WILHELMINA BARNS-GRAHAM, Fiesole 13th June, 1954
In London we have recently closed a wonderful exhibition of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s late works which are characterised by their strong colours, dynamic gesture and pure abstraction. For this Artwork of the Week instalment I wanted to concentrate on another aspect of her work, principally her drawing. Fiesole is entirely characteristic of Barns-Graham’s delicate and refined use of line. As an artist she oscillated between abstract painting and more figurative drawing throughout her long career. This is something that some critics have struggled to reconcile because it made her art rather hard to pigeon hole. In fact, both the figurative and abstract work was derived from the same key inspiration; the power and forces at play in nature.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was a Scottish artist who, in 1940, moved to St Ives in Cornwall to join the nascent Modernist group that formed around Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo. Although it was Gabo’s work which is perhaps most directly comparable to hers, she struck up a close friendship with Nicholson and the two artists often went on sketching trips together. Her importance and value within the colony’s artistic community was cemented long before the second generation of Modernist’s, led by figures such as Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton, had descended on the town. However, her status as something as an ‘inbetweener’ – neither old enough to belong to the first generation or ‘new’ enough (or – to be frank – male enough) to truly belong to the second generation meant that her considerable artistic achievements have often been over looked.
Barns-Graham created the drawing illustrated here in the summer of 1954. She and her husband, David Lewis, travelled to Italy ostensibly to visit the Venice Biennale where Ben Nicholson was exhibiting, but also to tour Tuscany. Lynne Green noted that Barns-Graham bought her large, heavy drawing board with her and drew incessantly. They travelled to Florence (and from there to Fiesole where our drawing was created and also to Pisa) before moving on to Sienna and Chiusure. David Lewis wrote of the trip that:
“Willie would begin drawing – would begin discovering with endless patience the structure of the landscape, the forms and the tensions and rhythms of the hills…. (and that she had done) several very big and fine and tender drawings: some of them are quite the best drawings she has ever done….Italy has certainly been a very big experience for us.”
While in Italy, Barns-Graham met Peggy Guggenheim and viewed her collection, dined out with Nicholson and met the great and the good of the Venetian beau monde. She also learnt that she had been awarded the Italian Government International Scholarship which was administered in the UK by the British Council. The significant award, which may well have been supported behind the scenes by Nicholson, allowed her to return to Italy in the following year. Although Barns-Graham was, and will continue to be, associated primarily with Cornwall and Scotland, she was always a devoted internationalist and her best work was often inspired by her frequent travels beyond the UK.
Fiesole was sourced directly from the Barns-Graham Trust which we are proud to represent in the UK and internationally.
WILHELMINA BARNS-GRAHAM (British 1912-2004)
Fiesole 13th June, 1954
Signed & dated
Pencil & wash on paper
16 7/8 x 21 3/8 in
42.8 x 54.2 cm