Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Composition February I


Not on display

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham 1912–2004
Oil paint and graphite on board
Frame: 303 × 373 × 34 mm
support: 178 × 254 mm
Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Catalogue entry

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham born 1912

Composition February I 1954


Oil and pencil on board
178 x 254 (7 x 10) on hardboard support 266 x 340 (10 1/2 x 13 3/8)

Inscribed on back of accessory support in graphite pencil ‘21’ [circled] and ‘Composition February I 1954 | W Barns Graham’ top centre, ?‘V Small’ top right and upside down ‘170’ [circled], centre

Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

?Purchased from the artist through the Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1954

Spring Exhibition, Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall, St Ives, March 1954 (74, as Composition February 1st)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1979, p.31, reproduced

Wilhemina Barns-Graham’s work of the 1950s was dominated by abstract compositions, generated with the aid of geometrical formulae and derived from forms and phenomena found in the natural environment. Among her preferred sources were seaside rocks and the artist said that Composition February I was one of a number of works based on the rocks at Porthgwarra, a small sandy cove on the south-western tip of Cornwall which is approached by a tunnel through the cliff.[1]

The inscription on the back of this painting either shows that it was made on 1 February or that it was the first of a number of works entitled Compositon February. It has previously been catalogued by the Tate Gallery as Composition I, so that the roman numeral unequivocally signalled the painting’s position within a sequence rather than a presumed date of production. It is, indeed, one of several versions, of different sizes, of the same composition. An even smaller rendition (5 x 7 ins) was included in the artist’s touring retrospective in 1989,[2] and another slight variation was reproduced in the catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s St Ives exhibition in 1985.[3] A larger version, Composition February 1954, was shown alongside the Tate’s in the 1954 Penwith Society spring exhibition (no.32) and the different prices - £125 compared to 18 guineas for this work – indicates the range of sizes in which the artist worked. The artist recalled that the variations on this theme ‘were at first very small on hardboard panels, canvas, wood & up to 6 ft.’[4]

The painting clearly signals the artist’s use of geometry as an initial compositional tool and her subsequent improvisation from it. Various pencil lines remain visible through the paint and these may be associated with particular geometrical proportions. For example, one can see a horizontal line that divides the board in half, two verticals 2/7 and 4/7 of the way along from the left hand edge and diagonals which radiate from the top and bottom left hand corners. The horizon-like black line is exactly a quarter of the way down the painting and another, in the top left hand corner, which gives a sense of depth and perhaps suggests a view out to sea, marks 1/8 of the height. The Golden Section of the horizontal dimension is marked in pencil and provides the right hand edge of the semi-circular form at the bottom. The flaring out of the left-hand side of this element demonstrates the ad hoc way in which the artist used the geometrical design. The linear pattern provided a structure within which she painted, but it is clear that she did so casually, as the edges of the areas of paint often diverge from the pencil lines. This can be seen in the distortion of the curved form in the top right hand corner and in various other discrepancies between pencil lines and the paint.

The whole composition was painted over the pencil design using only black and white paint with some scumbling, the brushmarks being clearly visible in several places. The black is soluble in water, rendering the picture surface vulnerable.[5] In keeping with her established practice, the paint was also scraped and abraded to provide a varied surface texture and a greater degree of luminosity, enhancing the visibility of the pencil marking beneath. The board was glued to a secondary hardboard support with the rough face to the front. The fact that the light grey paint of this secondary board continues on to the edges of the main support shows that it was painted afterwards. The mounting board is slightly convex to the face and at one time the adhesion between the two boards failed and was rejoined in 1977.[6]

The use of geometry was characteristic of the work of a group of artists, led by Victor Pasmore, which congregated in a number of small exhibitions and publications between 1951 and 1955.[7] The group was first constituted as a distinct section of the London Group exhibition in February 1951 and was established in the exhibition Abstract Paintings, Sculptures and Mobiles, organised by Adrian Heath for the Artists International Association (AIA) the following May. Barns-Graham’s link to the group was secured by the inclusion of one of her small glacier painting in the latter.[8] The group’s advent reflected a desire for an art descended from the constructivism of the 1930s and this genealogy was acknowledged by the inclusion of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in the exhibitions. It was, perhaps, Barns-Graham’s association with Nicholson that secured her position and she was accompanied by other St Ives artists, notably Terry Frost.

She was selected by Anthony Hill for the important British Abstract Art exhibition at Gimpel Fils in August 1952, but was not included in the subsequent exhibitions held at Heath’s Charlotte Street studio in 1952 and 1953. This might be a reflection of a growing split between those artists, like Barns-Graham, who continued to draw upon external sources and others whose commitment to non-figuration led them increasingly towards the production of reliefs and constructions in modern, ‘non-art’ materials. The division was articulated by Lawrence Alloway in the group’s major publication, Nine Abstract Artists (London 1954). The critic made the acerbic observation that, in contrast to such artists as Pasmore, Hill and Kenneth Martin, ‘In St Ives they combine non-figurative theory with the practice of abstraction because the landscape is so nice nobody can quite bring themselves to leave it out of their art’.[9] Though such criticism could clearly have applied to her, Barns-Graham nevertheless maintained contact with this non-figurative group and later showed alongside Pasmore and others in Leeds, where she lived and taught from 1956 to 1957.

