Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: In her own words 1940-1947

A talk presented by Janet Axten MA at the St Ives Arts Club as part of the St Ives Festival 2016, supported by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust and St Ives Archive.

Using diaries and letters belonging to Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Janet Axten’s talk focussed on the artist’s very first years in St Ives after arriving there in March 1940. It did not take long for Willie, as she was known, to meet people and become a part of an active social group that centred around the Stokes, Nicholsons and Gabos. However it was not all plain sailing and there were moments when Willie questioned why she had come to this remote part of the country. Despite these feelings she persevered and went on to live there for the rest of her life. This illuminating talk brings to life part of the history of St Ives in the early 1940s looking at the people rather than the art, using photographs from St Ives archive. Digital copies of the diaries and Willie’s correspondence from the 1940s were deposited with St Ives Archive by the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust (aka The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust) in August 2016.

Assembly of Nine

This painting belongs to an extensive series of paintings Things of a Kind in Order and Disorder where experiences and emotions were reduced to a formal system of repeated squares or circles.  Barns-Graham explored the way in which the forms interacted with their neighbours, each individual element nudged to disrupt the formal pattern. The title is a play on the number of squares per line, and on the symbolic number of adherents that constitute a devotional meeting of the Baha’i faith, to which Barns-Graham had been introduced by her friend, the potter Bernard Leach.  She often used the colour yellow to represent spirituality, the interior of this image positively glowing.

View of St Ives

This view of St Ives was painting within the first year of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham arriving in St Ives. The simplification of form and textural approach to mark making, reflecting her experience at Edinburgh College of Art, together with the paleness of palette in the foreground, darkening in The Island (the mound rising behind the harbour, known as The Island but actually not one at all) and the sea, all suggest the sharp penetrating light of Cornwall, so reminiscent of that of her native St Andrews. 

Sleeping Town

This is a haunting, poetic evocation of St Ives, asleep because of the time of day and also in the silence of empty boats, waiting for the fishermen to return. One thinks of a fishing industry increasingly in decline that might ‘sleep’ forever. If the painting’s meaning is layered so too is the artist’s activity. Through the surface paint ghostly images appear of a previous painting, or earlier stages of this one. It is a palimpsest of impressions in which parts of the image are no longer specific but where they have become suggestions. It shows Barns-Graham to be evolving her own language of symbols that together signify her response not simply to the visible town but to its physical character, its history and contemporary life.

Glacier Study

Two visits to Switzerland in the late 1940s produced a marked change in the direction of Barns-Graham’s work. While there she did a number of drawings and watercolours in response to the Glaciers of Grindelwald. Upon her return to St Ives there followed an outpouring of work inspired by the transparency and multi-faced formations of ancient ice.  Over the next decade she produced a series of meditations on the glacier theme, in which natural structure became more and more abstracted. Glacier Study is a powerful evocation of the layered geometry of glacial form: the drama of sweeping curves and abrupt angles, of sharp contours and smooth-sided fissures, and of the contrast between brightly lit surfaces and deeply shadowed declivities.

Composition (Sea)

Always anchored in the pattern, colour and textures, of natural form, the essential subject of Barns-Graham’s move into abstraction in the 1950s is the formal relationship of each shape, angle, directional trajectory, one to another, and of the individual to the whole. This is a painting concerned to evoke not depict. It records very directly the artist’s engagement with the painting’s construction: broad brushstrokes are visible, as is the activity of scraping and abrasion that create an equivalent of the surfaces of observed form. Composition (Sea) is part of a series in which the artist achieved a tough, uncompromising abstract language, with sharply defined geometry in which depth is implied. The colour palette here, subdued and restrained as it may be, is none the less dramatic, conjuring the chill of a winter sea and its rocky coastline.

