I n 1986, a letter arrived to the Norfolk home of the painter and sculptor, Margaret Mellis. It came from a young and aspiring artist, Damien Hirst. In it, the young artist rhapsodised on the works that he had seen exhibited at her husband Francis Davison’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1983. Both Mellis’s paintings and sculptures using found materials, and Davison’s collages – epic in scale – had left Hirst ‘blown away’ in equal measure, he wrote, and had inspired him to make his own essays in collage.
The period was something of a fallow one for Hirst. He had spent the previous two years working on building sites, having – ever the enfant terrible – dropped out of art school. For Mellis, in turn, Hirst’s youthful enthusiasm would have been truly heartening.
Despite her abundant talent and friendship with many of the pioneering figures of British Modernism, Mellis remained largely unknown to critics. Her husband had died of a brain tumour the year following the Hayward Gallery exhibition – the only point in his life at which he came close to attaining critical recognition – and Mellis was again finding her feet artistically, having previously subsumed many of her creative impulses into her selfless and devoted support for her partner’s work.
Keen to provide succour to this eager young admirer, Mellis invited him to stay at the cottage in which she had lived with Davison. Divided by an age gap of some 51 years, and with Hirst already demonstrating the rebellious tendencies that were to gain him notoriety (and cause his despairing mother to turn one of his Sex Pistols records into a fruit bowl), Mellis and Hirst made for unlikely friends.
Yet, as they walked along the Norfolk coast and swam in its waters, the pair found that they had much to talk about. They found shared interests and even worked together in Mellis’s house, among the heaps of driftwood that she had assembled there for her sculptures. Over the following year, the pair continued to correspond, with Hirst sending the older artist examples of his work in collage.
When Hirst enrolled to study at Goldsmiths later that year, he was amazed that so few of his contemporaries had even heard of his mentor. It was with this in mind that in 2001 Hirst used his newly-acquired celebrity to repay the favour that Mellis had done him so many years previously. Writing in the preface to her exhibition at Newlyn and Austin Desmond Fine Art, he bemoaned Mellis’ neglect by critics and curators, and affirmed that she ‘deserves to be up there – large on the map with her contemporaries’.
Works by all three artists feature in the Made In Britain sale on 20 March.