellow, orange and lilac the rectangular canvas is transformed into a surface of kinetic stillness. It is with fluency that Mellis has created a work of opposites. The lilac, calm and reposeful behind those thermal hues of yellow and orange, which seemingly bounce round the canvas, yet simultaneously come to embrace motionlessly in the centre of the composition. Mellis’ shaping of abstract forms with colour in Lilac Yellow can be seen as a precursor to her celebrated driftwood series of the following decades.



  • St Ives 1939-64: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, (London, The Tate Gallery, 1985)
  • K.G.Saur, The Artists of the World: Bio-graphical index A-Z 2nd Revised Enlarged Edition, (Munchen-Leipzig, Munich, 2008)
  • Benezit, Dictionary of Arts: Volume 9, (Paris, Grund, 2006)
  • Delia Gaze (ed.), Dictionary of Women Artists: Volume 2, (London, Fitzroy Dearborn Pub., 1997)
  • Ian Collins, Obituary: Margaret Mellis, Guardian Online, 21st March 2009.

Cassandra Cunningham