“Then Willie would begin drawing – would begin discovering with endless patience the structure of the landscape, the forms and tensions and rhythms of the hills.”
(David Lewis to Krister Lagergren, September 27, 1954, WBG/1/3/15)
A world observed
Landscapes for Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, while differing vastly in technique and style, tend to bridge the gap between the traditional drawing techniques Barns-Graham learned during the course of her education at the Edinburgh College of Art and her abstract work. They are above all a window into her perspective of the world around her, a world observed in terms of its vibrancy, colour, and geometry. This aspect of her work dominates her Italian art.
Barns-Graham made two trips to Italy, both in the company of her former husband David Lewis. The first, a six-week journey in June and July of 1954 was spent in the cities and countryside of Florence, Venice and Siena. The couple returned in 1955 and from January to May travelled in Rome and southern Italy, for a four-month long trip funded by a scholarship Barns-Graham received from the Italian Government.
1954: Barns-Graham's First Trip to Italy
Barns-Graham kept a tiny pocket diary of her first trip to Italy, and alongside the letters written home, artworks made, photographs and travel guides kept provides a colourful insight into her first visit to ‘Clay Country’.
These trips could not have happened in the way they did without Barns-Graham’s 1949 trip to Switzerland and the glaciers she found there at Grindelwald, which inspired her art for years after she saw them. Her work in this phase was a distinct blend of reality and the abstract, and she drew the glaciers with an aim “to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience.” (Barns Graham, letter to Tate Gallery, 1965, Tate Gallery Archive) Her own association between Switzerland and Italy is evident in Barns-Graham’s own notes and letters, particularly in a draft of what would later become her successful scholarship application, where she directly compares the landscape work she did in Grindelwald with how she will approach her Italian trip (WBG/5/1/81).
This is something different
However, Barns-Graham writes to her parents a few days after arriving in Florence that “This is something different [from Switzerland]. So much that is ancient comes to life” (Wilhelmina Barns-Graham to Mina and Allan Barns-Graham, June 1954, WBG/1/1/4/8) Indeed, man-made landscapes are just as well represented in her Italian artwork as the purely natural world. Although her experience in Switzerland may have given Barns-Graham an objective to build on, she was able to invest a level of time and effort into her Italian fieldwork that is incomparable with what she was able to do on an impromptu Swiss vacation. As such, her Italian trips cannot be condensed into one thing. They were for landscapes, for architecture, for ancient ruins, for meeting other artists and old friends, for study at museums, and for the experience of peace and leisure in lovely places with lovely people.
1955: Barns-Graham's Second Trip to Italy
Although much longer in duration than the previous trip, our understanding of Barns-Graham and Lewis’s travel arrangements, inspirations and experiences are lesser known, with photos, inscriptions and a few letters by Lewis providing details of the trip.
The image which comes to mind when one thinks of the most stereotypical example of Barns-Graham’s work is that of a landscape drawing, done on a paper which Barns-Graham had prepared by staining it with gouache or tempera. For some works, the colour is applied evenly on the paper, while others have great variation in how heavily the colour appears across the work. Thus, these landscapes are dominated by a defining colour, and one can almost identify the location of an Italian work by its colour: Chiusure is a tan, Palinuro is red, San Gimignano and Sicily are yellow, Assisi is pink. Although there are exceptions, the odd painting done in a rich green or deep blue, by and large Barns-Graham used earthy tones to characterise her works, and it is the rocks, and soil, the clay of Italy, which formed a large part of her interest in the region.
Awash in colour
April 7 Templi Hercules, 1955, pencil and wash on paper, BGT1673
Monte Olivetti, Tuscany, 1954, pencil and tempera on paper, BGT1083
Assisi, 1955, pencil and wash on paper, BGT1553
Torcello, 1954, pencil and wash on paper, BGT6210
In some of her Italian studies, Barns-Graham paid close attention to how light affected the landscapes she depicted. This is most well documented during her time at Chiusure, where she records in her diary a regiment of rising early to draw in the morning, resting and socialising midday, and coming back to draw in the afternoon and evening. Some of this was in an effort to avoid the midday heat of an Italian summer, but her Chiusure works often have the time of day they were completed inscribed on the back of them, and one notices a difference in the colour and shadow of the same clay cliffs and rolling hills depending on when they were drawn. In one singular, but fascinating diary entry on 8 July Barns-Graham records that she “drew with dark glasses on” which further suggests she was intentionally experimenting with light (WBG/4/1/9). Unfortunately, absolutely no documents survive from her 1955 trip where Barns-Graham records and comments on her artistic process as there are for 1954, yet it is difficult to believe that she was uninterested in the light and shadows cast by the rocky canyons of Campagna and Calabria.
