John Wells

An artist bewitched by the sea, shore and stones of Cornwall

The Penwith peninsula, at the southwest tip of Cornwall, where the painter John Wells lived the second half of his long and productive life, was an inspiration to two or three generations of artists - the expired tin mines, the iron-age landscape, the wind-eroded headlands, the harsh granite walls. But for Wells, who has died the day after his 93rd birthday, it was the sea that counted, always the sea.

He had trained as a doctor, and practised in the Isles of Scilly. Those islands - "mysteriously suspended between sky and sea", as David Lewis put it in the catalogue of the Tate Gallery's 1985 celebration of the St Ives group of artists - always marked Wells's painting, once he had switched careers. However non-figurative his work was, however influenced by the abstraction of his friends Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, there was always a whiff of Atlantic salt about it.

Wells was born in London; his father was a research doctor, who died when he caught one of the diseases on which he was working. Wells, who was only two at the time, went to school at Epsom College, but lived until 1921 at Ditchling, Sussex, which, in its small way, was, like St Ives, an artists' and craftsmen's community: Frank Brangwyn, a towering figure at the time but now forgotten, and Eric Gill lived there.

Whether or not any of this rubbed off on Wells, he trained for medicine at University College Hospital, London, and attended evening classes at St Martin's School of Art. On a holiday visit to Cornwall in 1928, he met Ben and Winifred Nicholson, and the talented, but doomed, painter and opium addict, Christopher Wood. It was with Winifred that he later shared his first London exhibition, at the Lefèvre Gallery in 1946.

For the moment, however, Wells stuck to medicine and, after several years' hospital practice, moved in 1936 to the Scillies, where he travelled between patients by motor boat and where, on the largest island, St Mary's, he built a small hospital. During the war, he added Royal Navy servicemen and Breton refugees to his list of patients.

Though visits to the Nicholsons in Hampstead were few, he stayed in touch, and always found some time to devote to painting. Then, when he heard the news of the successful D-Day landings, he decided that the time had come to act out his long-nourished dream, to become a full-time artist. He moved to Newlyn, in Cornwall, and remained there for the rest of his life, becoming a well-known figure visiting friends and fellow artists in St Ives by push bike.

W ells took to the bohemian life with a will, but nearly aborted his new career at the outset, when he badly damaged his right eye during a VE-Day binge. He was lucky not to lose the other in 1949, when he was working as an assistant with Terry Frost, in Barbara Hepworth's studio in St Ives, and chips of hard blue marble, drilled out from the nascent Cosdon Head, lacerated his hands and face.

He took all this in his stride. "I can see better with out," he remarked airily, after his damaged right eye lost its sight altogether.

No one looking at Wells's paintings would have argued about that. Gabo was the most obvious influence, both in the tautness of the composition of colour shapes and in the sense of space which the forms inhabited. Wells was quite happy to acknowledge the label "constructivist", though sometimes his painting could dissolve into a relaxed harmony of lemon yellow and olive green on a field of misty greys, as in the Tate Gallery's Brimstone Moth Variation of 1960, the year the Waddington Gallery gave him his first one-man show.

Wells's career had taken off from the moment, in September 1946, when he and a group of like-minded young artists, including Bryan Wynter and Peter Lanyon, founded the Crypt Group; they wanted to exhibit in the whitewashed space beneath the disused mariners' mission church in St Ives, in protest at the dominance - by traditional artists - of the exhibition space in the nave above. The move was such a success that, in this art-conscious town, the Crypt Group was invited to provide a team of judges to choose the St Ives carnival queen. Later, Wells was one of the founder-members of the Penwith Group, which, at its height, included all the major painters in the area.

His second Waddington show, in 1964, was ignored by the London critics, and he faded from view outside the peninsula. Perhaps his immaculate taste in colour and placement, his evocation of the flight of sea birds, or of the coarse textures of leaf mould or wet sand or coarse Cornish granite, was his undoing in a period demanding an art either more clamorous, or refined to the point of non-existence.

Whatever the truth, Wells was unfazed. He continued to exhibit locally and to receive the praise of a discriminating group of critics, gallery officials, and fellow-artists around the world. The Tate Gallery, St Ives, marked his 91st birthday with a retrospective. He did not marry.

Michael McNay
John Clayworth Spencer Wells, artist, born July 27 1907; died July 28 2000

The GuardianTramp

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