Images of the Ocean in the Abstract Works of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Froth and Seaweed, 1945, Oil on paper, BGT1082

Images of the Ocean in the Abstract Works of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: on the Issue of Abstract and Concrete in British Painting of the St. Ives School.

by Dina N. Aleshina

The following article was published in Russia in the scientific periodical edition of the Academy of Arts (St. Petersburg Repin State Academic Institute of Art, Sculpture and Architecture under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Arts) in 2013. This is an English translation from the original Russian text, made by the author.

This article is devoted to the outstanding Scottish painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912 – 2004). Her work is little known and uninvestigated in Russia. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was an artist of the St. Ives School – the British non-figurative painting school of postwar time (the 1940 – 1950s). This article researches of the theme of the ocean, one of the main themes of the work of the Scottish artist.

The new school of non-figurative art, named after the small seaside town of St. Ives, was formed in Western Cornwall in the 1940s-1950s. Artists of the St. Ives School remained faithful to the Romantic tradition, finding inspiration for their abstract art in nature. This article is devoted to renowned representative of the School – Wilhelmina (Willie) Barns-Graham (1912-2004), a Scotswoman by birth.

The philosophy of existentialism became widespread and popular after WWII because it saw the unique experience of every single person as the value of the highest order. The technique of abstract art allowed artists to express their experience more fully, call to mind mental imagery and subjective emotional impressions, appeal to the unique personality of each viewer. Barns-Graham also followed this path in her art.

One of the most often occurring themes in Barns-Graham’s art was the sea. The shapes and images of her abstract art were inspired by the North Sea in Scotland and the Irish Sea on the Southwest of England. Some of the titles refer to the ocean, many others – to seas and coastlines. Throughout her long life the ocean inspired Barns-Graham to create multiple drawings, paintings and prints, in which she reflected her observations on the moods of the sea.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s works of art can be found in some of the largest British museums: the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, and the Tate Gallery in London; her works are kept, exhibited and sold in art galleries in Edinburgh, London and St. Ives. But few Russians know her works. The legacy of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham has never been studied in Russia. There are not separate British publications dedicated to the theme of the ocean in her art. This article seeks to fill this gap in the history of British non-figurative art.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham lived almost all her life by the ocean. She was born and raised on the sea coast. Her town of birth, St. Andrews, home to Scotland’s oldest university, is located on the shore of the North Sea. Among the childhood memories of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham were “ the colour and the shapes of the pebbles and shells ”, that she picked up and collected, and “ the constantly changing hue ” of the water [5, p. 16]. Her nanny took her for walks along the coastline of the town, the East and West Sands. It is perhaps her early impressions of the sea that shaped her character, she inherited her free spirit and inner strength from the elements. Being of weak health, she fought to overcome her life circumstances and assert her individuality. She was born left-handed, and in her childhood she was forced to use her right hand. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham learned to write with both hands, “but always painted with her left hand”. [5, p. 18]. One of her many trials and tribulations was the adamant opposition of her father to her becoming an artist. He refused to pay for her art classes. Nevertheless, she persevered and graduated with an art diploma from the prestigious Edinburgh Art College where she was instructed by eminent Scottish artists: David Alison, William Gillies, John Maxwell, and William MacTaggart. During her years at the College (1932-1937) she attended lectures by Herbert Read. In the years following her graduation the Principal of the College, artist Hubert Wellington recommended that Wilhelmina Barns-Graham should go to St. Ives, where the famous British avant-garde artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth had helped to form a small group of artists exploring modernist concepts.

The town of St. Ives was named for Saint Ia. It is located on the shore of the Irish Sea that British authors refer to as “ocean” or “the Atlantic.” The artist arrived there in 1940.  Because of meeting with Ben Nicholson and then with young avant-garde artists, who came in St. Ives after the war ended (Peter Lanyon, John Wells, Bryan Wynter and others), Wilhelmina Barns-Graham familiarized with diverse manners of non-figurative painting. She found a studio by the sea – one of the Porthmeor Studios, the former lofts of fishermen. Initially she rented Studio No. 3, and in 1945 relocated to Studio No. 1 [6, p. 109]. The windows in the studio overlooked the sea. She spent almost twenty years working in that studio. It was to that studio that she invited the members of the Crypt Group, which brought together the young abstract artists of St. Ives, who set up their exhibitions in the lower rooms of the former Mariner’s Chapel; traditional artists who did not accept avant-garde art, held their exhibitions upstairs in the same building.

