New exhibition shows that Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s restless spirit lives on

Wait, by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Picture:The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust
Wait, by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Picture:The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust
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IN 1939, Hubert Wellington, the principal of Edinburgh College of Art, recommended a young Fife painter for an informal travel scholarship. “Her work is never common in outlook,” he wrote. “Her colour has charm and expression.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, born in St Andrews into a ­minor land-owning family, had wanted to be a painter since the age of eight. She had overcome class expectations, chronic bronchial problems and the will of her authoritarian father to study art.

At the college from 1931 to 1937, she made friends among her fellow students. There was Denis Peploe whose father, the Scottish colourist S J Peploe, briefly taught her. A photograph shows them striding along Princes Street side by side and wrapped up against the cold.

And there was Margaret Mellis with whom she shared a studio. A surviving picture shows them at the college door: Willie, as she was always known, surprisingly elegant under her practical and ­pigment-splattered painting coat.

When, in early 1940, Margaret Mellis and her partner, the critic Adrian Stokes, moved to St Ives in Cornwall, Willie wanted to go too. In a matter of months among the figures who had gathered round Stokes were artists of the calibre of Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. St Ives was to be home to figures like Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and the potter Bernard Leach. Barns-Graham found herself in a place now synonymous with modern British Art and the Scottish painter would become ­forever associated with the St Ives group.

You can read the yellowed, typewritten original scholarship letter in a new exhibition at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre, which marks Barns-Graham’s centenary. Born in 1912, she died in January 2004 at the age of 91. Some of her best paintings were made in the last decade of her life.

In awarding the scholarship, Wellington suggested she move to Cornwall. “She will find friends and many other artists working which I think would be a good at atmosphere for her to live in,” he said. Whilst wartime restrictions meant that painting out of doors might be difficult it would be, in Wellington’s words, “a safe place from bombs or famine as anywhere I can think of”.

You can feel this sense of safety and relief in Barns-Graham’s earliest works in the town, and the way it seemed familiar to her, perhaps because of its kinship with her coastal hometown. This week I passed some schoolchildren discussing her elevated view of St Ives, painted that first summer. It’s all pyramid roofs and chimney pots, placid seas in pink and blue light. “How does this painting feel?” they were asked. A chorus of small voices piped: “Happy!”

In more inclement weather in 1948, Barns-Graham contrasts nature and culture: the view from her studio windows, all overwhelming foam and turbulence, with the order and quietude within. A red table holds a few supplies, a blue tablecloth supports an improvised still life: a vase, some fruit and some pebbles. The striped tie hanging on an ­impromptu washing line ­signifies a masculine presence off-stage, but the atmosphere is not one of realism. Bold and flattened like a Cadell interior, the picture captures her Scottish roots.

A major breakthrough was to come that year with Sleeping Town, a hallucinatory St Ives by night, the boats beached at low tide, the pattern of fishing sheds and houses, not topographical descriptions but shifting forms, the harbour white and gold and ghostly.

Within a decade, Barns-Graham was working in almost complete abstraction. The title Geoff And Scruffy refers to a friend and his overwhelming dog; however this is not a portrait but an examination of what happens when one ­geometrical form obscures ­another.

Nature and landscape were ever present in her work, but in condensed, abstracted constructivist form. She was impressed by rocks, geologic formations, by the incredible glaciers she observed in ­Switzerland and painted and repainted throughout her ­career.

Barns-Graham’s story might have rested there, as attention moved away from St Ives and into the cities, from genteel British modernism to the fizz of pop art. She might have painted in quiet neglect, but what is remarkable was her continual reinvention, sometimes in ­arduous circumstances.

In the late 1960s, she made assemblages, throwing card or wooden shapes on to the floor, kicking or pushing them around to echo the emotional turbulence she experienced. In the 1970s her colours sang. In the 1980s she worked in Stromness in Orkney for a while, another small, close port where she made small ­assemblages. But the most ­exciting works in the show are those she made in her final years, singing and searing ­abstracts. Wait, from 2003, features a singing cobalt-blue background which, with just three simple strokes – one yellow, one red and one wide and black – is showy, confident and insouciant. The artist was 90 when she made it.

The colours are reminiscent of Matisse, who would have been a god during Barns-Graham’s training under the likes of John Maxwell and William Gillies, some 70 years earlier. It is the argument of the artist’s friend and confidant, art historian Lynne Green, who curated the show, that this Scottish training and its grounding in French art is the key to understanding the artist. While the catalogue contains ideas about Scottishness and Scottish art that creep far too close to mysticism and chauvinism for my liking, the historical point is well made.

In 1960, Barns-Graham had inherited her maternal family home Balmungo near St Andrews. She moved between the two towns with their bright windy beaches. Her Edinburgh connections, in training and friendships, remained. She has long been associated with St Ives and a key moment in art history, but this show brings Wilhemina Barns-Graham home. «

Twitter: @moirajeffrey

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: a Scottish artist in St Ives is at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, until 24 February