Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Red Form


Wilhelmina Barns-Graham 1912–2004
Oil paint and graphite on hardboard
Frame: 376 × 452 × 55 mm
support: 340 × 419 mm
Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Display caption

Born in St Andrews, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham visited Paris and Rouen as a teenager. She studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art between 1932 and 1936, and in 1940 moved to St Ives in Cornwall, on the recommendation of an artist friend, Margaret Mellis. There she got to know Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach and Naum Gabo. The economy of Gabo's sculptural shapes and the transluency of the modern materials he used had a great impact on her. 'Red Form' was painted in her St Ives studio by Porthmeor beach, and reflects the interest she took at the time in the Golden Section.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham born 1912

Red Form 1954


Oil and pencil on board 340 x 419 (13 3/8 x 16 1/2)

Inscribed on back in pencil over area of grey primer ‘“RED FORM 1954” | W. Barns Graham | 29 gns’ and ‘22’ [circled], top

Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Purchased from the artist by Miss E.M. Hodgkins c.1955

Will Roberts, Bernard Dunstan, W. Barns-Graham, Roland, Browse and Delbanco, London, September-October 1954 (61)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1979, p.31, reproduced
Michael Tooby, Tate St Ives: An Illustrated Companion, London 1993, p.57, reproduced (colour)

This small painting, like Composition February I (Tate Gallery T02237), reveals Barns-Graham’s preference for geometrically generated compositions. This aspect first appeared in her series of glacier paintings, such as Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald (Tate Gallery T00708), and continued until the 1990s when she began to produce looser compositions. Red Form is unusual for its period, however, in the freedom of much of the brushwork.

The main shapes in the composition – the red and white irregular polygons, and the black areas which abut the latter – were established with ruled pencil lines drawn on to the commercial, oil-based white ground in a geometrical pattern. The thinly brushed oil paint (red, white, black and ochre) was applied in broad sweeps and the accidental mixing in of hairs and dust and the fine drying crackle in the red may indicate the speed of the process.[1] Many of the pencil lines remain visible through the paint and in 1998 the artist recalled that this was deliberate.[2] The pattern of lines appears to have been based on the division of the board into regular sections and the generation of diagonals within that grid. For example, the diagonals intersect with the left-hand edge at certain proportional intervals: 1/14, 1/7, 1/4, 1/3, 3/7, 1/2 and so on from the top. So, for example, the four edges of the white area consist of a horizontal one seventh of the way down the board, a vertical one sixth of the way from the left-hand side, a diagonal that runs from one third of the way down that edge to a point two sevenths of the way across from the bottom right-hand corner, and finally a line that rises from one sixth of the way along the bottom edge to the point of the Golden Section of the top edge.

The Golden Section is a geometrical ratio (1:0.618), employed by artists and architects since ancient times, which can be summarised as the division of a line so that the relationship of the shorter part to the longer is the same as that of the longer to the whole. It was used widely by British abstract artists of the 1950s, especially those who constituted the informal group that showed at Adrian Heath’s studio in London’s Charlotte Street. This group, which included Victor Pasmore, Kenneth and Mary Martin and Anthony Hill as well as Heath, had first shown in 1951 at the London Group and later that year, most importantly, in an exhibition, entitled Abstract Paintings, Sculptures, Mobiles, organised by Heath for the Artists International Association. Barns-Graham’s work was included in the latter. She was one of several artists, including Terry Frost, who were associated with that group but based in St Ives in Cornwall. The use of geometrical ratios as the starting point for abstract compositions was also common among artists there, and, as well as Frost, it was particularly preferred by John Wells, whose work is most commonly compared with that of Barns-Graham. Generally, their works were associated with external sources in nature and Barns-Graham characterised such paintings as Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald (Tate Gallery T0708) and Composition February I (Tate Gallery T02237) as ‘abstractions from corroded forms in Nature, affected by sun, wind, water, (sea and rain), clay country in Italy, rock and sand formations in Sicily, Cornwall and Spain’.[3]

Red Form is unusual in this regard in that it did not, according to the artist, derive from a source in nature but was purely concerned with the relationship of colour and proportion.[4] That said, it is possible to identify the allusion to certain external motifs. The artist agreed that the three vertical bands in the lower portion of the painting could be suggestive of a table.[5] One might also see in the forms a reference to two human figures, interacting if not intersecting, especially in the almost symmetrical format of the red shape. An important comparison seems to be with the paintings of Roger Hilton from the same year, such as February 1954 (Tate Gallery T01230). Though Hilton’s forms are much looser, his palette is restricted to red, black and white in a manner comparable to Barns-Graham’s, and his works also have extending forms, suggesting limbs, which have encouraged them to be read as highly abstracted figures. Barns-Graham became friendly with Hilton through her husband David Lewis and the three of them travelled to Paris together in 1954, the year of this work.