In 1960 Wilhelmina Barns-Graham inherited Balmungo House, her family estate near St. Andrews in Scotland. From that time on she lived intermittently on two sea coasts, spending her winters in Balmungo and summers in St. Ives.1 She felt the “close affinity between the Celtic atmospheres” of these places, which were of so much importance to her [5, p. 59]. She noticed, however, the difference in lighting in the two places. In St. Andrews the lighting is soft and silvery, with all colors having a grayish tint. In St. Ives, surrounded by the ocean on three sides, solar rays reflect off the water surface and the lighting is pure and radiant, golden and very bright. In her abstract art Barns-Graham showed this distinction between the two locations. But in the 1940-1950s most of her art showed the subdued tonal colors prominent in particularly English art of the period.

Below I will examine two pictures by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham dedicated to sea themes, painted by her in 1945 and 2000; the former completed at the time when she had first discovered non-figurative art, and the latter painted when she was already a recognized master of abstract painting.

Froth and Seaweed (fig. 1) has been produced in the technique combining figurative and pure art forms. The viewer sees the scene from above and up close, following the movement of the wave with a foamy cap onto the sand; the wave trickles back across the sand, taking away the stones and weeds brought up from the bottom. The movement is made more evident by the horizontal orientation of the paper. As you look at the picture, your eyes focus on the wavy red-and-orange line – the image of a seaweed leaf, and follow the direction to the right and down. The dark spots that almost squeeze this bright and broken diagonal line highlight the impression of the water flowing across all obstacles. The weed shows the shape of the sea, the feeling of the wave. It was hard to get art supplies after the war2, and the picture was painted in oil on wrinkled wrapping paper. The brown color of the paper, its uneven and rough texture helped Wilhelmina Barns-Graham to create a precise impression of the sandy surface that the wave crashes onto. The white paint is applied in dynamic thick strokes with dried drops and streaks that produce the impression of splashing water. The artist uses the thick strokes of a broad brush to create splashes of color in complex, as if random, shapes. The foam looks light and airy in contrast with the thick voluminous shapes that represent stones and the small geometric figures painted in black contours against the white background. These shapes could refer to facets of stones or light seashells; they could also designate transparent foam bubbles. If the viewer’s gaze follows the bright orange-red line upward, to the left corner of the painting, as if overcoming the power of the wave, next he or she will follow the multiple black zigzags of weeds back to lower right-hand corner where the water flows to. The lines, spots, colors and textures in this picture still are reminiscent of recognizable shapes and recreate the natural event, showing the rhythm of the tidal wave.

Ocean (fig. 2) is an abstract work of art where the image is created through a pattern of colored vertical stripes of different breadths and at different angles to each other. Done in acrylic paints that produce bright and clean colors, the painting produces a strong emotional impression. The horizontal layout allows the viewer to comprehend the breadths of the space. The colors of the stripes move gradually from light to dark as if to reflect the depth of the ocean where the solar rays can no longer penetrate the darkness; “only blue and violet rays get much deeper.” [1] Each stripe, as a stroke in calligraphy, reflects the internal impulse, reflects feelings. The uneven shape of the first light yellow stripe appears natural, unprompted. Then comes the light blue stripe, followed by a long blue stripe and black blue stripe that does not feel heavy because of the light violet rectangular shape under it. The black-and-blue stripe is associated with everything unnerving and unknown that human beings imagine about the abyss of the ocean with its overwhelming, awesome greatness. The small blue rectangular shape above the black-and-blue stripe seems to lift the heavy impression: it is reminiscent of the sky or the water surface that the diver is headed towards from the depths. The white strokes streaming upwards and sideways bring the viewer’s attention to the light-blue stripe with the bright white stroke drawn from the lower edge. There is a similar dark-blue stroke at the blue stripe. Both are painted at an angle but leaning to the opposite sides, which evokes the feeling of rocking and splashing waves. The broadest of all is the blue stripe. Its edges are asymmetrical and prominent, shown by semi-circular dark-blue lines. In the spacious area between them the color elected is multiple shades of blue, creating the impression of change and inner motion. A small dark blue stroke immerses the viewer’s gaze into the depth of the space. The blue stroke looks dark next to a light blue stripe, and light adjacent to the black-and-blue sweep of colour. With the help of her palette Wilhelmina Barns-Graham creates the image of waves, the ocean’s power and mystery. The blurred edges of the colored stripes combine them into the harmonious whole, full of dramatic contrasts. The gaze follows the vertical stripes upward, resulting in a lofty impression. The artist uses the language of abstract art and pure painting technique to communicate her impression of the ocean in a more complex and deep form than can be expressed in words or recognizable shapes of the material world.

