In 1987, the year he started art school at Goldsmiths in London, the young Damien Hirst received a letter from a fellow artist with urgent news about his Chinese horoscope. “I did ring you twice + you were out,” it said. “It was to say you are not a horse you are a snake which is awfully good. Chinese love snakes they are bewitching and very intuitive.”
His correspondent was Margaret Mellis: some 51 years his senior and for a brief time his early mentor. This summer the work of Mellis and Hirst can be seen together at the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney, revealing a lesser-known sub-plot of 20th century art. Hirst had sought out her late husband, the artist Francis Davison, and instead met Mellis, widowed but energetic in her Southwold home, surrounded by the ephemera of a lifetime and vigorously making collage and driftwood assemblages. They talked and worked together. She insisted he bathe daily in the bracing waves.
Mellis, an Edinburgh-trained painter and daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian missionary to China, was pretty intuitive herself. She had been at the forefront of contemporary art throughout her life. In August 1939 she and her husband, Adrian Stokes, had moved to St Ives to escape wartime London. They were joined by two artists of the previous generation, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson.
St Ives became the centre of a remarkable artistic community of outsiders whose devotion to radical abstraction and modernism ran counter to the kitchen sink aesthetics of the time. In later life Mellis, at times scandalously under-rated as an artist, had settled in Suffolk.
The main narrative thrust to the Orkney show is provided by Artist Rooms, the collection of artworks held jointly by Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, acquired from the former dealer Anthony D’Offay. Thus the Pier hosts some key works by Hirst including Away from the Flock, the cute but dead-eyed lamb suspended in a vitrine of formaldehyde, that is an emblem of the contradictory pull of his signature works.
There is also a vast medicine cabinet work, Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology, an unholy trinity of medical training toys and a vision of plastic babies gestating in plastic wombs and giant, unsettling models of tooth decay. You could never accuse Hirst of shying away from the big subjects: if the life and death symbolism and the religious metaphors are often overwrought and his scale overblown, the best of his works have a bracing, caffeinated directness and deserve their fame.
But what the Pier’s presentation brings out anew, using its own collection together with a number of significant loans, is a sense of the gentle, teasing relationship between the pioneering older artist and the emerging young rebel. A selection of early collage works show a tentative artist finding his way, clumsily sticking together old phone books and wallpaper, burst balloons and dried flowers. Mellis’s Driftwood Relief shows a lifetime’s authority. Hirst, meanwhile, is feeling his way.
Two beautiful 1957 Mellis paintings demonstrate her formal strengths, but also the undertow of mortality. If flower paintings might ever be thought to be fierce then these are they. In the gluey gloss of Anemones Gone to Seed we see an analogy with the sticky surface of Hirst’s butterfly paintings hanging in the next room.
It is an incredibly fitting setting. The Pier is set in a cluster of buildings on the Stromness shoreline that have been everything from the local nerve centre for an agent of the Hudson Bay Company to a coal shed. Acquired by the art collector Margaret Gardiner in 1977 the site was spectacularly improved and extended by the architect Neil Gillespie in 2007. It is amongst the most remarkable museums in the United Kingdom, housing Margaret Gardiner’s collection of work by figures like Hepworth and Mellis, acquired through friendship and patronage with the St Ives artists together with a first rate range of contemporary art.
The winding cobbled street on which the Pier sits is a serpentine line metaphorically linking the museum to figures of such stature as Orkney’s greatest writer George Mackay Brown and the groundbreaking avant-garde filmmaker Margaret Tait. Look through its windows and you see a pragmatic port, on the edge of what recent archaeology suggests might have been the global superhighway of the Neolithic age. Later it became a vital artery between the Norse world and the new world.
It is this sense of connectedness as much as its remoteness that means the Pier can attract an artist like the ceramicist Edmund de Waal who might show in any museum around the world and whose 2010 family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, has also made him a major literary figure.
The exhibition wavespeech, a collaboration between de Waal and David Ward, brings the ceramicist’s installation of porcelain vessels together with Ward’s work in sound, text, photography and pastel amongst the gallery’s permanent collections. In the best of de Waal’s small, pale pots tinged with traces of gilt there is a tension between their near clinical display in vitrines and the hands-on feel of ceramics, a negotiation between the pot as a hand-made and the challenging science and industrial scale of historical porcelain manufacture. You find the same quality in Ward’s Analemma, a figure of eight of polished steel mirrors that traces the pattern of the sun from the earth as it tilts on its axis.
In the late 1980s Damien Hirst abandoned his collages and began his spot paintings and the “zoo of dead animals” that made his name. The rest is history. He lost touch with Mellis, though in recent years and especially in this show, he has actively supported her legacy after her death in 2009. At the time he felt his beachcombing days were over, that he had been looking at the ground too long. But in his early collages, we see his striking sense of colour and his dawning realisation that art might be made from stuff already in the world. The Pier, with its mixture of the pristine and the prosaic, the beautiful and the practical, is a perfect setting.
Until 12 September