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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Expanding Forms (Entrance)

Written by Alice Strang

A pioneer of British Abstraction, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was born in St Andrews in 1912 and trained at Edinburgh College of Art. In 1940, three years after graduating, she moved to Cornwall where she became an established member of the St Ives School. Twenty years later Barns-Graham inherited a house outside St Andrews, thereafter straddling the Cornish and Scottish art worlds. Her long, varied and prolific career was underpinned by continual experimentation and ended with a flourish of vibrant paintings and inventive printmaking before her death in 2004.

Expanding Forms (Entrance), Touch Point Series No.1 is a major work from a series in which Barns-Graham marshalled line, form, colour and space with discipline and joy and continued her exploration of objects in motion. The sequence of brittle yet organic elements, their inter-relationships and placement within a mute grey space, creates a sensuous image that appears to breathe and move before our eyes.

Lynne Green, Barns-Graham’s biographer, commented on this work: ‘The artist…pursued her concept of a repeated, expanding formal element, but here the progression is…stately, the visual sensation…subtle. Colour and its proportion are as central in the work of previous years; harmony and dissonance of hue an equal partner with the balance and tension of geometrically determined form...A crucial role is played by the point at which one form touches – or influences – another: a slight touch can propel, a more prolonged embrace can squash or inhibit.’ Painted with acrylic on canvas on a large scale (122 x 122cm), it shows a mature artist in full command of her métier.

In 1987 Barns-Graham founded a charitable trust to further her reputation and to support living visual artists, which became active when she died. Along with the painting Snow at Wharfedale II of 1957 and six prints by Barns-Graham, Expanding Forms (Entrance), Touch Point Series No.1 was presented to Pallant House Gallery in 2015 by The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust through the Art Fund. They join four works on paper by Barns-Graham in the George and Ann Dannatt Collection, given to the Gallery four years earlier, which includes examples by her colleagues Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon, amongst others. Barns-Graham’s achievements can also be seen at Pallant House Gallery in the context of its growing representation of women abstract artists, including work by Winifred Nicholson, Prunella Clough, Bridget Riley and Barbara Rae.

This Barns-Graham display comes at a particularly opportune moment for the understanding of this leading British modern artist. A display of her prints, selected from a major gift to the National Galleries of Scotland by her Trust, runs at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern art until 26 June 2016, where four of her paintings can be seen in the concurrent exhibition Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965. Furthermore, sixty years after she had her first solo exhibition in Scotland with them, Barns-Graham is to receive a solo exhibition at The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh in May 2016. The Trust itself is in the midst of moving its activities and collection to the Scottish capital. Perhaps it can be argued that all of these endeavours, their energy, optimism and significance, are embodied in Expanding Forms (Entrance), Touch Point Series No.1.

This essay has been kindly written by Alice Strang, Trustee of The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust and Senior Curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.