The analysis of these two pieces of art reveals the growing multi-dimensionality and concreteness of the internal image that Barns-Graham created upon careful study of the natural world around her. She had a great feeling for color and used her lifelong observations of the sea to show emotions inspired by the ocean with increasing effectiveness.

Barns-Graham had possibility of synesthesia, perceiving the world through color associations [5, p. 16]. Her acute sensitivity for light allowed her to find color combinations that she used in her abstract art to reveal emotional states, changing moods and impressions. In her earlier non-figurative sea-themed works Wilhelmina Barns-Graham used the colors she observed in nature. For instance, in Linked Forms (1950) she uses the soft bluish-green color of the nephrite-colored water in St. Ives harbour where boats rock on the water during the tide. In her Dance of the Thermals (1964) blue shades recreate the effect of light shining through the deep sea. In her late works Wilhelmina Barns-Graham does not reproduce natural color; she uses pure colors to reflect the strong and powerful emotions inspired by the elements. For instance, bright local colors in geometric figures and stripes on Porthmeor Poem (1993) were inspired by the blueness of the Atlantic, the sandy beach, the foam, the golden light and the colorful boats on the water.

The ocean was for Wilhelmina Barns-Graham a source of spatial imagery, of dynamic feelings, and of forms for her non-figurative art. The sea shapes appealed to her with their natural lofty beauty that she aspired to recreate in her pure art. In her abstract paintings she shows conventional forms reflecting the essence of nature: light small fishes, round stones polished by waves, underwater plants, swaying in the water, spiral-shaped shells.  For instance, see Drifting Forms 3 (1993). In Dolphins (2003) the artist shows the dynamic silhouettes of strong, flexible bodies of dolphins with long streaks of color that she places on the paper with deliberate upward and downward pressure; the acrylic paints are thick in some places and thin in others, more transparent, ever-changing, as if alive. The dark-gray shapes with even contours against the blue background create the mental image of dolphins, submerging in the water and emerging from the waves.

The artist spent many years studying the sea.  There are her books on the underwater world in Balmungo House library. In 1970-1980s she drew many sketches of the sea based on her observations.  She drew these pieces from nature, showing the attention to detail of a natural scientist. In her drawings, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham showed a variety of shapes, length and height of waves, their power, the interconnection of the air and the sea surface; the energies inherent in their being. For instance, in January Sea (1979) she shows low and long ripples forming semi-circles near the shoreline, and in Wave Energy (1975) the rolling depths of water wrinkled with powerful force. The artist worked on thorough reflection of the changeable sea surface. The imagery of the dynamic water surface, full of shadows and sunlight flecks was shown with thick strokes of black and gray, with the paper color between them. She observed the tide carefully to show the complicated structure of waves in Incoming Movement of Water (ice blue and white) (1988) where the vibrating crests and troughs are shown with scrupulously thin strokes. Barns-Graham was very attentive to the natural rhythm of the sea in her stylized drawings that brought together extensive information she had found in nature. “I seek to discover abstract shapes…” – the artist said about her drawing. – “I get at the real essence of things which can be as miraculous as anything devised by imagination”.  [2, p. 9].

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham found the ideas of morphogenesis, promoted by Scottish biologist D’Arcy Thompson in his famous book “On Growth and Form”, close to her heart. The scholar had discovered the harmonious unity of natural forms, and mathematical laws in their relationship and development. Wilhelmina had known D’Arcy Thompson, a family friend, since the days of her youth when he taught at the University of St. Andrews. She said about her artistic tasks: “I construct and I am aware of small things in large areas to analyse main spaces and movements” [2, p.9]. Thereby the sea shapes, – seen in her abstract works, – represent the entire ocean.

