Margaret Mellis


Born: 22 January, 1914, in Wu-Kung-Fu, China.

Died: 17 March, 2009, in Suffolk, aged 95.

MARGARET Mellis was a pivotal figure in modernist British art and for a long time a colourful and enthusiastic member of the British art scene. She is best known for the abstract and beguiling forms she created using driftwood picked up on the beaches of Suffolk.

The young Damien Hirst was an admirer of Mellis's art, contacting her to let her know how deeply he had been affected by a sculpture of hers in a London gallery.

A documentary film was made of Mellis's work (Margaret Mellis: A Life in Colour) and shown on Anglia Television last year. Scottish Arts News wrote: "The film is a beautiful depiction of an artist ... and a fitting tribute for the great contribution which she has made to both Scottish and British art."

Margaret Mellis was born to Scottish parents in China. Her father was a missionary but on the outbreak of the First World War returned to Britain to sign up.

Mellis was to have her first birthday on the high seas and grew up in Edinburgh. She showed early promise as a talented musician but when a family friend saw her drawings she was encouraged to study art. Still in her teens, she attended Edinburgh College of Art (1929-33), where her teachers included the colourist Samuel John Peploe. Renowned Scottish artists William Gear and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham were among her contemporaries.

Mellis scooped several prizes in her time at the college – including a travel scholarship to Paris, where, in 1936, she met the critic and painter Adrian Stokes. She recalled later: "I knew he was going to try to pick me up so I sat down and waited for him." They married two years later.

Mellis did a further course at the School of Drawing and Painting in London's Euston Road, but with the Second World War looming the couple settled in St Ives in Cornwall, leading what would become an exodus of British artists and sculptors to the seaside town.

Among those who followed were Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth (and their triplets), who came to stay for an extended period. Other visitors to whom they gave refuge in their large house included the constructivist Naum Gabo, Victor Pasmore and Graham Sutherland. It was not the easiest of times but Nicholson encouraged Mellis to develop her talent and she started to concentrate on abstract compositions. By the end of the war Mellis's marriage was under severe pressure and she left Cornwall, but soon met the poet and artist Francis Davison. The two formed a sympathetic relationship and were seldom separated after they married in 1948. In 1950 they set up home in a fisherman's shack in Suffolk and Mellis explored still-life painting.

After a move to Southwold in 1976, Mellis started combing the local beaches for anything the tide had left stranded.

She started making driftwood constructions, originally as wall-reliefs for her own house, but as her confidence grew, Mellis added colour and moulded wonderful pieces of art which, under spotlights, cast tantalising and enticing shadows. The reformed structures of driftwood took on a life of their own, possessed of a resounding energy and form.

These new works forced Mellis to "think in a different way", she said, "not in colour, which was natural for me".

In 1984, Davison died but his death seemed to re-energise Mellis and she entered a particularly productive period. Along with her wooden sculptures she delighted in creating delicate botanical drawings.

But it was the sculptures that attracted the young Damien Hirst. In 1986, Mellis received a card from the student who was to become a central figure in the "Britart" movement, explaining how he had been "blown away" by her constructions.

He visited Mellis in Suffolk and they swam, walked and worked together. In a foreword to Mellis's 2001 London exhibition, Hirst wrote: "Margaret Mellis has been neglected by critics and curators and deserves to be up there – large on the map with her contemporaries."

The National Galleries of Scotland has in its collection Relief Construction in Wood, dating from 1941. It is somewhere between a painting and a sculpture, as it is put together, or "constructed", using wood of varying colours and textures, using contrasting geometric and natural shapes.

Last year her works were hung alongside Hirst's in Tate Britain. Mellis was given a prestigious retrospective at the City Art Gallery in Edinburgh in 1997 and then at the Victoria & Albert Museum. To coincide with the documentary film, the actress Susannah York was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour about "the precious talent of Margaret Mellis".

Margaret Mellis is survived by a son from her first marriage.