Artist whose abstracts derived from nature  

One of the key strengths of the Graves Gallery is its extensive collection of Modern British Art and now it is hosting an exhibition exploring the career of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who was one of the foremost British artists of the last century.  

Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice covers four decades of work by the artist who died aged 92 in 2004.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE, known as Willie, was born in St Andrews, Fife in 1912. As a child she was determined to become an artist and in defiance of her overbearing father’s wishes, she enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art in 1931 thanks to a supportive aunt.

There she received a first rate grounding in drawing and art technique and won a number of scholarships to travel. But the onset of the Second World War restricted that and she moved to Cornwall. 

In Cornwall she quickly became involved with the thriving artistic community, striking up friendships with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo amongst others. .

“A key moment was in 1949 when she went with a family from St Ives on holiday to Switzerland and became fascinated by the Grindelwald Glacier,” explains Liz Waring, Curator of Visual Art at Museums Sheffield.

“Up until that point she hadn’t done much abstract art because what was accepted at the time was figurative and naturalistic work. The glacier encouraged her to look at things in a different way to see the interior as well as the exterior.”

She kept going back to the same subject over time and added more layers  through what she experienced over the years.

After  inheriting her aunt’s  house in St Andrews  from 1960 she went on to spend her summers in Cornwall and winters in Fife but continued to travel.

Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice explores Barn-Graham’s response to the diverse landscapes she encountered, primarily focusing on depictions of four different geographical areas: the Cornish coast; Lanzarote’s volcanic landscape; clay formations on Italian hills; and the Grindelwald Glacier in Switzerland.

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. “She always had a feeling for nature since childhood,” adds the curator.

Barns-Graham once expressed it thus: “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. ”.

Examples in the exhibition illustrating her long fascination with the relationship between abstraction and the geometry of natural forms Warbeth I (Orkney Series) (1985) and Black Form on Orange and Blue (Black Forms Series) (1953).

In the 1990s she visited the Canary Islands and the black lava terrain inspired her to experiment with white chalk on black paper and mixing volcano dust with paint/

The exhibition also includes  archive material from the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Charitable Trust such as notes, sketches  and personal photographs.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice continues  at the Graves Gallery  until March 16.