Mellis: Stokes – Colour and Form

October 2011

Publication: The Times

This unusual exhibition brings together the work of four artists from the same extended family: Margaret Mellis, Telfer Stokes, Ann Stokes and Charlotte Mellis.  Margaret Mellis (1914-2009) mother of Telfer Stokes (b.1940) , sister of Ann Stokes (nee Mellis) (b. 1922)  and aunt of Charlotte Mellis (b. 1952) was married to the prominent critic, painter and poet Adrian Stokes (1902-1972) between the years 1938 and 1947.


The score or so of works by Margaret Mellis span the last four  decades of the artist’s working life.  The exemplary selection includes ‘Landscape (Violet and Blue)’ (1962); ‘Interlocked Forms (1964) and ‘Over the Moon’ (1975). All of these explore Mellis’s continuing fascination with abstraction which is, nevertheless, anchored in the observed world. The last is a foray into what was then new territory. This involved using an unprimed, unstretched canvas painted with quasi-geometrical forms in a muted palette of greys, browns and whites.


However, it is for her driftwood constructions that Mellis will be best remembered. Composed mainly of fragments from discarded boats and other structures found in or near the sea, these are often characterised by the bright colours used in a hostile marine environment.


‘Ribbed’ (2001) reveals a complex arrangement of colour, tone, material, texture and surface ; it is astonishing to realise that this work, one of Mellis’s last, was made when the artist was eighty-seven years of age.


It is only in recent years that Telfer Stokes has acknowledged the significant debt he owes to his parents in his own artistic development. artistic careers.  These metal sculptures  – large, heavy, bold, muscular and masculine – are cerebrally titled : ‘Chufter’, ‘Meme’, ‘Accidence’ and ‘Darkling’ are at once literary, discomfiting and enigmatic. Solid, grimy and weighty these slabs of cut steel are assembled in rhythmic juxtapositions of colour and mass. 


Charlotte Mellis’s ‘Shantytown’ (2010), which consists of fifty-eight individual ceramic pieces, represents both a political and aesthetic statement which owes something to the socially engaged aestheticism of the US photographer Walker Evans. Charlotte Mellis expresses an early and enduring fascination with corrugated iron structures, citing their repetitive patterning and the weathered colour of red oxide as factors in their attraction.

At first glance, some of Ann Stokes more outrageous pieces such as birds in flight or illuminated crocodiles may seem twee or contrived; like them or loath them, her plates, in particular, are collectors’ items, prized just as much for their visual appeal as for their functionality.  “Painting is what I pot for,” she has said and there’s no doubting her sincerity. Like Matisse, Picasso and Asger Jorn before her – and to whom she must, one hopes, acknowledge some kind of debt of gratitude – her painted plates of birds, fish and other creatures clearly have a loyal following.