Death of artist Margaret Mellis

Margaret Mellis - a pivotal figure in modernist British art and for so long a colourful adornment to Southwold - died today at the age of 95.

Margaret Mellis - a pivotal figure in modernist British art and for so long a colourful adornment to Southwold - died today at the age of 95.

Although in frail health in recent years, she had a matchless zest for life, swimming in the sea all year round, cycling and tap dancing far into her eighties.

She was born in China, where her father was a missionary. Her first birthday was spent on the boat returning the family to their native Scotland at the start of World War One.

At Edinburgh's College of Art from 15, she scooped several prizes - including a travel scholarship to Paris where, in 1936, she had a fateful meeting with the critic and painter Adrian Stokes. They married two years later.


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With war looming Margaret and Adrian searched the Norfolk and Suffolk coast for a safe refuge from the expected Blitz, before finding the perfect house near St Ives in Cornwall. Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth soon joined them - trailing a raft of pioneering artists in their wake. That key creative migration so nearly came to East Anglia.

Encouraged by Nicholson, Margaret began to make small abstract compositions while caring for her infant son Telfer. These works pointed her path to the future even as her marriage hit the rocks.

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She was rescued by her painter friend Patrick Heron, who introduced her to Francis Davison. They married in 1948. After two years in the South of France, the couple returned to England - borrowing a fisherman's shack at Walberswick.

In East Anglia they led very happy lives of self-sufficiency and mutually-supportive creativity. Margaret explored still-life studies, while Francis turned from pared-down landscape paintings to collage - as both headed towards abstraction.

A legacy secured a cottage and four acres at Syleham, near Diss, which for 25 years they worked as a smallholding and chicken farm, before moving to Southwold in 1976.

Soon beachcombed finds of bright driftwood - bits of boats and beach huts - were being worked into driftwood constructions. They were essentially abstract colour compositions in which semi-representational images often appeared which the artist had not originally intended.

After Francis's death, in 1984, Margaret filled her attic studio and garden with mountains of driftwood and drew flowers on opened-out envelopes of the cards cascading from her mantelpiece. Her art and her character left a deep impact on a teenage visitor called Damien Hirst.

'We lost touch. I don't really know why,' he wrote in her London/Newlyn exhibition catalogue of 2001. 'Maybe it was the age difference, maybe it was because I got into art school. I think it was also because I felt such an affinity with her.'

Hirst concluded that Margaret Mellis had been neglected by critics and curators and deserved to be 'up there - large on the map with her contemporaries' and her art in 'the museums where it belongs'.

Last year their works were hung side by side in Tate Britain as Margaret was further feted with a brilliant retrospective exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.

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