Looking In Looking Out

WBG in her Porthmeor studio
with 'Rock Form'

Looking in Looking out - A Film on Wilhelmina Barns-Graham by Tim Fitzpatrick 2012.

Friend and biographer Lyne Green, in conversation with Dr Helen Scott of the Barns-Graham Trust. The words of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham spoken by Sheila Donald.


Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (WBG): It’s very important what you do and say when you’re old, now that I’m at a stage of urgency my theme is a celebration of life, joy, the importance of colour, form, space and texture, brush strokes that can be happy, risky, thin, fat, fluid, textured, having a positive mind and constantly being aware and, hopefully being able to live longer to increase this celebration.


Lyne Green (LG): One of the most amazing things about Willy, is that in her last decade and a half she suddenly got a new level of energy and excitement about the work, which initially came out her becoming quite close to death with a very bad bronchial problem that she had, she was really very ill, and whether she was really dying or not she thought she was, she thought she might be, so the next day and the day after that were gifts and she constantly talked about that, and she constantly talked about the need to just go on working, and the need to work and the need to say something new and to let rip – that was her, constantly saying “I’m letting rip!”, devil may care.


Narrator: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was born in the summer of 1912, hers was an established Scottish family who belonged to the modest end of the landed gentry: these things mattered in St. Andrews in 1912. The character of her father loomed large, authoritarian and domineering, he was conscious of his standing in the community and the notion of a daughter of his having a career, other than the norms of nurturing or teaching could never fit with his view of the world.


WBG: I was eight years old when I knew I wanted to be an artist. Amongst my earliest memories are my pencil and crayon drawings, abstract, irregular or rectangular shapes, usually outlined in blue and filled with a single colour. These were very private, like secret rooms.


LG: From a child, Willy drew, and she talked about drawing secret drawings of secret rooms, which interestingly were not rooms with objects in them but were geometric forms and shapes, so from very young she drew. And of course in the College of Art drawing was the foundation of everything else and she was a beautiful drafts woman all her life, and one of the things that was a constant was her return to drawing, whatever else she was doing however abstract, geometric, her painting was she would always be drawing, and it would refresh her vision, refresh her mind and refresh her spirit.


Narrator: In the autumn of 1931 a young woman’s dream began to form into a reality when at the age of nineteen Wilhelmina was accepted to the Art Diploma course at Edinburgh College of Art. A dedicated and prize-winning student she learned her craft from senior painters such as William Gillies, Johnny Maxwell, who were themselves inspired by artists like Cezanne, Miro and Klee. A new and exciting world opened up, the vibrancy of the capital city so removed from the stifling world of home. The journey that she had always longed for had begun. Her studies were extended by a year due to ill health, a constant struggle throughout her life, but as her college years drew to a close, circumstances encouraged her to take a step into the unknown. A crucial life changing connection to the coast of Cornwall began.


WBG: I came down to St. Ives in 1940, partly to get away from my family, I had friends here in St. Ives and through them I met Nicholson and Hepworth but I didn’t want to get too mixed up with them at that stage because I knew they would be too strong of an influence on me and, I very much wanted to go in my own direction.


Narrator: The town’s reputation as an Art Colony was long established, but from the late 1930’s onwards a revolutionary group was arriving, the vanguards of British contemporary Art: Barbara Hepworth, her husband Ben Nicholson and the Russian émigré Naum Gabo were three of the shining stars. All had arrived just before Barns-Graham, and in their own ways all three of them would have an impact on Wilhelmina’s life and work. These were crucial unforgettable years, the beginnings of key allegiances, of life-long friendships and with one of the dazzling members of the young radicals, the writer and critic David Lewis, there was love and marriage. Now in her work, everything was coming into focus. Then came a profound breakthrough.


LG: In 1949 Barns-Graham went on holiday to Switzerland with some friends and walked onto the Grindelwald glaciers and suddenly realised, as quite often happened in her life, she recognized instantly this was something new in her experience which she could use and translate in her art. What she was excited by was the transparency, the fact that you can see straight into a glacier and every time it melts and refreezes a geometry is formed, and she had always been, as many modernists were, interested in transparency, and in the layering of form, how you see inside a solid form, how you express that in a work of art.


WBG: The glacier seemed to breathe. This likeness to glass and transparency combined with the solid rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once: from above, through, and all around as a bird flies, a total experience.


Narrator: By the latter half of the 1950’s Barns-Graham had a well-regarded body of work. She was becoming firmly established in the British contemporary Art scene. But darker and much more difficult times lay ahead. Her marriage to David Lewis had been suffering rocky spells and though initially she followed him to Leeds where she briefly taught, their paths were moving ever further apart and the final split when it came was devastating.


