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Celebrating Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Drawing Inspiration from the St Andrews Landscape

Although the contemporary artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham spent a chunk of her time deliberating the competition of St Ives School of Artists in Cornwall, the Scottish artist and her abstractions were first formed in St Andrews. Born and raised in St Andrews, Barns-Graham draws inspiration from and steers her landscape with the colours and line of our small town.

If viewers focus on her purely abstract creations, which contributed to the advancement of British Abstract Art in the 20th Century, her hard-edged geometric and linear forms formed a wild and never-static description of the town’s hills and wild seascape. The energy of the tide and voluminous mountains directed and inspired the energy of Wilhelmina’s paintbrush. Its Scottish landscape inspired the artist to express her emotion and perception as bold and electric in its abstract and geometrical fashion.

Born from a secure, but not entirely wealthy family, her choice of career was unconducive to her background. However, the sensations of artistry, and her wild Scottish environment were too deeply imprinted. Her determination to be an artist grew from her father’s determination that she should not pursue the field. However, this did not dissuade Wilhelmina who, after her determination succeeded, was awarded her first scholarship in 1935 and achieved further awards in the following five years.

Her time at St Ives introduced her to the ‘primitive’ work of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. And on her permanent return to St Andrews after she inherited her aunt’s family house, the ‘primitive’ style married St Andrews’ landscape.

One series, in particular, combines stimulation and expression via a ‘primitive’ style and landscape: ‘Scorpio Series II’ (1997). Done in acrylic on paper, the artist adopts the quick drying characteristic of acrylic in an energetic and spontaneous style. The flicks and splashes of paint which decorate the scene in random arrays evoke the elemental energy of the Scottish landscape. And this excitable pattern creates a never-static sensation of wind and movement. The block colours incorporated in Wilhelmina’s simplistic background evoke the influence of ‘primitive’ art. The reduced expression of form and adoption of simple lines radiate a discovered reduction to meet the emotive core of her perception. Her varied palette and disorganised arrangement of lines remind me of St Andrews’ familiar air. The strip of grey further throws off the balance in the background and adds to the chaotic description of shape and colour. The pale but still intense blue of the background presses the scattered arrangement of splashes and shape toward the viewer in an almost pulsating and energetic fashion. Whilst some lines and shape remain rigid in geometrical straightness, other lines revolt and bend in a disorderly fashion. This arrangement of varied colour, composition, and shape whispers, through the disguise of abstraction, an ode to the town’s familiar seaside.

From around 1988 until her death, her style fashioned an outpouring of triumphant and beautiful works employing the full resources of line, colour, shape, and calligraphic brushwork, employed with all the brio and freedom of a vastly experienced painter.

Photo: Creative Commons

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