Chiusure: Day to Night
Tuesday 7am 6th July, 1954, mixed media on paper, BGT1678
Chiusure (Shadows), 1954, offset on paper, BGT6014
Chiusure, Clay Cliffs Grey, 1954, offset and wash on paper, BGT6015
Clay Country, oil on hardboard, 1954, BGT304
Chiusure Night, 1954, oil on hardboard, BGT288
The most distinctive aspect of Barns-Graham’s landscapes has always been how she translated the shape of the world around her onto paper. In Italy, she was interested in depicting three main forms: architecture, countryside, and rock
Throughout both of her journeys, Barns-Graham periodically drew buildings which she found stunning: churches and towers, and sprawling city and townscapes. Most of these drawings are one-offs, perhaps done once or twice on the day of visitation and never reworked. Many do not even have colour applied to them. However, Barns-Graham made studies of the architecture of both San Gimignano and Assisi, in the former’s case actually travelling into the town centre to draw day after day. The absence of people in these sketches is glaringly obvious in this series, as one looks at what must have been a bustling town square reduced to its architectural bones. In Assisi her perspective is often one of an outsider who views the town from between rows of cypress trees. In Sicily, Barns-Graham depicts the ancient ruins of Agrigento and Syracuse, and although she did not always choose to draw them, Barns-Graham sought out several different examples of ancient architecture during her sightseeing. In all these settings, Barns-Graham renders detailed, realistic sketches of buildings in empty, monochrome environments, drawing the eye to the shapes and geometry of the structures themselves.
The sweeping Italian countryside was another common motif for Barns-Graham. The absence of people in these works serves to accentuate the peace and occasionally the primalness of the rolling farmland and jagged hills. Trees and architecture often feature in the background of these works, forming part of the landscape but ultimately miniscule. How little Barns-Graham concerns herself with texture in this phase of her work is particularly evident in these works- everything is form, form, form. In these works, fields are notable not for their grassiness but for their expanse, trees not for their leaves but for their branches.
While artwork Barns Graham did for Palinuro and Chiusure are countryside landscapes they deserve their own category for their uniqueness and abstraction. The clay cliffs at Chiusure at the canyons and caves of Calabria and Campagna were both what Barns-Graham would call “sculptural” and they inspired some of her most confident works, tabling realism and instead breaking down the landscapes into their quintessential shapes. In both cases, the volume of works produced with that setting far surpasses what Barns-Graham could have made in the week or so she was at each location. Given that so many locations on her travel itineraries are represented by only one or two drawings done on the spot, the fact she redrew these two locations later highlights how much of an impression they made.
An Unfettered Artist
Barns-Graham’s hope, expressed in her first letter home to her parents, that her travels through the Italian the countryside “may be a way of investment” in artistic inspiration was realised in full (WBG/1/1/4/8). Not even a month after returning from Italy in 1954, her artwork made their debut in a twelve-day exhibition at the Downing’s Bookshop in St Ives, and they quickly went on to gain more exposure that fall in London, as part of her one-man show at the Roland, Browse, and Delbanco gallery. After another one-man show at the Scottish Gallery a year later, The Scotsman’s art critic eloquently sums up the character of Barns-Graham’s Italian work when they write that “the vitality of its rhythms derives from the constant study of nature which the drawings reveal, and how far the individuality of the observed views has contributed to the abstraction” (WBG/10, July 7, 1956). It is this fascinating quality, particularly evident in her Chiusure and Palinuro pieces, which explains why these works continue to be displayed into the present-day, with the 2018 exhibition Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice showing several. Giles Robertson, in the BBC radio program Arts Review goes on to praise the determined individuality of Barns-Graham’s Italian art. “In her work we find the unfettered artist,” Robertson remarks. “She evidently paints to please herself, but in doing so she pleases us greatly” (WBG/10, August 1, 1956). What else is there to say?
With thanks to Italia Gorski for writing this section on Barns-Graham’s Clay Country works. Italia researched and catalogued material across the collection and archive relating to Barns-Graham’s travel in Italy and subsequent artistic output as part of a student placement project from the University of St Andrews Museum and Heritage Studies Masters degree. An in-depth research pack is available for consultation in our archive.
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