Spanish Coast No.3 [Spanish Island Series]

It was Barns-Graham’s great strength to recognise, intuitively, the significance for her art of a particular landscape and to embrace the potential for change and development that it offered. Like her visits to Switzerland in the late 1940s, a short stay in Spain in 1958 had a profound effect on both her formal vocabulary and her palette .This painting in particular would prove to be a significant departure. The juxtaposition of circle with simple, direct brushstrokes and the urgent freehand line over a solid block of colour to the right, were to become part of an established repertoire, which would re-emerge with enormous vitality and bravura in the Scorpio Series of the 1990s and beyond. The rich palette Barns-Graham employs in Spanish Coast No.3 is redolent of a sun-baked landscape, its brooding quality almost elegiac. If more evidence of her consummate command as a colourist is needed, then one need look no further.

Warm Up, Cool Down

Part of her Meditation Series in which a tight grid of precise squares carries complex essays in colour sensation, in paintings such as this Barns-Graham engaged with the essence of the colourist’s enterprise. In ranks of carefully calculated colour gradations she exploits the combined effect of individual colour or hue, its brightness (tone) and saturation (intensity) – as well as its apparent ‘temperature’ ,‘weight’, and ‘energy’. Her skill in the manipulation of colour as an expressive vehicle, which can convey not only visual sensation but also mood and emotion, is clear.

Warbeth 1

In the mid-1980s Barns-Graham visited Orkney and subsequently spent some time working from a studio in Stromness. Once more a new and dramatically different landscape engaged her attention and led to a sequence of paintings and three-dimensional collages. Shoreline slabs of geological geometry is given a rich texture by abrasion and fluid brush strokes.  Warbeth, sited on the west shore of the main island, in the main contains stones of a pink/orange hue, the rust colours evident in this collage contributed by the decaying hull of a long abandoned vessel, a storm victim stranded on the rocks. 

Variations of Theme Splintered Ice 2

Inspired by the broken ice covering a puddle on a path in the grounds of Balmungo House, Barns-Graham revisited in 1987 the complexities of capturing inner and outer structures first explored in her glacier pictures of 1949 to 1951. Where in the previous images she suggests rubble and detritus beneath the glacier, these have been replaced by shapes and forms inspired by plants and fungi. The shards of fractured ice is treated in similar fashion to certain glacial images, the overlapping plates with their extraordinary turquoise hues arranged to reveal glimpses of what lies below. This painting is one of a pair of significantly sized works on canvas that show how Barns-Graham was often re-inspired things she had done before, that are updated and developed in a new and fresh way. 

Five Blues

This painting belongs to one of three extended series of images, from the latter half of the 1990s, that carry the generic title Scorpio. Diverse in formal rhythm and colour range, these are flamboyant, joyful paintings, where Barns-Graham stripped from her painterly language all but the vibrancy of colour and her own gestural vigour conveyed through her brush-marks. The mastery and assurance of the three Scorpio series is evident here, in the precision of judgement–in the placement of a stroke, a line, or dribble of paint –as well as in the artist’s acute colour sensibility that made her one of the great British colourists of the late 20th century.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: A Scottish artist in St Ives

In 2012 the exhibition Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: a Scottish artist in St Ives was commissioned to celebrate Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s centenary. Born in St Andrews, Fife, in 1912 Barns-Graham’s attended Edinburgh College of Art in the 1930s. The focus of the show is the significance of her Scottish background and artistic heritage, and how that contributed to the development of her art. Barns-Graham first arrived in St Ives in March 1940 as fully trained artist, carrying her Scottish legacy with her. It remained central to her work until she died in January 2004.

Looking in Looking out

A Film on Wilhelmina Barns-Graham by Tim Fitzpatrick 2012. This project, over a year in the making, saw Tim working closely with the Barns-Graham Chartable Trust's collections and archive

Burton Art Gallery - A Discipline of the Mind

The opening of the Wilhemina Barns-Graham exhibition at the Burton Art Gallery - Bideford - "A Discipline of the Mind". This film is the introduction to the exhibition by Geoffrey Bertram, chairman of the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust.

WBG on BBC Primetime 1993

First broadcast on Wednesday 17th February 1993

Director: Jane Stimpson

This is an extract taken from the BBC Primetime News programme that was marking the opening of Tate St Ives. The clip contains an interview with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and shows her at work in her St Ives studio.