The distinction between abstraction and non-figuration was, in fact, vague. The use of geometry as a starting point for a painting associated, in some way, with nature or natural form was an aspect of much art made in St Ives and particularly of the work of those artists influenced by Nicholson and Naum Gabo. It was favoured by John Wells - a close colleague of Barns-Graham - who preferred especially compositions based on the Golden Section and divisions into sevenths, both of which Barns-Graham used in this painting. The use of the Golden Section, a proportional formula used since ancient times, associated the geometry with both tradition and nature, for its recurrence in natural forms has caused it to be called ‘the ratio of growth’.[10]

However, Barns-Graham’s use of a structural framework in works such as this is, perhaps, less comparable with Wells’s painting than with Terry Frost’s. Influenced by Pasmore, Frost also used the Golden Section and other formulae to produce, most famously, a body of works based on the patterns and movements observed in St Ives harbour. These included Walk Along the Quay 1950 (private collection on loan to Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield), which can be seen beside Barns-Graham’s glacier painting at the 1951 AIA exhibition,[11] and Black and White Movement 1952 (Tate Gallery T06607). Though the semi-circles and arcs of these paintings were said to be based on the movement of boats in the harbour, they were also conceived geometrically, an arc being ‘dropped’ from a straight line. One can see Barns-Graham pursuing a similar practice in the top right-hand corner of Composition February I. The non-figurative qualities of the picture are enhanced and emphasised over its original source or any sense of allusion by the minimal palette. In this it is, again, comparable with Frost’s Black and White Movement and with the austere monochrome abstracts of William Scott and Roger Hilton of 1952-3. A precedent for all of them could be found in the black and white paintings produced by Picasso during the 1940s and early 1950s.

Nevertheless, it is typical of St Ives art that the external source for the forms of these works has been given priority. While Frost related the curve to the rocking boats of the harbour, Barns-Graham saw its origin in the view of St Ives Bay.[12] In another painting by the artist, visible in a photograph of her studio c.1953, the same form was defined by the intersection of the horizon with the curving form of a bay or cove.[13] This reading was confirmed by the artist as she acknowledged the shape as part of a common vocabulary among St Ives painters. She said:

there’s no escape being in a place like this with that light and aerial views. You get these enormous curves of the bay, and the stones relating to them, and so this curve or half-moon shape crops up in all our work. Johnny [Wells]’s work, my work, Terry [Frost]’s work ... the bird’s eye view of the landscape, you are part and parcel of these shapes.[14]

Thus the most apparently abstract of forms was seen to derive from the natural environment in a manner which recalled Naum Gabo’s discussion of his sources. Writing in wartime St Ives, when Barns-Graham was in contact with him, Gabo said his shapes might come from ‘the bends of waves on the sea ... [or] a falling star, cleaving the dark, trac[ing] the breath of night on my window glass’.[15] So, in defiance of the common distinction between constructivism and romanticism, this work by Barns-Graham typifies Gabo’s legacy in Britain in its fusion of formal abstraction with such lyrical sources. The artist has seen such works in dualistic terms:

I turn my back on the experience and return to painting in the abstract, where there is a meeting point of abstracted ideas. This swing between outward observation and inward perception, or vice versa, has always increased my awareness. I suppose I am what Winifred Nicholson called ‘the looking in – looking out’ kind of artist.[16]

Chris Stephens

November 1998

[1] Interview with the author, 5 May 1998
[2] Reproduced in W. Barns-Graham: Retrospective 1940-89, exhibition catalogue, City of Edinburgh Museums and Art Galleries, 1989, p.29, no.29
[3] St Ives: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, Tate Gallery, London 1985, p.31, dimensions not given
[4] Letter to the author, 9 November 1998
[5] Tate Gallery conservation files
[6] Ibid.
[7] See Alastair Grieve, ‘Towards an art of environment: exhibitions and publications by a group of avant-garde abstract artists in London c.1951-5’, Burlington Magazine, vol.132, no.1052, Nov. 1990, pp.773-81
[8] See installation photograph reproduced ibid., p.775
[9] Lawrence Alloway, ‘Introduction’ to Nine Abstract Artists: Their Work and Theory, London 1954, p.12
[10] Matthew Rowe, John Wells: The Fragile Cell, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery St Ives, 1998, p.13
[11] Walk Along the Quay 1950, reproduced in David Lewis (ed.), Terry Frost, Aldershot 1994, p.47 (colour), installation shot see note
[12] Interview with David Lewis and Sarah Fox-Pitt, 14 April 1981, Tate Gallery Archive TAV 250AB
[13] Visible in photograph reproduced in David Brown (ed.), St Ives: Twenty-Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1985, p.115
[14] Interview with Lewis and Fox-Pitt, 14 April 1981
[15] ‘An Exchange of Letters Between Naum Gabo and Herbert Read’, Horizon, vol.10, no.53, July 1944, p.58
[16] ‘Collected Thoughts’ in W. Barns-Graham: Retrospective 1940-89, exhibition catalogue, City of Edinburgh Museums and Art Galleries, 1989, p.12

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