Review: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: A Scottish Artist in St Ives - The Fleming Collection, London

Her reputation is almost one of a Scottish artist in exile, but Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s work took inspiration from her home town, St Andrews, comparing and contrasting it with her adopted St Ives

IN 1940 at the age of 28, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham arrived in St Ives in Cornwall. It was a bold move for a young artist, a recent graduate of Edinburgh College of Art. It was also a sign of Barns-Graham’s determination to find an environment where she could make her own way as an artist.

Her long association with St Ives was important for nurturing her sense of artistic independence and experimentation, but it has done few favours for her later reputation. The tendency to view her as a peripheral member of the St Ives community, a quieter contemporary of the likes of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, has meant that her work has not always had the appraisal it deserves in its own right.

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In the year of the centenary of her birth, the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust, the major custodian of her artistic legacy, will stage a series of exhibitions around the country of which this is the first (it will arrive in Edinburgh in the autumn). Curated by Lynne Green, the author of a major monograph on Barns-Graham, it makes the case for the importance of Scotland in her work.

Barns-Graham became a student at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1930s, after doing battle both with ill health and with her father’s views on suitable careers for women. It was here that she encountered as tutors artists such as SJ Peploe, William Gillies, William MacTaggart and John Maxwell, figures who would influence her handling of paint, her awareness of colour, and would introduce her to the key figures of European modernism.

By the time she arrived in St Ives, she had had (unusually among the artists residing there) the benefits of a formal training which emphasised the importance of drawing. While the environment and community in St Ives clearly played a part in her artistic formation, this exhibition contends that by the time she arrived in Cornwall, she was already a consummate draughtswoman, an artist with a love of the physicality of paint and a keenly honed sensibility to colour.

Her relationship with Scotland continued throughout her long career. Even between 1940 and 1960 when she lived in St Ives, she maintained her Scottish ties. In 1960, she inherited the Balmungo estate near her birthplace in St Andrews from an aunt (it is now run by the Trust as a centre for artists residencies). From then on, she spent her summers in St Ives and her winters in St Andrews. These “twin creative centres” (in Green’s words) shaped the dominant themes in her paintings.

The first part of the exhibition, on the ground floor of the Fleming Collection space, is strictly chronological. The earliest works, such as White Cottage, Carbeth and Still Life, Yellow from her student portfolio in the 1930s, show the clear influence of the Scottish Colourists, as well as a deft awareness of her brushwork. A charcoal study of her father and a pen and ink townscape from 1938 show that the discipline of draughtsmanship was well taught.

All of this informs an early painting of St Ives, done in 1940: the rooftops of the town and snaking harbour wall are superbly captured, the colours soft yet rich, darkening towards the horizon. It is also striking how similar it is to St Andrews, another grey-roofed town perched on the edge of the sea. Yet another St Ives portrait, Sleeping Town, from 1938, shows how far she has come in eight years. The buildings are still recognisable, but this is much more of a mood painting, evening light creating a swath of gold through the middle against which empty boats are outlined. The shapes are becoming more abstract, she is less concerned with depicting, more with evoking. One critic commented that in this picture she had captured the soul of St Ives.

Yet it was neither in Cornwall nor in Scotland that some of the most significant developments in Barns-Graham’s work took place. In the late 1940s, she visited the Grindelwald Glaciers in Switzerland; several studies from that time are included here. Fascinated by the glacial forms, she began an outpouring of work which highlighted geometrical form, whether her subject was a seascape or the furniture in a room. In the late 1950s, there was another shift, this time in Spain. In paintings such as Spanish Coast No. 3 (Spanish Island Series), she explored a flatness of plane, a clarity of shape and a deftness of colour, painting for the first time the moon-like circles and urgent brushstrokes that would feature in her late work.

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Yet, at the same time, she was still drawing. In 1955, in Sicily, she delights in rock formations. In the 1970s she was drawing the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, in 1993 sketching St Ives in chalk. Even as her paintings became increasingly confident in their abstraction, she never lost her desire to explore what she saw with a pencil. Some paintings seem to straddle the two worlds: West Sands (St Andrews) July 1981 is an almost abstracted scene of washes and lines, yet it depicts both in form and in mood, an empty beach against a pale pink sky.

Downstairs, in the basement gallery, free rein is given to her later abstracts, but the chronology breaks down, and it is less easy to trace a sense of progression. The mosaic-like Assembly of Nine (1964), captures shifting moods through shimmering lines of nine gold squares. In Warm Up, Cool Down (1979), she works on a tight grid structure, exploring colours and how they balance one another with a near-scientific intensity.

The majority of the abstract works here date from the last five years of her life, when she challenged herself as an artist to an extraordinary degree, despite being in advanced old age (she died in 2004, aged 91). These represent the work of an artist drawing on 70 years of experience and experimentation, yet taking risks as never before.

In some of the paintings, the colours seem to dance. Others are serene in their stillness. In paintings like Afghanistan, glorious yellow is balanced by black and white. Wait, one of her last paintings, is also one of her most daring: a deep cobalt blue with only the slightest and deftest of interventions. The business of painting is reduced to its most basic elements, its primary colours, yet there is nothing reductive or simplistic about the result.

A show such as this one can only ever hope to tell part of the Barns-Graham story. Her work – particularly her late work – was so varied and lively that a much larger exhibition is needed to do justice to its significance. But this show does draw out an overlooked aspect of her work, namely her relationship to Scotland and her place in a Scottish painting tradition. It is not – thankfully – a parochial attempt to “reclaim” her as Scottish. But it is the first of a series of centenary shows which will hopefully set out her stall as one of the extraordinary exponents of British modernism.

RATING: ****

• Until 5 April