Up Close

Up Close is a series of short films that closely examine Wilhelmina Barns-Graham paintings, revealing details, such as surface textures, that are often overlooked by exhibition visitors. Paintings have been selected from throughout Willie’s career, from 1940 to 2003. The existing collection of films will be added to regularly, in tandem with filming exhibitions of her art.

Series One

The first group of ten films was taken from the exhibition Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: a Scottish artist in St Ives whilst installed at Penlee House Art Gallery, Penzance in September 2016. These are: Assembly of Nine, View of St Ives, Sleeping Town, Glacier Study, Composition (Sea), Spanish Coast No.3 [Spanish Island Series], Warm Up, Cool Down, Warbeth I, Variations on Theme Splintered Ice 2, and Five Blues.

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.

Series Two

The second set (x6) of films was taken from the June 2017 exhibition at Waterhouse & Dodd Gallery, London. These are: Expanding Forms (Coast) Touch point Series (No.6), Expanding Red Orange Green on Black, Green Square on Black and White, Nocturne, Number 5 (Tribute Series), and Untitled (Orkney).

Expanding Forms (Coast) Touchpoint Series (No.6)

The Expanding Forms Touchpoint Series is the most extensive series of the artist’s oeuvre of the early 1980s and was key to the direction of future work. Form and movement had been an ongoing feature of Willie Barns-Graham’s work since the early 1960s through the Things of a Kind in Order and Disorder series in which squares or circles (disks) tumbled through or across voids of colour. Expanding Forms Series steps away from the use of geometrical shapes and into wave movements. These were inspired by the tides of Porthmeor Beach which her St Ives home and studio overlooked. Often painted in a more restricted palette of predominantly blacks, browns and whites they evoke the movement of water over sand.

Expanding Red Orange Green on Black

As in so much of Willie Barns-Graham’s work, there is a sense that the viewer ‘reads’ the movement of the image from left to right. The Expanding Forms Series is certainly in this category, and further developed with this painting where the impetus is suggested through the tilting of the carefully placed rhomboid shapes as they dance across the picture plane, a motif that is a vital element of the significant Scorpio Series fourteen years later. The combination of colours is finely balanced and helps to animate the painting.

Green Square on Black and White

This is a classic example from the series Things of a Kind in Order and Disorder in which large square blocks tumble down or across the picture surface. The method of arranging these squares was worked out using small cut-out shapes laid out on the studio floor and then nudged by her foot. The almost random impact of one square shunting against another gives the images their dynamic. On the smaller scale, pictures were constructed by painting the ends of square blocks of wood and dabbing the picture support, the act of removing the block lifting the paint to create unique, visually engaging surface textures. This painting shows that she was able to do the same on much larger scale. Look closely at these squares and one sees not only varying textures but the inclusion of a considerably wider range of colours than immediately meets the eye when the painting is viewed at a distance.


Nocturne belongs to the Rock Form Series that dominates Willie Barns-Graham’s work throughout the first part of the 1950s, following, and in part contemporaneous with, her exploration of glaciers. On the whole in these works the abstracted rock shapes are drawn/painted with clearly defined outlines where, although one may not go as far as to describe them as hard edged, there is a sharpness to the edge of the forms. This painting is clearly different; although the rock shapes are easily understood, the painting has a diffuse atmosphere that one could almost describe as Romantic. Willie captures the essence of night light, the light from the moon, whose glow softens the landscape and subdues its colour.

Number 5 (Tribute Series)

The Tribute Series is a further extension of the two Expanding Forms Series that lie at the heart of Willie Barns-Graham’s work in the early 1980s. The tilting forms seen in Expanding Red Orange Green on Black are literally being blown across the picture plane. There is a heightened energy in this painting beyond the movement in the two earlier series; perhaps whereas Expanding Forms alludes to the movement of water, this painting, and those related to it, can be seen as exploring a way to describe that of the air.  That the primary image is sandwiched between bands of more neutral colour emphasises this movement. The use of oblong forms is also found in paintings from her Family Series as well as in some of her collages, both products from the second half of the 1980s.

Untitled (Orkney)

On 15 August 1984 Willie Barns-Graham travelled to Orkney for her exhibition at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, and ended up staying on the islands for a further seven weeks. Orkney provided her work with new impetus, her reaction to this world manifesting in a body of work that encompassed drawings, paintings and collages. Indeed such was the pull of Orkney that she returned there the following summer, spending a further six weeks during September-October.

The islands continued to inspire her throughout the following years as this painting illustrates- it was made in 1988. In it she explores the abstract but retains a sense of actual place in the manner of depicting the relationship between the two principal elements; the geology of the foreground rock formations (nature’s patterns) against the field patterns on the opposite slopes (man-made patterns). This work shows that she could work in different visual styles simultaneously, between the bounds of the literal and the abstract; that she was comfortable in operating in both spheres and that she had no, and saw no, difficulty in doing so.