Modern art at the Sainsbury Centre

Ian Collins Two new shows at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich survey almost a century of modernist art and finally give Southwold artist Margaret Mellis a due accolade. Ian Collins joins the tribute.

Ian Collins

Nowadays the 1960s get a mixed press, but oh for that sense of optimism and especially the bright belief that modernism could rise up at its most magnificent on the edge of Norwich, beside the lake in Earlham Park.

The University of East Anglia was to be one of seven new universities and the bold blocks and ziggurats designed by Denys Lasdun gave us both a concrete vision of an ancient Aztec city and a blueprint for the future.

In 1968 the UEA received a grant of £10,000 to form a collection of innovative 20th century art to complement the progressive architecture. Rarely was public money better spent; and once the initial sum was gone, gifts and grants kept the treasures coming.

Over the decades, sculpture, paintings, graphics, architectural models, drawings and furniture - involving luminary names such as Wassily Kandinsky, Le Corbusier, Sonia Delaunay and Anthony Caro - came to form a priceless educational aid and, now, a stupendous Constructed exhibition.

Happily moved to the Norman Foster-designed Sainsbury Centre in 1978, the modernist collection now comprises more than 400 objects. New acquisitions are added every year in what is a coherent and comprehensive survey of cutting-edge creativity since 1910.

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Constructed: 40 Years of the UEA Collection starts with work by artists now called “constructivist” from the second decade of the 20th century - especially with the explosion of radical art and design during the Russian Revolution. Alas, it was all to die a death under Stalin.

Besides the pioneering modernists in the De Stijl Group, such as Gerrit Rietveld with a fabulously uncomfortable armchair more like a multi-coloured abstract sculpture, the other main early focus is on the German Bauhaus School founded by Walter Gropius. And the key display of the more recent era features the geometric forms of the “British Constructionists” - such as Victor Pasmore, Kenneth and Mary Martin, Peter Lowe, Gillian Wise and Anthony Hill.

Between these two sections in the Sainsbury show there is a room filled with Isokon furniture which also links to a stirring East Anglian story.

In 1934 architect Wells Coates designed the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead along strikingly modern lines. They were likened by Agatha Christie, a war-time tenant, to an ocean liner.

The commissioner, Jack “Plywood” Pritchard (1899-1992), moved in with his wife Molly, having lately founded the Isokon (“Isometric Unit Construction”) furniture company allying cutting-edge design with mass production.

After Hitler's rise to power, Pritchard rescued Walter Gropius, and his wife Ise, with the promise of work and a Lawn Road flat. Similarly saved were other Bauhaus pioneers such as Laszlo Maholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer (the latter designing Isokon's classic long chair).

They all made use of the Hampstead haven whose Isobar club drew locally-based artists and intellectuals, including modernist sculptors Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo.

Pritchard then introduced Gropius to Henry Morris, the forward-looking chief education officer of Cambridgeshire, and the result was Impington Village College, which set the pattern for post-war school building in Britain.

Sadly, that pattern came rather late for the pattern-maker who needed to earn a living meanwhile. Unable to find further work in the UK, Gropius swiftly moved to the US.

But on his 85th birthday the adopted American accepted the greetings of his guests, who included the Pritchards, and added: “Now fill your glasses and drink to Molly and Jack for saving our lives.”

With his beliefs in planning, child-centred education, modern design, sunbathing, naturism and free love, Jack Pritchard was a controversialist readily lampooned by Osbert Lancaster. But many of the designs he fostered - like the Penguin donkey bookcase - are now classics. And given the revived popularity of mid-20th century design, some are now in production once again.

In 1961 the Pritchards had bought land in Blythburgh on which they built Isokon - a single-storey modernist dwelling of glass and wood designed by Jennifer (Jack's daughter) and Colin Jones.

The swimming pool became a focal point for artist friends, including Southwold's Margaret Mellis and her collagist husband Francis Davison. (Ironically, her first husband, the art theorist and painter Adrian Stokes, had been an early Lawn Road tenant.)

Margaret Mellis is a pivotal but long-unsung figure in British modern art, and her Sainsbury Centre retrospective show - A Life in Colour - complements the Constructed exhibition perfectly. Indeed, she is also part of the UEA Collection with a choice little work from 1940.

Born in 1914 in China, where her father was a missionary, Margaret grew up in Scotland. She was a child prodigy, first as a pianist and then as a painter.

