Aged about 12, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, or Willie to family and friends, was on a train journey to the west of Scotland. For a few years she had been using chalks to draw “secret rooms”, arrangements of squares and triangles filled in with primary colours. On this occasion her work was noted by a member of staff from the Glasgow School of Art, who praised her abstract composition. Willie herself was shy and embarrassed and her parents dismissed the praise, saying she was always “doing that sort of thing”. It took a while for her talent to be recognised and encouraged, but eventually she became one of the most brilliant of Scottish modernist artists.
From the top corner of Fife to the far end of Cornwall, the career of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) took her the length of Britain, from a conventional upper-middle class family to extreme and experimental paintings that range from the austere to the lyrical. Despite lifelong ill health, self-doubt, a father who at first tried to thwart her ambitions, and an education that tried to push her away from her interest in abstraction, she became a professional painter with a career lasting more than 60 years. In this time she produced some of the most remarkable works of any Scottish artist of her era: abstract and semi-abstract forms that combine geometric precision with dazzling colours and careful observation of country and town.
Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald (1950) is one of many paintings inspired by a May 1949 visit to Switzerland. Then resident in St Ives, Cornwall, she travelled with the Brotherton family, the father of which was Deputy Education Officer for Devon. She enjoyed the clean, healthy air and excellent light, and although it was a family holiday rather than a painting exhibition she brought back enough ideas and images to keep her painting for years. The highlight was a day-trip to the Grindelwald Glacier, with its ice bridges and caverns. Barns-Graham described the “massive strength and size of the glaciers, the fantastic shapes, the contrast of solidity and transparency, the many reflected colours in strong light, the warmth of the sun melting and changing the forms”.* She showed several paintings of the glacier in her solo show in St Ives in July 1949, and continued to paint the subject for the next decade.
This painting captures the strange colours of the glacier, caused by light filtering through the snow and ice. It combines multiple viewpoints into a vertiginous form that seems to be constantly moving. In the top part we can make out the organic shapes of ice bridges and caverns, and we are sucked into the dark hole at the centre. Towards the bottom of the image, however, there are a series of geometric forms drawn in black lines which evoke the crystalline shape of ice and the notion of architectural or mathematical drawings that represent three-dimensional space. As is typical of her work, Barns-Graham collapses traditional ideas of perspective into a flattened picture plane, but the three-dimensional reality of the glacier is evoked by overlaid images placed on top of one another like transparencies.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was born in St Andrews, to a family in the minor gentry. Her father was a talented musician, who at one time had ambitions as a composer, and was concerned with the condition of the poor including an eccentric project to provide workers’ housing, but he was also a strict disciplinarian with a disputatious nature, and her childhood though comfortable was restricted. In her early years she lived a well-to-do life in St Andrews’ small social circle, the Barns-Grahams having three servants and a large stone house between the university and the golf club. The family of liberal politican Jo Grimond were friends. When she was a few years old her family moved a short distance into the former home of painter Sidney Cadogan, and his left-behind brushes and pigments intrigued her. According to family folklore her artistic talents were spotted at an early age when a lecturer at Glasgow College of Art saw her drawing abstract compositions on a train.
Aged 12, the family moved to an isolated house at Carbeth near Blanefield, Stirlingshire, which looked out at the Campsie Fells. After being taught by governesses for a time, she was sent to board at St Hilda’s School in Liberton, Edinburgh. Thanks to money from her aunt Mary Neish and against the wishes of her father she began studying at Edinburgh College of Art in 1931; however her father would later buy many of her early works at exhibitions. This was the heyday of ECA as a forward-looking internationalist institution under Hubert Lindsay Wellington; her teachers included colourist SJ Peploe, painter and educationalist William Gillies, and occasionally William McTaggart. She also attended lectures at Edinburgh University by the art historian and promoter of modernism Herbert Read. The childlike, semi-abstract works of Paul Klee were a strong influence on both teachers and pupils; however her forays into full abstraction were discouraged.
She made study trips to London and France; in the latter she briefly met Leger and the novelist Colette. Her student work has a strong post-Impressionist influence, as did much Scottish art of the time, with a tendency to simplified forms and a rejection of rigid perspective, as well as sometimes a primitivist quality. She was reportedly a charismatic, attractive, and popular student, although her romantic affairs did not run smoothly: she broke up with her most serious boyfriend on discovering his Blackshirt sympathies. She received her diploma in 1937, having missed a year due to pleurisy; she had suffering lung problems since childhood.
