Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: Rhythms of Colour

Two Circles on Purples, 1992, Lithograph, edition of 70

There are two opportunities to see Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s wonderful vibrant screenprints with exhibitions at the Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy and at Gallagher & Turner, Newcastle opening this month. Prints, primarily the screenprints made in collaboration with Carol Robertson of Graal Press, comprise a significant element in Willie’s late work, all the more remarkable that the bulk of the prints were produced within the last five years of her life.

This is the third Wilhelmina Barns-Graham exhibition with the Watermill Gallery. On each occasion the selection of works has centred around a body of prints, supplemented with some late paintings, and small multi-linear drawings from the 1970s and 1980s that reflect very different kinds of rhythm she found within the fields and shores of Fife and Cornwall.

The earliest print in the exhibition is a lithograph from 1992, Two Circles on Purple, that she made with the highly regarded Stanley Jones, assisted by Serena Castle, of Curwen Studio. Willie had started working with the studio the previous year having been introduced to the printmaker Kip Gresham whose Chilford Hall Press had amalgamated with Curwen Studio in 1989. She was initially  concerned that the first prints she had made there were more like reproductions of her paintings than original prints; however, this was not the case with a set of inspired screenprints, November Series (1991; two of the approved set of five included in this show). The lithograph was a further step forward as an original print. Nonetheless, after moving to his own studio at Duxford, near Cambridge, in 1994 Kip Gresham invited Willie to work on a new print; they both agreed to work from an existing painting – Venetian Red (1995) was the result.

At this point Willie was not overly enthused with printmaking. She had been involved with prints since the early 1950s, albeit sporadically, but her rather minimal output over the subsequent decades does not suggest someone who is overwhelmingly taken with the process. This situation changed dramatically with her introduction in 1998 to Carol Robertson and Robert Adam who had established Graal Press, based just outside Edinburgh. Carol’s imaginative approach to creating prints came to thoroughly engage Willie’s attention. Presented with new ways of working Willie became inspired and, with Carol as creative collaborator, a new body of work was born. Willie’s focus on printmaking runs parallel to her painting, the two artforms feeding and nurturing each other. That Carol was operating on the front line of water-based inks technology, a medium that complemented Willie’s main work with acrylic paints, offered Willie the opportunity to make prints that truly extended her art.

Much has been written about the vivacity and joie de vivre of Willie’s late work, the intense colour and bold design that belie the work of an artist in her eighties. She was a tour de force, active daily in her studio, driven to work while she was able to, thinking that each day could be her last. The consequent outpouring of paintings and prints continues to astound all those who come across them either for the first time, or on repeat encounters.

Watermill Gallery, Mill Street, Aberfeldy, Perthshire, PH15 2BG


Exhibition catalogue available from the gallery. Call 01887 822896 or email info@aberfeldywatermill.com

Exhibition continues to 27 January 2019.