Since the 1980s Wilhelmina Barns-Graham actively used the motif of linear waves, which she repeated in various forms to show the dynamic movement of the sea surface. This motif appears in her paintings, such as Eight Lines (White on Blue) (1988), in her graphic works – Eight Lines № 2 (1982), and in etchings – Six Lines (2002). The waves in these works are shown in several lines. Running across the page, they are distinctly different from each other in height and length of their oscillation, and those that are even, are drawn at various angles in relation to each other. Each has its own degree of lightness, thickness and stress. These lines are few and yet expressive; their mutual position creates the image of the sea, general on the one hand and highly concrete on the other. The quiet waves further away and the restless waves up front create the impression of the rapidly moving water, the physical mass and the great expanse of the ocean. It is obvious that the artist had spent time watching the waves up close and in the distance, and studying the shapes of water ripples in quiet weather. The lines at various angles to each other reproduce the pattern of the wavelet one can see on the surface of shallow water by the shore. “Painting is pattern…” [3, p. 11] – the artist said.

In the rhythm of the waves Wilhelmina Barns-Graham reflected the eternal movement of the ocean, its living spirit. The means of abstract art allowed her to express the essence of sea elements, the invisible internal energy. She had learned about the depth of perception of nature from Naum Gabo, the Russian constructivist artist who had lived near Carbis Bay, close to St. Ives, from 1939 to 1946. However, it was not only his personality and his creativity reflecting the peculiarity of Russian abstract art that inspired Wilhelmina Barns-Graham to search for idea in nature, the spiritual essence, its out-of-bounds reality. The peculiarity of British perception of the world is its extremely sensitive receptivity to the grandeur and beauty of nature and the sensation of God within it. As she observed intently the waves of the sea and foresaw the power of the ocean, Barns-Graham divined the origin of something that is incomprehensible for many people, that loftiness and awesome power have a salutary effect on human souls. The works of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, like the works of other abstract artists of the St. Ives School, reflect the healing spiritual influence of nature, which, as a healing medium was a balm for people after the world war, as a healing medium.

Unlike figurative art, abstract art affirms the inner freedom of the artist, and opens endless opportunities for reflection of the delicatest shades of emotions. The ocean is a symbol of freedom in the romantic worldview, yet it is also the unknown reality that helps people better understand themselves. The existentialist experience of these encounters with nature is reflected in sea-themed abstract works of art by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.  The non-figurative artwork of the Scottish artist embodies her deep knowledge of natural forms and events. Her acute observations and many experiences have imparted concreteness and an impression of naturalness to her abstract compositions. The lines of the poem “The Nightfishing” by the famous Scottish poet of the 20th century, W. S. Graham, come to memory: “I am befriended by / This sea which utters me”. [4, p. 106]. The image of the ocean, its light, space, and movement in the abstract art of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham reflects her experience and deep emotions; she expressed these through the character of the lines, color combinations, and rhythm perceived in nature – in the language of pure painting.



1 From a conversation with Helen Scott, British art historian, manager of The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust, Balmungo House, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11.04.2012.

2 From a conversation with Helen Scott, British art historian, manager of The Barns-   Graham Charitable Trust, Balmungo House, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11.04.2012.



1. Наумов Д.В. Физические свойства морской воды // Океанология [сайт]. [URL]: (дата обращения: 19. 07. 2012).

2. Barns-Graham W. Some Thoughts on Drawing // W. Barns-Graham. Drawings (exhibition: St. Andrews: Crawford Art Centre, 1992): exhibition cat. / W. Barns-Graham, M. Kemp. St. Andrews: Crawford Art Centre, 1992. P. 9.

3. Gooding M. Elemental Energies // Elemental Energies. The Art of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (exhibition: Cambridge: Trinity Hall, 2007): exhibition cat. / M. Daunton, M. Gooding. Cambridge: Trinity Hall, 2007. P. 9-11.

4. Graham W.S. The Nightfishing // W.S. Graham. New Collected Poems. – London: Faber and Faber, 2005. P. 105-120.

5. Green L. W. Barns-Graham: a studio life. Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2011.

6. Tufnell B. On the Very Edge of the Ocean: the Porthmeor Studios and Painting in St. Ives. London: Tate Publishing, 2006.



Fig.2 Ocean 2000 acrylic on paper 56 x 76 cm

Fig.2 Ocean 2000 acrylic on paper 56 x 76 cm