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Scottish-born, French-influenced painter who produced jewels of Cornish modernism
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, painter: born St Andrews, Fife 8 June 1912; CBE
2001; married 1949 David Lewis (marriage dissolved); died St Andrews 26
One auspicious moonlit night in 1940 a pale but attractive 28-year-old Scottish painter, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, arrived in the well-known artists' colony of St Ives*, Cornwall. A diffident student at the Edinburgh College of Art, where she had studied in the early 1930s, "Willie", as she widely came to be known, needed the stimulus of a vital artistic milieu. Her arrival started a love affair with the town that lasted over 60 years.
Within a short time she had met Ben Nicholson, his then wife Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, who formed a circle of former Hampstead-based modernists recently removed to Cornwall as war evacuees from the capital. This "gentle nest of artists", as they were dubbed, lived in Carbis Bay, a mile or so from St Ives.
Barns-Graham, though, would set up as a resolute, if adopted, St Ives townswoman; throughout her long career she retained a St Ives base, albeit one alternated with a family home inherited in 1960 from her father, a Scottish laird, in her native St Andrews. This contrasted with colleagues and contemporaries such as Terry Frost, Denis Mitchell and Alexander Mackenzie, each of whom eventually left St Ives and settled in Newlyn or Penzance on the south side of the west Penwith peninsula.
Artistically, Barns-Graham's work lent itself to the salient characteristics of the modern St Ives style - a cool, analytic and linear language which strove to express the hidden harmonies and dynamic rhythms of natural form. Landscape was also an essential ingredient, and it is fitting that her paintings portrayed St Ives in varying degrees of abstraction. Despite an almost vain attempt in her later work to appropriate the French-inspired colourism and painterly brio of Scottish painting, Barns-Graham's art retained the pristine, jewel-like precision of Cornish modernism.
None the less, in the terms of modern abstract art she retained something of an "auld alliance" kinship with French art. Unlike the more flamboyant expressionism of her contemporaries Frost, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon - which embraced the large-scale gesturalism* of the New York School - Barns-Graham's work looked to the more structured continental abstraction of Serge Poliakoff, Vieira da Silva or Jean Arp, each of whom she met on European travels.
Enjoying the use of a large Porthmeor studio with wonderful sea views, Barns-Graham exhibited in the second and final Crypt Group* exhibitions of 1947 and 1948. The photograph of Sven Berlin, Peter Lanyon, John Wells and the printer Guido Morris sitting around Barns-Graham in her Porthmeor studio is one of the most famous images of post-war St Ives art. It is an image of hope, ambition and youthful drive, qualities that propelled the cause of modernism forward.
The Crypt exhibitions heralded the breakaway of the modernists from the sedentary impressionism of the St Ives Society of Artists, who exhibited above in the de-consecrated Mariners' Chapel. The modernistic Penwith Society of Arts, founded in 1949, became the official voice of Cornish art thereafter, and was an organization to which Barns-Graham remained loyal for the rest of her life.
Barns-Graham's early St Ives work reveled in the atmosphere of the town and possessed something of the poetry of Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis. The unschooled paintings of the semi-literate Wallis appealed for their primitive directness, qualities that inspired both Nicholson and Barns-Graham. The Tate Gallery's Island Sheds (1940) not only reflects this influence but reveals Barns-Graham's fastidiousness with a range of subtle greys - never dead and always breathing with subdued Morandi-like chromatic intonations.
Her approach to colour in general, in both representational and geometric phases of her oeuvre, would be rational rather than intuitive and would embody the extremely dry, cerebral approach to graphic compositional design. Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald (1950), her masterpiece, and Rock Forms, St Mary's Scilly (1950) were inspired by large natural structures. The subject of an Alpine glacier in the former invokes a range of fresh, clear, transparent colours. The latter sees an almost sculptural surface texture as the artist scrapes down the paint in a tactile association with the rocks themselves.
After her marriage to the critic David Lewis in 1949, Barns-Graham traveled to Italy frequently, where tinted drawings of architectural or natural locations like San Gimignano, Assisi and the Tuscan hills borrowed from Nicholson's fresco- inspired manner. Like Nicholson, with whom she visited the Scilly Isles on a sketching trip, Barns-Graham always made elegant drawings of trees and buildings - but never people; representational statements that complemented the hermetic geometry of some of the studio work. Later she visited France and Spain, and visits to Lanzarote during the early 1990s led to many pastel, chalk or gouache studies of the spectacular volcanic slopes. The fascination for broad landscape geomorphology was almost scientific in spirit.
In 1963 Barns-Graham purchased a Barnaloft studio in St Ives, affording spectacular views across Porthmeor beach. Visual contemplations of the ebb and flow of the Atlantic, sand patterns and the barely visible movement of the wind led to stylised, linear compositions. The abstract paintings that developed from these, such as the "Expanding Forms" series of the early 1980s, evoked the texture and colour of sand, sea or sky, but any conventional topographic reference is absent.
An artist of largely independent means, Barns-Graham did not pursue a teaching career, though she did follow the St Ives "run" to Yorkshire and teach at Leeds School of Art during 1956-57. She exhibited consistently from the 1940s, and was included in surveys of the St Ives School, in particular the important 1945 exhibition "St Ives 1939-64" at the Tate Gallery in London. In the winter of 1999-2000, the exhibition "Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: an enduring image" at Tate St Ives acknowledged a major contribution to modern art in Britain. This was followed in 2001 by the publication of a substantial monograph, W. Barns-Graham: a studio life, by Lynne Green, a study that helped mitigate her feeling of neglect at the hands of some of her better-known colleagues.
She continued to paint past her 90th birthday. Art First, her London gallery, have an exhibition of new work planned for this spring.
The Independent, London, January 24, 2004
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