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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in and out of the elements at Jerwood Gallery

an abstract painting showing sheets of ice

Glacier. 1949 The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

The wild landscapes of Wihelmina Barns-Graham are now on show at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings

Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice: the title of this Jerwood Gallery celebration of the work of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) is an apt one as not only does it deftly describe the great swathes of abstract blocks that dominate her best work, but it also represents the landscapes that she inhabited and worked in.

Born in Scotland, Barnes Graham spent her summers in St Ives but would winter in her native St Andrews in the house she inherited from her aunt. Her travels through the sublime vistas of Europe inspired a body of work that is suffused with the qualities that these diverse and wild places offer.

The germ of this Jerwood show is Barns-Graham’s painting Winter Landscape 1952, which is part of the Jerwood Collection, and the gallery have married it with a selection of her oils and drawings depicting dramatic landscapes of Europe, from the Cornish coast to the Grindelwald Glacier in the Swiss Alps.

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.

a painting of black and white abstract shapes

Barns-Graham, Wilhelmina; Composition (Sea); The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

an abstract painting and sketch of a glacier

Barns-Graham, Wilhelmina; Untitled (Glacier); The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

an abstract painting with sheets of blue and green

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Winter Landscape 1952. Courtesy of the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

“This is a contemplation of sensing out, feeling and understanding particular rhythms, not just on the surface but underground as in Cornwall”.

A selection of fine paintings prints and drawings – among them Winter Landscape, Untitled (Glacier), Composition (Sea) and other classic renderings of her encounters with the world’s wild places, can be seen in the display, which demonstrates the artist’s understanding of, and respect for, the natural world.

“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,” says Lara Wardle, Director Curator of Jerwood Collection. “The exhibition demonstrates to visitors how Barns-Graham developed an abstract language into her work, absorbing both international and local artistic influences.”

Even as a child, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham had determined to become an artist. In defiance of her father’s wishes, she enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art in 1931, graduated six years later (following bouts of illness) and moved to Cornwall.

a black and white woman with fashionably cropped hair in a studio

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in her Alva Street Studio Edinburgh, Nov 1937.

a photo of a woman working on a canvas

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in her Porthmeor Studios (close up) 1947.

a black and whjite people negotiating a glacier

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and the Brotherton family led by guide Switzerland May 1949.

a photo of a woman stadning next to a large abstract painting

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham with ‘Rock Form’ 1954

While in Cornwall, she became a member of both the Newlyn and St Ives Society of Artists, but left the latter school following an acrimonious difference of opinions. Perhaps displaying the feistiness she demonstrated against her father, Barns-Graham founded the Penwith Society of Arts – a collective of abstract artists.

Yet when the St Ives School broke up her reputation also waned before rejuvenation in the 1990s and today her name is synonymous with British abstract art in the later 20th century.

The archive material on loan from The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Charitable Trust – in particular the selection of photos – offer a fascinating glimpse into this journey and a life dedicated to art and some of the world’s most rugged landscapes.

a photo of a woman in her studio before a canvas

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in St Ives 1960s

a photo of a woman drawing on a beach sat on rocks

drawing on beach, Fife, 1982 (photo by Antonia Reeve)

a photo of a woman with gray hair working away in her studio

WBG working at Balmungo (photo by Antonia Reeve)

a photo of a woman working in a studio

WBG working at Balmungo, 1982 (photo by Antonia Reeve)

a photo of a woman holding a drawing up to examine it - behind her it s alrge abstract painting of blues

WBG in Barnaloft Studio 1980s

a photo of an elderly woman seated in front of a painting and a bowl of flowers on a bench

WBG c2000 (Photo by Simon Norfolk)

a photo of a woman with glasses next to a large painting

Portrait c2001. Photo by Rowan James.

Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice is at the Jerwood Gallery Hastings until October 7 2018 and will also be shown at the Graves Gallery, Sheffield from December 8 2018 – March 16 2019.


Hastings Contemporary

Hastings, East Sussex

Situated on the dramatic seafront of Europe’s oldest fishing beach, Hastings Contemporary champions modern and contemporary art with a bold and ambitious exhibition programme, showing works by historically important and internationally renowned artists, and emerging practitioners, as well as exploring the rich cultural history of artists from the South East.…

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