Barns-Graham moved to St Ives, in March 1940, due to the war and her poor health. The Cornish village had a long association with the arts, and in wartime was a haven for many leading figures of British modernism including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, and Alfred Wallis; also in town was the painter Margaret Mellis who she knew as a contemporary from ECA (Mellis was much later a friend and mentor of the young Damien Hirst). Initially she was there on a post-diploma scholarship and had to write regular reports; she struggled with the communal nature of St Ives and lack of solitude. When many women were conscripted into wartime work, she sought to avoid it due to her ill-health but spent a short time making camouflage nets (ironically, camouflage had a strong association with avant-garde art, not least through Roland Penrose).
In St Ives she was friends both with the forward-looking circle of the Nicholsons and Gabo, and their rivals, the more traditional older artists, although she preferred the work of the former. Her work from the early 1940s shows a wide range of subjects and approach from a detailed naturalism to a highly simplified modernism influenced by the Fauves, some resembling Alfred Wallis‘s primitive St Ives scenes (which, going back to her education, also reflect an interest in the art of children and the untutored manifested for instance in Klee and her ECA friend William Gear, later linked with CoBrA). Critics argue whether John Piper was an important influence, though the St Ives artists certainly were, as was her education in Edinburgh. The question of how much she can be considered a Scottish artist can become a political one.
Although she had exhibited in both Scotland and Cornwall through the early 1940s, her first solo show was in St Ives in 1947. From 1947 or 1948 she produced a more consistent, mature style, with works such as Sleeping Town (1948) important in its use of a flat picture plane and drawings overlaid with freely painted regions, giving an impression of layering or what Lynne Green calls a “palimpsest”. Much of her work from the 1950s has a strong geometrical element, such as Zennor Rock – Rose II (1953) which turns a landscape with rocks into an almost abstract arrangement of shapes.
However she should not be thought of as a mathematically rigid artist focused on formal systems: one glimpse at her use of colour should dispel that, but her outside interests indicate a woman whose ideas went far beyond the narrowly mathematical. She had a long interest in psychoanalysis, at least from the early 1940s, later having Adlerian analysis. She was also interested in mystical practices, seeing auras, interpreting handwriting, and on a trip to Iona she may have seen the ghost of St Columba’s horse – she responded strongly to the mystical quality of Iona, a common place of pilgrimage for Scottish artists as much as for the religious.
Her paintings of the Swiss glacier also summon up feelings recalling the long association of alpine scenery with the sublime in art. For Enlightenment writers like Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, the sublime was a distinct emotion or affect stirred up by an encounter with immensity: vast, incomprehensible size and formlessness prevented the mind from fully grasping the subject and promoted feelings of powerlessness and disorientation. Mountains were a typical subject, as were immense snow fields that would shade into sky. This was popular in Romantic art, with Turner and Francis Danby depicting mountainous sublimity, as did the Preraphaelite John Brett in Glacier of Rosenlaui (1856). In literature too it was a common motif, from Shelley’s Frankenstein with its encounters on alpine glaciers and at the North Pole, to Lawrence’s Women in Love where the central characters retire to the Alps to act out the end of the world. With the shifting viewpoints and restlessness of Barns-Graham’s alpine perspectives, there is a similar feeling of immensity and the might of nature, albeit countered by the soft, beautiful colours. In the 1950s she made white-painted wood reliefs which owe a strong debt to Nicholson’s work of the 1930s, as well as perhaps reflecting a similar whiteness.
Barns-Graham married poet and art critic David Lewis in 1949 but they separated in the late 50s, after a brief period in Leeds. In 1960s, she inherited a house in Balmungo near St Andrews, and began to spend time there as well as in St Ives. Her later work was freer, and often purely abstract, frequently using the motif of the brush-stroke as a central element. For much of her life she had been overshadowed by her (generally male) contemporaries, due partly to her modest nature, and a tendency of critics and artists to leave her out of the standard narratives of St Ives, but recognition did eventually come. She was made an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1999 and a CBE in 2001, as well as a monograph by Lynne Green in 2001 that sought to reintroduce her to the stories of both British and Scottish art. As a painter she offers a unique blend of the formal and the expressive, abstracted from the scenery of Cornwall and Switzerland into striking, lyrical images that have nothing in common with conventional or naturalistic depictions. Although she owed a great debt to other artists in both Edinburgh and St Ives, she created her own way of seeing and of combining and layering her perceptions into art.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald, 1950. Oil paint on canvas, 51 x 61 cm. Tate, London.
* Quoted from Lynne Green, W. Barns-Graham: A Studio Life. 2nd ed. Farnham, Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2011. p. 107.