Issue 211
Winter 2019/2020

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Feb 19, 2020

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'Willie's' "moving prescience…"

Nick Jones finds an exhibition of the work of Wilhelmina ('Willie') Barns-Graham movingly timely in its portrayal of melting glaciers following a visit she made to Switzerland some 70 years ago.

End of the Glacier Upper Grindelwald, 1949, gouache and pencil on paper © WBGT

I'M ALL AT SEA, and there's a Force 10 gale brewing. We're running close to the wind, just north of Borerary, St Kilda. Above, gannets swarm in their thousands, darkening the sky. Captain is studying the weather forecast, the closeness of the spiralling isobars, the direction of the wind vectors.

I wasn't here ten minutes ago, but Wilhelmina Barns-Graham's 'Glacier Knot' has transported me back on board Wylde Swan, a Dutch sail training ship.

I wasn't expecting that, not at all. It was going to be just another exhibition opening at Berwick's Granary Gallery. I should have known better. They never are. Thanks to James Lowther, Director of Berwick Visual Arts, they just go from strength to strength.

You'd think Turner would be a hard act to follow. But Wilhelmina Barns-Graham isn't phased by JMWT, just as she wasn't going to let those big egos in St Ives overshadow her after a bit of a showdown around 1960.

Oh no, she followed her light back to Fife, then off to Orkney, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and Lanzarote. It's her ability to move through life's journey, not just weathering its storms, but gaining wisdom and insight from them, that is so inspiring. Her work is continuously refreshing.

Glacier Knot, 1978, pen, ink and mixed media on paper. © Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust

'Glacier Knot' invites the viewer to see it their way. The pattern is a universal one. Common to growth rings on trees, or contour lines on a map, or cup and ring marks in the Australian outback, or prehistoric rock art in Northumberland.

So what's it all about? Well, after writing To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf was asked just that. Her reply?

"I meant nothing. Directly I'm told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me." So there, put that in your pipe and smoke it, you critics and academics! Ouch.

Brought up in Fife in 1912, 'Willie', as she was affectionately known, having studied in Edinburgh, went to St Ives in 1940 to breathe in its rich cultural buzz, the fresh Atlantic air, (she had a weak chest), and the light.

In 1949 she married David Lewis, an aspiring poet who knew and wrote about art, artists and life in St Ives. He talked with Barbara Hepworth "about the insideness of the landscape, the thrusts of sea into land, the endless rubbing of wind on rock, sea on rock, rock against rock creating concave and convex surfaces; and how sea and sky and land become interchangeable, in which visual elements, mass, penetration, linear rhythm and colour become free, waiting for the artist to set them in new configurations."

For Willie the energy and transformative power of fire, air, earth and water were the main attraction.Throughout her life, she journeys in search of both elemental and essential. There's a moving prescience in her visit to Switzerland seventy years ago, painting water and air, not fluid or windy, but sharp, icy blue, frozen rock solid in "End of the Glacier Upper Grindelwald", now in rapid, terminal meltdown.

She never went back, but the theme recurred again and again. Later, visiting Lanzarote, she found molten volcanic basalt, crystallised and windblown, giving the island its unique character and fertility, as in "La Geria, Lanzarote, No 3".

Waves, curves, spirals, parabolas and squares echo the St Ives School's primary interest in perfect form, shape, and colour. Sharing Josef Albers's view that abstraction is more real than nature, closer to the heart even, her interest in the transformative power within outward form gives her work great depth and energy.

No surprise that this inner dynamism was matched with great curiosity, a desire to find out what lies over the next hill, or across the ocean blue, or, even more fascinating, in the imagination.

Later life brought a period of intense creativity, a new freedom of expression, exuberance and confidence. Strong lines, simple colours and bold shapes tell of inner peace, a readiness for another great adventure into the unknown. Recognising the importance of travel for artists, Willie's generosity of spirit inspired the establishment of the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust in 1987, and it is thanks to the Trust that this exhibition has opened in Berwick.

It offers a host of awards for students to travel, research and residencies – important opportunities to see other artists' work, visit different places, and develop their practice.

More challenging too, now, as the climate emergency is making people think twice about not just where they travel, but how, and how often. Also how fast or, how slow. It's that slow, contemplative mood that Willie's work demonstrates so clearly. The outer journey and its destination, well observed and thought about, can be the gateway to inner journeys that last a lifetime and beyond.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: "Inspirational Journeys", Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed, until February 23, 2020. Open Wednesdays to Sundays 11am-4pm.


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