Though Margaret Mellis and Francis Davison spent their married life largely removed from all society, let alone the bright lights of the London art scene, their artistic partnership born of personal devotion was one of the most significant relationships of 20th-century British art.
It was Mellis who brought Davison to art, and most likely her love of colour that encouraged him to experiment with bright tones within his own work. Their passion and dedication to one another and their individual crafts is represented in Made in Britain (20 March, London), with a number of pieces by each artist, spanning the breadth of their individual practices.
Born in China but brought up in Scotland, Margaret Mellis studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art, taught by the great Scottish Colourist Samuel John Peploe, alongside fellow students Wilhelmina Barns-Grahams and William Gear. Her talent was quickly identified and she was the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including scholarships to study and travel in Europe. In 1936, during one of these trips, she met the art theorist and critic Adrian Stokes. They married two years later, and their marriage was the lightning rod for two very divergent British schools of art.
On the one hand, Stokes was immersed in the Euston Road School of artists, spearheaded by William Coldstream – even persuading Mellis, whose aesthetic was eminently unsuitable to study at the Euston Road School for a year. On the other hand, the couple’s move in 1938 to Carbis Bay, St Ives, anticipating the imminent outbreak of WWII, was a defining moment for modern British art as artists flocked to join them, including Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Victor Pasmore, Graham Sutherland, and Julian Trevelyan. St Ives would thus become the focal point for generations of British artists. In the end, their marriage ended in tragedy – Adrian Stokes left Margaret for her sister Ann, who would later become the much celebrated ceramicist Ann Stokes.
A desolate Mellis was comforted by Patrick and Delia Heron, who, serendipitously, introduced Mellis to Patrick’s - recently divorced - friend Francis Davison. Davison, adopted by the maverick businessman George Davison as a baby, went to the same Essex boarding school as Patrick Heron, before studying English and Anthropology at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge. He tried his luck as a poet and a teacher before his relationship with Mellis induced him to focus upon the visual arts. The pair moved to his family chateau in Cap d’Antibes, before marrying in Nice in 1948.
They returned to England two years later, first to Suffolk and then a to a small farm in Norfolk, at Syleham, near Diss, where they eked out an existence on home-grown produce, selling chickens and eggs. Their marriage was an immensely productive partnership, and they were rarely parted.
Immune from the changing whims of the London art world, they focused – with near obsession – upon their separate art forms. Whilst Mellis created evocative and sensitively realised still-lifes, such as Bottle and Reflection, and vibrant landscapes, like Aldeburgh Boats, Davison turned his attention almost exclusively to detailed and exhaustive collages built up of torn paper, such as Boats at Sea.
In 1976 the pair moved to Suffolk, where Davison introduced ever brighter colours, seen in works such as Bright Yellow & White with Black & Brown, and Mellis embarked upon a period of immense creativity, working with driftwood collected from the beach, crafting these pieces into relief sculptures.
Both achieved some recognition during the 1980s, with Davison having a show at the Hayward Gallery in 1983, just before his death in 1984, and a posthumous exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in 2007, whilst Mellis had exhibitions at Newlyn Gallery and Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London, gaining a somewhat unlikely admirer in Damien Hirst. He wrote of her that she should be “up there – large on the map with her contemporaries”, her work in “the museums where it belongs”.