WBG: Partly due to events in my life and my philosophical and theological ideas at this period,  I became involved with formal relationships: order and disorder of things of a kind, was such a theme, shapes were touching or leaving the edge of the canvas, sometimes a small shape balanced or was pushed by a larger force. They hid behind one another, present or not present, making the colour node sing in space.


Narrator: Like the glacier paintings and drawings a decade earlier, “things of a kind” was a breakthrough moment it was nothing less than a meditation on the nature of existence, the interconnectedness of life.


LG: She would paint little square colours on cardboard and arrange them on the floor in neat rows and sequences, and then kick them, which has this ripple effect of moving the squares at a random manor but she thought this was a metaphor of what happens in any given event in a human life, in this case the break-up of a relationship, would have an impact not just on the couple involved but on the families, friends, how you related to other people and all of those very strong, often dark emotions were translated to no just the forms being moved apart by shoving them but also by the different colour combination and the different relationships of colours.


Narrator: Remarkably, Wilhelmina was at the beginning of a period of neglect, her work, regardless of its development was firmly associated with the St. Ives group, and though the group and its vision had shone brightly, their moment had passed.


In 1960 the artist’s beloved Aunt Mary Neish died. Mary had always encouraged her in her ambition sand helped finance her student days and watched with pride as her career blossomed. Now she had left Balmungo House close by St. Andrews to her niece. From now on, Wilhelmina would divide her time between Fife and Cornwall.


LG: St. Ives was this very small community full or artists, quite a lot of tensions, quite a lot of heartache from the past and Balmungo was associated with her family, with being protected and loved by her aunts and her grandparents and also was green and surrounded by trees and completely different and tranquil and she could be completely alone, and a lot of her themes about the detail of nature would not have happened had she not been at Balmungo.


WBG: Just being in the presence of the power and awe of nature, be it to study the effect of sun on glaciers in Switzerland, the rain on clay formations in Tuscany, the lava forms and disturbances in the volcanic areas of Lanzarote, to the passing of a cloud and the shadows on the hills over the seas of Orkney or the wind and movements on the sand in Fife.


Narrator: For many years Wilhelmina had felt alone and unsupported, then in 1973 she met Rowan James, herself an artist in St. Ives, they would become the closest of friends and colleagues. With works in progress moving up and down the country these were increasingly inventive years in which Wilhelmina drew inspiration from both the natural world of Balmungo and the colourful geometry of kites, flags and windbreaks on the beach at St. Ives. This was the beginning of a period of work that many say was the artist’s finest, the most extraordinary chapter in her story was just beginning.


LG: Colour is central to Willy’s work, partly because of her training but also because she had an acute sensitivity to colour called synaesthesia, which means that everything you see, everything you hear, everyone you meet, has a colour, and so she would remember your name, my name, by a particular colour and the subtlety of it had emotional resonance for her. So the depths of different colours, the range of different colours would be associated with emotions, whether it would be joy, happiness, sadness, regret, and this comes across in work where she is using both form and colour to explore things that you may not think abstraction capable of. For instance, emotion.


Narrator: In the latter half of the 1990’s Barns-Graham began a prolonged sequence of paintings that become known as the Scorpio series, for what she called “the sting in its tail”. The work was brave, a renaissance, pushing even further at the bold strong brush strokes and the startling deep saturated colour. But it was also a clear progression of everything that had gone before, form, gesture and colour, all refined from a life-times work in a pursuit of a singular expression of land, sea, energy, nature, the world. For many, the artist’s vision and energy towards the end of her life were inspirational, her need to continue her journey of exploration and celebration, never to rest on what she had achieved. This was the driving force, at no point, from the earliest to the last, from sleeping time to the song of night did Wilhelmina ever stop searching.


Helen Scott: Having never met her myself but having been aware of her Art, can you tell me what your impressions of her as a character?


LG: One of the things I will always remember about Willy was her feistiness. She was quite petit, small lady, but she had enormous energy and determination and she also always had a twinkle in her eye. And, we would go walking together in St. Ives and sometimes at Balmungo and she never stopped looking, never stopped looking, and she was so pleased when anybody responded to her work, so excited when people liked it. Loved, loved young people being interested in the work and enjoying it, I think that gave her more energy towards the end of her life as well, that it wasn’t just traditional collectors interested in her work it was young people who had not collected Art before and who loved her work, and then they met her and loved her. She’s actually somebody that I miss quite a lot, and doing this has raised her ghost a bit, and made me realise how much I miss her.


WBG: After sessions of drawing I turn my back on the experience and return to painting in the abstract where there is a meeting point of abstracted ideas, this swing between outward observation and inward perception has always increased my awareness. I suppose I am what Winifred Nicholson called the “looking in, looking out” kind of artist.  


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