Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) was one of the foremost British artists of the 20th century. In this exhibition on tour from the Jerwood Galley in Hastings her gift for capturing the spirit of the world’s wildest landscapes is set to be celebrated
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE, known as Willie, was born in St Andrews, Fife in 1912. Even as a child, she was determined to become an artist. In defiance of her father’s wishes, she enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art in 1931 and following graduation she moved to Cornwall. Having exchanged one dramatic coastal landscape for another, Barns-Graham began to immerse herself in the geography surrounding her, an approach that would come to shape her entire career.
In Cornwall she quickly became involved with the thriving artistic community, striking up friendships with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo amongst others. She joined the Newlyn Society of Artists and St Ives Society of Artists, and after splitting from the latter, co-formed the more forward- thinking Penwith Society of Arts.
During the next twenty years, Barns-Graham travelled to Switzerland, Italy, Paris, and Spain. Following a short time teaching at Leeds School of Art and two years in London, she returned to live and work in St Ives. She subsequently inherited a house in St Andrews from her aunt and from 1960 went on to spend her summers in Cornwall and winters in Fife; it was these twin bases in the South West and Scotland, and her wider European travels, that would have a profound influence her work.
The 35 paintings and drawings featured in the exhibition each bear testament to Barns-Graham’s passion for, and inherent understanding of, the natural world.
Lara Wardle, Director Jerwood Collection, says: “Often, the landscapes she chose to describe in her work were in a state of gradual flux: the eroding coast line or unseen slow creep of a glacier. The exhibition will demonstrate to visitors how Barns-Graham developed an abstract language in her work, absorbing both international and local artistic influences.”
Writing about her fascination with the topography of places, Barns-Graham said, “Being in the presence of the power and awe of nature, be it to study the effect of the sun on glaciers in Switzerland, the rain on clay formations in Tuscany, the lava forms and the disturbances in the volcanic areas of Lanzarote … all wonders emphasising the importance of being at one with nature. This is a contemplation of sensing out, feeling and understanding particular rhythms, not just on the surface but underground as in Cornwall”.
Amongst the works going on display are Glacier Study (1949), depicting the Grindelwald Glacier which she repeatedly climbed, and Winter Landscape (1952) The exhibition also includes Barns-Graham’s explorations though her career of the relationship between abstraction and the geometry of natural forms, including Warbeth I (Orkney Series) (1985) and Black Form on Orange and Blue (Black Forms Series) (1953). The works are accompanied by a range of archive material on loan from The Wilhelmina Barns- Graham Charitable Trust.
Liz Waring, Curator of Visual Art at Museums Sheffield, says:
“Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s incredible gift for conveying the power and awe of the landscapes she encountered is equalled by the contribution she made to the development of Modern British art. We’re delighted to be showing this wonderful selection of her work here at the Graves Gallery, home to Sheffield’s own significant Modern British collection.”
entry to the exhibition is free.