Composed of meticulously threaded string, Perspex, stone, aluminium and other materials, these so called ‘relief constructions’ expressed for Wells a “deep awareness of the living tensions of the environment”.
Just a handful are known to have survived. Indeed, Wells wrote to the Tate in 1973 saying that the series amounted to only “5 or 6 similar works”, perhaps because they were time consuming to make.
One of these scarce construction pieces from this period was consigned to David Lay (18% buyer’s premium) in Penzance on July 26.
The Jo Williams Painting and Construction was made for Mary Williams, a nurse he met on Scilly. According to her family, the pair were briefly engaged but never married.
The 7 x 9½in (18 x 24cm) piece, constructed c.1944-45 with Perspex, stone, aluminium, wire and string on card, was found perfectly preserved in its original frame during a probate valuation at Williams’ Penzance home.
“Its quality and remarkable provenance make it, in our opinion, one of the most important pieces by the artist to have come onto the market in recent years,” said auctioneer David Lay, who discovered the piece stored away in a spare bedroom.
“It was a real education seeing it. I was able to take a backing board off and see how it had been constructed. The precision of the strings made me think of a surgeon stitching up a wound.”
Before its sale in July, John Hawkes, an ex-director of Newlyn Art Gallery and a friend of Wells, described it as “a gem of an artwork… distilling Well’s innate lyrical imagination and his grasp of the modern British abstract movement in St Ives, which he became aware of before the war and then intimately connected with after the war ended”.
Guided at £8000-12,000, it attracted multiple bids before it sold for £28,000 to a local buyer who fought off competition from the internet and a number of phones.
The price is in line with two other top-selling relief constructions at auction: Stringed Figure (1941), which took £32,000 at Sotheby’s London in 2006, and Relief (c.1940-44), which fetched £28,000 at Bonhams London six years later.
According to the Art Sales Index, Wells’ record stands at a premium-inclusive £60,000 paid at Christie’s London earlier this summer for Blue Oval (1946).
Post-war, Wells chose a career as a full-time artist, buying one of Stanhope Forbes’ former studios in Newlyn. Although living in Newlyn, Wells was at the centre of artistic activity in St Ives.
And despite his role as a key player among the first group of artists in the town, Wells is often overlooked and his prices at auction are modest when compared with his contemporaries Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth and Peter Lanyon.
Elsewhere in the sale, two works by another St Ives painter, Alexander Mackenzie (1923-2002), drew eager bidding.
The pair of abstract works came from the collection of Eileen Hunt, a former curator of Newlyn Art Gallery from 1952-56.
The more valuable of the duo was a typically early oil on board landscape, signed and dated 1954.
With some minor areas of small cracking and surface abrasions, it sold to the London trade at £10,500 against a £2000-3000.
The other work – an untitled 6½ x 8½in (17 x 22cm) oil on paper inscribed to the verso Greetings + best wishes Christmas 1961 Alex to Geoffrey – was bought by a local buyer for £1050 against a £400-600 guide.