Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) was a leading member of the St Ives School of artists who contributed to the advancement of British Abstract Art in the 20th Century. Born in St Andrews, she attended Edinburgh College of Art in the 1930s and moved to Cornwall in 1940.

St Ives remained a primary residence for the artist throughout her life, although from 1960 this was balanced by time spent in St Andrews (she inherited a house there in 1960), and her native Scotland remained an important focus for both ideas and exhibitions.

For Wilhelmina’s full biography, please click here.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in her St Ives studio working on Eight Lines, photo David Crane
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in her St Ives studio working on Eight Lines, photo David Crane

The works included in Lines from Scotland are part of a group of mostly drawings in which Barns-Graham used lines in a quite specific way. Rob Airey, Director of the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust, has written the following short, visual essay, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Line Drawings, 1975-96, describing these works, and how they fit into the artist’s oeuvre overall.

‘For a session of drawing I may exclusively use linear ideas: an abstraction of what has been observed, first drawing a grid or a mathematical plan using a series of long and short lines over or against this grid, building up a rhythm to allow the unexpected as curves or wave lines encouraging imagination and becoming creative. These rhythms suggest flowing forms, water, grass and wind movements, or lines for the pleasure of themselves. Paul Klee suggests, ‘We take a walk with a line.’
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham from Some thoughts on drawing in W Barns-Graham Drawings, 1992 exhibition catalogue.

Between around 1975-1996, Barns-Graham worked on a large, on-going series of works employing a quite distinctive use of line. Variously referred to (by Barns-Graham herself) as Small Energies or Linear Developments, these works were quite different to anything she had produced earlier in her career, and would be produced largely in parallel to her main painting practice over this period. This short visual essay looks at their development and the different strands that emerged within the series as a whole.

Within a small group of experimental paintings Barns-Graham made in 1974, she named the Dolphin Series, can be found the genesis of the ‘linear’ works that would follow immediately after. Works in the series share a curving form moving across a field of colour made up of roughly parallel lines sub-divided into cells.  Without any overt visual reference to dolphins (though works made later in her career which do, suggest she had a particular fondness for them), her series title perhaps suggests an interest in their movement through water. It is these flowing, parallel lines that would be developed the following year.

Dolphin Series, 1974 (BGT 224)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Linear Development Five, 1975 (BGT 786)
Linear Development Five, 1975 (BGT 786)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Line Series with Circle, 1975 (BGT 1166)
Line Series with Circle, 1975 (BGT 1166)

1975 saw the first works emerge that could be categorised as belonging to this large series. Both appear to depict the sun (or possibly the moon) over a seascape defined by series of black lines. With its densely packed fine black lines running in parallel with others as they weave their way across the page, Linear Development Five contains the defining formal characteristic of the series, which Barns-Graham would explore over the following 20 years. Line Series with Circle represents the beginnings of a distinct sub-group of the series, in which the aim appears to be to depict waves rolling into shore as economically as possible – just a few widely spaced lines.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Vortex, 1976 (BGT 920)
Vortex, 1976 (BGT 920
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Glacier 1976, (BGT 873)
Glacier 1976, (BGT 873)

1976 saw significant developments within the series – Vortex shows a move towards a more abstract representation of forces within nature – air, snow, wind, water, ice and rock forms all feature within the series: here dynamism and movement are evoked by the swirls, waves and eddies through which Barns-Graham takes her line.

With its reference to a journey and subsequent groups of works made much earlier, around 1949-52, Glacier indicates that as well as the inspiration of immediate, observable phenomenon, through these drawings Barns-Graham was also channelling her memory of experiences of the natural world. Glacier also has a complexity of design and subtle use of colour that suggests Barns-Graham increasingly considered these works as ‘exhibition’ pieces.    

