Born in 1914, in Wukingfu, Swatow, China, Margaret Mellis’ family returned to Scotland soon after her birth. She began studying at Edinburgh College of Art at fifteen, where she was taught by Samuel John Peploe and W. G. Gillies, and learnt alongside Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and William Gear. In 1933, she went to Paris to study under André Lhote, followed by another visit in 1937. In between, in 1936, she met Adrian Stokes, marrying him in 1938. Together, they moved to St Ives, Cornwall, arguably heralding the next wave of artists to the area, with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, and Roger Hilton. Before this, she studied for a time at the Euston Road School, before fleeing to Cornwall following the outbreak of war.
When she moved to St Ives, Mellis explored collage and relief. The former of these were created from paper, and exhibited at New Movements in Art, in 1942 at the London Museum. In 1946, Mellis left St Ives with her son, Telfer, following her divorce from Stokes. Before she left, she met the artist Francis Davison, with whom she moved to London, and then to Cap d’Antibes, in 1947. They married in 1948, and relocated to Walberswick and later Syleham, Norfolk, in 1950. Her divorce had pushed Mellis back to figuration, but she soon recovered her interest in abstraction. Mellis and Davison worked together on their art and on the land, until Mellis was forced by rheumatoid arthritis to move to Suffolk. She recovered a little, and continued to work and to promote her husband’s art. However, for much of the ’50s and ’60s, neither was widely exhibited in London – they were geographically and, at times, conceptually, distant from life in the capital. This began to change, after Mellis embarked upon a series of large abstract paintings known as ‘colour structures’. These were exhibited in London group shows at the AIA Gallery, and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, while examples were selected for the John Moores Painting Prize on two occasions, in 1963 and again in ’65.
In 1978, Mellis started creating driftwood reliefs, which she found while walking along the local coast at Southwold, and likened the creative process to Surrealist automatism. In the mid-’80s, Mellis was included in several high-profile exhibitions, including the important survey show of St Ives 1939-64, staged at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1985, and later Scottish Art since 1900, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. In 1987, the Redfern Gallery gave Mellis a solo exhibition, which was attended by a young Damien Hirst. Intrigued by the driftwood constructions in particular, Hirst wrote to the artist, and was invited to visit Mellis in Southwold, forming a lasting friendship. Mellis was part of the Tate St Ives’ inaugural exhibition in 1993, and was the subject of a retrospective that opened at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, and toured the UK, in 1997. Recent exhibitions include Modern Scottish Women 1885-1965, at the SNGMA, and a joint-show with Damien Hirst at Pier Arts Centre, Orkney.
The Redfern Gallery represents the Margaret Mellis Estate.