John Wells was an important figure within the group of artists who joined Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in St Ives during the 1940s and 1950s. He was a founder member of the influential Crypt Group in 1946 and of the Penwith Society in 1949, alongside artists like Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. These works come from the collection of George Dannatt, a close friend of the artist.
Wells made advances towards the painting profession during his wartime commission as Admiralty Surgeon and Agent for the Isles of Scilly. From here, he was able to observe the developments in painting around Carbis Bay through regular visits to Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. By far the most enduring influence, however, was the Russian constructivist Naum Gabo, to whom Wells was introduced in the spring of 1940. Experiments in sculpture and collage, as well as eleven years spent as Hepworth’s studio assistant from 1949, developed Wells’ ability to envisage form in three dimensions. Such guidance distinguishes the linearity of the artist’s paintings of the 1940s, and remains a visible trait in the more painterly abstraction of the 1950s, as in Untitled (1957).
Having committed to a career as a full-time, practicing artist in 1945, Wells rented a former studio of Stanhope Forbes. Despite being based in Newlyn, Wells worked at the centre of artistic activity in post-war St. Ives. Through abstraction, Wells explored his immediate environment but was frustrated by the seeming impossibility of translating perception into form, demanding ‘…how can one paint the warmth of the sun, the sea or the journey of a beetle across a rock?’ The result was to be small-scale, intimate translations of natural forms into planar surfaces.
A major retrospective of the artist’s work was held at Tate St. Ives in 1998, and Wells’s work can now be found in a number of public collections, both in Britain and abroad including those of the British Museum, the Arts Council and the Yale Centre for British Art.