At the Cézanne exhibition in Paris in 1936 she met the handsome and magnetic Adrian Stokes. They married two years later, visiting writer Ezra Pound during their Italian honeymoon.

Amid the false hopes of Munich, the Hampstead-based Stokes anticipated the Blitz, so he and Margaret scoured the coast of Norfolk and Suffolk for a place of escape. They failed to secure the property they wanted in Walberswick, and finally decided that the Martello tower on the beach at Slaughden, below Aldeburgh, was more at risk from the sea than the Nazis.

And so they searched in Cornwall, and found the ideal house just outside St Ives. It had been agreed in advance that Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson would join their rural bolt-hole, wherever it might be. So that is how the centre of modern art in Britain shifted to the far west rather than to England's easterly edge.

Chances are Ben and Barbara would have been rather happier in Norfolk - where, with Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens and others, they had enjoyed a seminal Happisburgh holiday in 1931. That visit will be examined in a major exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum early in 2009.

Also, Hitchens had subsequently rented a cottage at Sizewell, a remote fishing village long before the era of nuclear power stations. There the painter John Piper had met his future wife, Myfanwy.

Anyway, we lost them. In Cornwall, encouraged by Ben Nicholson and then by Naum Gabo, Margaret produced sophisticated paper, card and collage constructions while also trying to keep a crammed and seething wartime house in order.

After the birth of a son, Telfer, the marriage fell apart and Margaret was very fortunate that the painter Patrick Heron then introduced her to his best friend, Francis Davison - who was similarly wounded by divorce. They wed and fled to the south of France.

Returning to England in 1950, Mellis and Davison lived at first in a fisherman's shack on the Walberswick side of Southwold harbour, before buying a small-holding at Syleham, near Harleston, where they scraped a living selling eggs and chickens.

All the time they were both quietly evolving as artists. Although Davison was really a recluse, he gave his very social wife the space in which to paint - and her exhilarating work advanced steadily from expressionist oils to new adventures in abstraction.

In 1976 they moved to Southwold where, before Davison's death from a brain tumour in 1984, the work of two highly original artists saw parallel explosions of colour.

Margaret latterly made two art forms her own: the first comprised driftwood constructions much-admired by the teenage Damien Hirst. He stayed in Southwold and briefly produced work echoing hers (as shown by two constructions now hanging side by side in Tate Britain).

The death of Francis, although a body blow to Margaret, allowed her the freedom of friendships. Letters and invitations came to be massed on her mantelpiece and stacked in heaps on the floor (just as driftwood came to be piled outside her house to the horror of one or two neighbours).

She discovered that pastel drawings of flowers on the insides of open-out envelopes acquired a new abstract strength. To me they seemed like late self-portraits.

I met Margaret 20 years ago, when spending Christmas with my family in Southwold. On Boxing Day I called on Margaret and, in a sense, never left.

Before she found me my house, a stone's throw from hers, I used often to stay with her, sleeping in the attic studio among works now on show at the Sainsbury Centre.

With Clive Dunn I made a film on her for Anglia Television, and we went to London, Scotland and Cornwall, interviewing veterans of British modernism - Patrick Heron, John Wells, Sven Berlin, the collector Margaret Gardiner and Naum Gabo's widow Miriam. All now gone.

But Margaret was every bit the star of the show - as we filmed her working in the studio and putting on an exhibition at Gainsborough's House in Sudbury, as well as bicycling, swimming and tap-dancing. The film closed with the two of us rock 'n roll dancing in her kitchen.

She's still with us - just. Now this most vibrant figure is a pale shadow, with a band of carers and who knows what thoughts and memories? But her work seems to me brighter than ever - a great blast of light and energy, like the sun hitting the sea.

A decade ago she would have loved the Sainsbury show. The strange thing is that Southwold has also changed dramatically in that short time.

Margaret and I used to find cornelians on the beach, especially when a low slanting sun lit up small gems of gold, red and orange. Now there are almost none.

And despite a daily tide of gaudy plastic, painted driftwood - which I lugged home for a great modernist artist in vast quantities - has all but gone.

t Constructed: 40 Years of the UEA Collection runs from July 1 until December 14 and Margaret Mellis: A Life in Colour until August 31. Combined adult admission £3. The Sainsbury Centre is open Tuesdays to Sundays 10am-5pm, until 8pm on Wednesday.

t www.scva.ac.uk