John Clayworth Spencer Wells
John Clayworth Spencer Wells
John Wells (1907-2000) produced abstract paintings and relief constructions, influenced by a sense of light and space. Though his painting was small-scale and reticent, there was no lack of eminent admirers. Perhaps the most flattering compliment came from Naum Gabo, who called him “the Paul Klee of the Constructivist movement”. Although living and working in the heart of the Newlyn colony, he was most closely associated with the younger artists working in St Ives. By the end of his life he was the last survivor of a group of modernists which had gathered round St Ives since the 1920s, and who had helped to transform the Cornish art scene.
While reading medicine in London, he came to study at Stanhope Forbes’ School of Art in Newlyn in 1928, and during his stay in Cornwall was introduced to Ben and Winifred Nicholson and Christopher Wood. After qualifying as a doctor, he worked as a GP on the Isles of Scilly from 1936 until 1945. While there he made occasional visits to St Ives to see Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and he also met with the Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo, who was to become a major and lasting influence on him.
After the war, Wells gave up medical practice to paint full time, and he also worked as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth. Following the death of Stanhope Forbes, he bought Anchor Studios in Newlyn from his widow Maud in 1949, living there for the rest of his life. He later acquired the neighbouring Trewarveneth Infant School as his studio, inviting his friend, sculptor Denis Mitchell, to share it with him.
Although based in Newlyn, John Wells was at the centre of artistic activity in post war St Ives. He was closely associated with most of the key artists, and he would regularly cycle over to meet up with them in the Sloop Inn. He was close friends with Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Bryan Wynter, and a founder of the Crypt Group in 1946. He later helped to form the Penwith Society of Arts with Ben Nicolson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Denis Mitchell, Bernard Leach and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.
Wells famously wrote to Sven Berlin “How can one paint the warmth of the sun, the sound of the sea or the journey of a beetle across a rock? That’s one argument for abstraction.” His cliff-top walks with Peter Lanyon were also very influential; together they absorbed not just the contours but the feel of the landscape. He recalled “I spent a lot of time climbing up and down, drawing and watching the birds on the air currents, looking at everything.”
Following his death in 2000, Anchor Studios and Trewarveneth Studios in Newlyn were bequeathed to the Trust, which changed its name to the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust to reflect this legacy, and ensuring their continued use by artists.