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, North Sea Fife 1977 (BGT 65)
North Sea Fife, 1977 (BGT 65)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Surf Wave, 1977 (BGT 75)
Surf Wave, 1977 (BGT 75)

By 1977 Barns-Graham was producing increasing numbers of these ‘linear’ works; experimenting with differing media, scale and format and adapting this particular technique to varying degrees of ‘representation’. For example, both North Sea Fife and Surf Wave are clearly inspired by the sea, but with quite different approaches to naturalism.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Snow Blown Carbeth, Stirlingshire, 1978 (BGT 853)
Snow Blown Carbeth, Stirlingshire, 1978 (BGT 853)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Clay Country, Tuscany, 1979 (BGT 842)
Clay Country, Tuscany, 1979 (BGT 842)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Wind Dance, North Sea, 1979 (BGT 824)
Wind Dance, North Sea, 1979 (BGT 824)

These three works from 1978-79 share a sophistication of colour and design that builds on the complexity seen in Glacier in 1976. They also share, through their titles, reference to a specific place and/or natural phenomena, in the case of Clay Country, Tuscany, as with Glacier, to a journey made many years earlier. It is difficult to be sure whether these titles imply the direct inspiration of the named place in the development of the image, or if they are perhaps more poetic titles, bound up in memory and experience and ascribed later.  1978 also saw Barns-Graham making works from the series commercially available, through her solo exhibition at the New Art Centre in London.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Near Cellardyke, Fife, 1979 (BGT 99)
Near Cellardyke, Fife, 1979 (BGT 99)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, St Andrews looking West, 1981 (BGT16)
St Andrews looking West, 1981 (BGT16)

Near Cellardyke, Fife (1979) saw Barns-Graham developing a new application for her pen and ink lines, still using them to represent the sea, but within much more naturalistically-rendered landscapes. The view across St Andrews beach towards the cathedral and St Rule’s Tower seen in St Andrews looking West was a particularly popular one which she depicted using this technique on a number of occasions.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Six Lines (Sand and Sea), 1976 (BGT 2416)
Six Lines (Sand and Sea), 1976 (BGT 2416)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, West Sands (St Andrews) July, 1981 (BGT 760)
West Sands (St Andrews) July, 1981 (BGT 760)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Seven Lines No 2 1982 (BGT 789)
Seven Lines No 2, 1982 (BGT 789)

The wave ‘line’ series, first seen in 1975’s Line Series with Circle developed at a slightly slower pace compared to the ‘linear’ drawings; however it was a visual idea Barns-Graham kept returning to during this 20 year period. Apparently a prototype for further experiments and variations of the theme, Six Lines (Sand and Sea) from 1976 would also be the basis for the Six Lines etching made in 2002.  One of her most popular group of works, Barns-Graham would extend them beyond pen and ink drawings into painting, printmaking and other media – the Tate owns a variation, Eight Lines, Porthmeor (1986) drawn in chalk on paper.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Expanding Forms 2 (Rust),1980 (BGT 1140)
Expanding Forms 2 (Rust), 1980 (BGT 1140)

While the series appears to be largely distinct from Barns-Graham’s painting practice during this period, the extensive Expanding Forms/Touch Point series made in an intensive burst c 1980-81, does seem to connect with them. The flattened triangular shapes that move vertically across the canvas, while created with careful attention to geometry and proportion, also echo the natural forces of wind and wave seen in many of the ‘line’ works.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Eight Lines I, 1996 (etching)
Eight Lines I, 1996 (etching)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Six Lines, 2002 (etching)
Six Lines, 2002 (etching)

Barns-Graham’s final variations of the wave line works came in three etchings.  The first, Eight Lines I, was produced in a small edition in 1996 with Rachel Kantaris in St Ives. Made later with Graal Press in Scotland were the similar Eight Lines II (2001) and Six Lines (2002), which used the 1976 work as its basis. Made some years after she finished making original works on this theme, they serve to commemorate a series of images that both Barns-Graham and her audience found particularly satisfying. 

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Untitled,1995 (BGT 72)
Untitled, 1995 (BGT 72)

Barns-Graham continued to create her pen and ink ‘linear meditations’ until a final flourish in 1995, with a group that share an aquatic green wash background. Made when aged 83, the lines may not quite have the sureness of hand of earlier examples; however they retain the energy, inventiveness and jewel-like beauty, so characteristic of much of the series.

Below are some links to explore Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s life and work further:

To end, enjoy this short film, Looking In Looking Out, made by Fife-based artist Tim Fitzpatrick in 2012 for the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust.