Although hidden away above the Central Library, Graves Gallery is in fact one of the strongest collections of 20th century British art to be found outside London. In the collection displays devoted to showcasing this work, a section charts the role of landscape in the 20th century. One of the most striking works usually to be found here is a painting entitled Glacier Painting (Green and Brown) from 1951 by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, a Scottish-born artist who came to be associated with the group which gathered in and around St Ives during the wartime and postwar periods. Less well known both during her lifetime and posthumously than her male colleagues, who included the likes of Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost, in Graves’s new exhibition Barns-Graham is given the space and opportunity to be reassessed in her own right, with her Glacier Painting forming one of the central works of the exhibition.
The precariousness of Barns-Graham’s position on the edge of a predominantly male-dominated group yet always remaining a ‘lone wolf’, as she would call herself, is highlighted in a photographic portrait included in the first room of the exhibition. Here Barns-Graham is portrayed standing up in her studio amongst a group of men, including Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter and Sven Berlin. Though she is given central prominence, standing rather than sitting as the others, the photograph nonetheless inscribes her specific difference to her male colleagues. The men photographed were members of the ‘Crypt’ Group (so-called because their exhibitions took place in the crypt of the St Ives Mariners’ Church), the first group of ‘moderns’ to break away from the more traditional St Ives Society of Artists. Of the three Crypt Group exhibitions held between 1946 and 1948, Barns-Graham was the only woman to be included; in a letter to her aunt of 1947, she wrote that she had been ‘invited to exhibit with five men’. Although initially she would delight as being ‘one of the boys’ she later came to realise ’they didn’t like competition from a woman... all along they had been going behind my back’.
Nonetheless part of Barns-Graham’s decision to relocate to St Ives was to dedicate herself to art away from her Scottish gentry upbringing, where making a respectable marriage was still the eventual expectation. She arrived in St Ives in 1940, where Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo had also retreated the previous year on the outbreak of war. With her Edinburgh friend, the artist Margaret Mellis, having also recently moved there with her husband Adrian Stokes, the art critic, Barns-Graham quickly became assimilated into a community of abstract art. This experience would have an important impact on shaping her work to come.