The brushwork of this painting is considerably more fluid and gestural than most of her work at that time. This, too, may reflect the specific influence of Hilton, whose simple forms were articulated by the rich texture of his thick oil paint, or, more generally, the artistic climate of the time. By 1954 British artists were well aware of the work of such painters as Jean Dubuffet and Nicolas de Stäel and of the growing phenomenon of Parisian Tachisme and American ‘action painting’.[6] These were encountered in group exhibitions at such commercial London galleries as Gimpel Fils and larger shows like the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ Opposing Forces in 1953. However, the tendency for them to be conflated within a loosely defined gestural abstraction was exemplified by the Redfern Gallery’s exhibition Metavisuel Tachiste Abstract in 1957. Such work was especially associated with St Ives artists, like Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Frost, and precipitated a wider move towards a gestural manner of painting.

Barns-Graham’s recollection that the handling of Red Form reflected an attempt not to be ‘too pure’ may indicate that such a style did not come easily and it was some years before she sustained a looser way of working. This she achieved, in gouache rather than oil paint, in a series of compositions derived from a trip to Spain in 1958[7] and another group known as the Geoff and Scruffy series.[8] The latter were abstract compositions based on a friend sitting with his dog and Barns-Graham recognised a similarity between their forms and colouring and those of Red Form.[9]

The red polygon also invokes, albeit unintentionally, an abstract painting made by Winifred Dacre (the pseudonym of Winifred Nicholson) in 1937: Moonlight and Lamplight 1937 (Tate Gallery T01996). In both paintings a red figure floats against a more loosely worked ground and is set against a contrasting pale form. Barns-Graham was friendly with Nicholson and dedicated a work to her in 1958: Underwater No.1, For Winfred N. (private collection).[10] Nicholson’s painting was informed by her faith in Christian Science and Barns-Graham’s spiritual beliefs, though less dogmatic, may also underlie such works as Red Form. She was raised in a Scottish Presbyterian environment but for ten years, during the 1960s, was a devout Anglican; however, for most of her life Barns-Graham’s spirituality has been more liberal and less rigidly defined. At the time of this work, for example, she occasionally attended Baha’i meetings at Bernard Leach’s pottery in St Ives and had contact with Zen Buddhism, which was the subject of interest for many artists during the 1940s and 1950s in Britain and abroad.[11] While among her circle Bryan Wynter and, especially, Alan Davie engaged with Zen, she indicated her debt to Ben Nicholson’s diluted Christian Science when she said: ‘Ben said to me, “I go to my work like a prayer”, and I do the same thing’.[12]

The ‘22’ inscribed on the back of the support of Red Form probably relates to the collection of works by St Ives artists bequeathed to the Tate Gallery by Ethell Hodgkins. As well as Red Form, the collection consisted of Barns-Graham’s Composition February I (Tate Gallery T02237) and works by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, John Wells, Denis Mitchell, Alexander Mackenzie and Patrick Hayman. All are relatively small, reflecting the domestic environment from which they came. Miss Hodgkins, who lived next door to Nicholson and Hepworth in Headland Road, Carbis Bay, generally bought art works from the Penwith Society of Arts in St Ives. She purchased Composition February I there and Barns-Graham recalled that Red Form had also been shown at the society. However, it is not in the catalogues for the 1954 and 1955 spring and summer exhibitions and the inscription on the back makes it unlikely that it was listed under a different title. Works were sometimes added to replace sold items, though its exhibition in London in September 1954 suggests that it had not been sold by then.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Tate Gallery conservation files
[2] Interview with the author, 5 May 1998
[3] Typescript sent to the Tate Gallery, 2 February 1965
[4] Notes from a conversation with David Brown, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[5] Interview with the author, 5 May 1998
[6] Harold Rosenberg, ‘American Action Painting’, Artnews, vol.51, no.8, 1952
[7] See W. Barns-Graham: Retrospective 1940-89, exhibition catalogue, City of Edinburgh Museums and Art Galleries, 1989, pp.52-4, pls.47-55
[8] See ibid. p.50, pl.46
[9] Notes from a conversation with David Brown, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[10] Reproduced in W. Barns-Graham: Retrospective 1940-89, exhibition catalogue., City of Edinburgh Museums and Art Galleries, 1989, p.50, pl.47
[11] Interview with the author 5 May 1998
[12] Ibid.

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