A Discipline of the Mind: The Drawings of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham at Pier Arts Centre, Orkney

By Adam Bambury | 07 April 2009
A colourful drawing of a coastal landscape with hills in the background

From the Stromness Series by W Barnes-Graham. Courtesy the Pier Arts Centre

Exhibition preview: A Discipline of the Mind- The Drawings of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, from April 18 - June 6 2009. Free.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham is widely recognised for her intriguing paintings that deftly straddle the gap between abstract and representational art. But less well known are the 20th century British artist’s drawings.

A Discpline of the Mind aims to change all this with a comprehensive survey of Barns-Graham’s drawings from 1947 to 1993. Fifty works are on show, many for the first time.

“Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s drawings have not been widely seen, and, until now, there has never been an extensive exhibition of drawings on this scale,” said Geoffrey Bertram, Chairman of The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust.

“Drawings make up an important element of Barns-Graham’s work, but because they are not usually directly related to her paintings, they have been rather overlooked. The Pier Arts Centre has provided a great opportunity to rectify this oversight. It is marvellous to see this exhibition coming to Stromness. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham fell in love with Orkney and regretted that she was unable to spend more time there.”

The artist worked in Orkney during the 1980s, forging a friendship with local poet George Mackay Brown. A natural draughtsman with a love of the coast, she soon found inspiration in the Scottish archipelago.

“So much work ideas here,” she breathlessly wrote in her diary at the time. “Drawings, colour, shapes, moods, space - elongated shapes - and then the light - and rock groupings - water movements - changes. It is overwhelming - choked with it all.”

A sketch of a coastal outcrop

From the Stromness Series by W Barnes-Graham. Courtesy the Pier Arts Centre

Many of the drawings Barns-Graham created during this period have been collected at the exhibition, along with others from her travels in Switzerland, Italy and Spain. The structure of the varied landscapes she encountered provided plenty of raw material for her enquiring and analytical mind. She would draw the seen and unseen, with one set of drawings exploring the mass and swell of the sea.

“That Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was a painter and printmaker of the first rank in post-war British art is increasingly recognised,” said exhibition curator Mel Gooding. “This exhibition demonstrates her achievement as one of the finest landscape draughtsmen of her generation. Her drawings have an analytic dynamism and diverse stylistic verve that is utterly original and distinctive.”

Barns-Graham was born St Andrews in 1912 and studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art. She became one of the central figures in the famous St Ives Group after arriving at the Cornish seaside town in 1940. Twenty years later she inherited a house in St Andrews and divided her time between the two coastal communities until her death in January 2004.

The Pier Arts Centre Collection represents many key works by artists from the St Ives Group including works by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Margaret Mellis. It was gathered by Margaret Gardiner and gifted to be ‘held in trust for Orkney in 1979’.

“While Margaret Gardiner and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham were near contemporaries and knew each other well our collection has no examples of Barns-Graham’s art,” explained Neil Firth, Director of the Pier Arts Centre.

“I am very pleased that we can use this occasion to show some of Wilhelmina’s work in close proximity to that of her contemporaries. The exhibition of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham drawings will provide a new perspective on this important artist’s work and should also allow us to view our own collection afresh.”

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