WILHELMINA BARNS-GRAHAM – St Andrews and St Ives and Mrs Rogers

Below is a favourite diary entry by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham dated Oct 30th 1945. We have transcribed this with the permsission of the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust in light of the current exhibition we are holding (which ties in with the exhibition at Penlee House, Penzance 10 September – 19 November 2016, titled Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: A Scottish Artist in St Ives and the St Ives September Festival 2016. 

This entry is very relevant to us as the portrait of Mrs Rogers hangs in our exhibition and many in the town have come to see her. It is striking on many levels and the entry below alludes to this.

Mrs Rogers / The Sloop

I am painting in the Sloop. This is a job. The light is poor and time limited. 2.45-4pm. I hope to keep this a decorative composition. On a different colour scheme to my recent paintings using:

Aureole Yellow
Alizarin Crimson
Viridian Green

She is a handsome clear-cut woman with most distinctive hair dressing and a charming attractive personality. Tall and angular. With a sensuous mouth yet almost hard faced. Something of the Duchess of Windsor style. So she had often been told and I can see it.

Mrs Rogers gives me tea after upstairs in a tiny well furnished room obviously the larder. A wonderful orange russet thick carpet and when the light is on it, oh!

barnsgraham_portraitofmrsrodgers_sloopinn_c1945_belgravePortrait of Mrs Rogers – Sloop Inn c1945
75 x 63 cms; Oil on canvas
Provenance: The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

Janet Axten of St Ives Archive held a talk during the festival where more entries were read. The audience throughly enjoyed this way of looking at the artist and we heard some wonderful stories recounted in the week.

September 13th ST IVES ARTS CLUB, Westcott’s Quay 1 – 2.15pm
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in her own words 
The Scottish artist who came to St Ives in 1940 was a constant letter writer and kept a diary of her early life in the town. Janet Axten, Heritage Manager, St Ives Archive, reads excerpts from these papers. They give a vivid insight into wartime life and the artists that she met. Supported by The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust. (This replaces the programme entry ‘Talk: In Search of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’ by Lynne Green)

Ffiona Lewis – Tide Lines but also flowers

Ffiona is currently holding her fifth solo exhibition with the gallery. For this showing, the artist has focused on broadly maritime themes that sit particularly well with the gallery’s St Ives location, however she still harnesses the still life and deals with flowers such as in ‘Hemlock Chalice’ below.

It’s interesting to re-visit the catalogue essay from the last show when looking at this work.

On the Table: Collage and Painting

‘It is working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? Since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall, and grind through it slowly and patiently.’ (Van Gogh, letter to Theo.) In Ffiona Lewis’s show, a slow and patient process is revealed. She has always been a maker of cards, whether birthday or thank you offerings. This has been a major starting point for this body of predominantly interior still lifes. Both worlds share their socialness, their tributes to friendship and events around tables.

The starting blocks are small collages (‘Single Bloom’), manageable, and very importantly, quick to finish. Lewis’s familiar vocabulary is here glued down at the table. Flower shapes, receipts, napkins, sugar in paper sachets – all testimony to things that have happened, arranged into a series of planes, edges and colours with the inherent surprises and enrichment of the collage process.

In tandem with the collages, Lewis remains deeply influenced by her long exploration of flowers. Like other work ‘on the table’, these bouquet offerings are not nature studies, but memories of events and circumstances. Nature is then a springboard into colour. ‘New Rose Cuttings’, with its lustrous red blooms and dark raw umber and olive greens becomes its own investigation, transforming nature’s colour balance into oil paint on board. A quick glance at the work on show might suggest a fork – flower paintings, which retain Lewis’s strong figuration, and the series of apparently more abstract work, clearly related to her collages.

This would be an oversimplification. In ‘Still Life with Broad Bean’, Lewis shows the intimacy of a small table, its cloth and a series of abstracted planes which we can imagine as the leftovers of some event. The work is then anchored by the beans, which we can identify, slightly preposterous, slightly humorous, testaments to something remembered.

‘Glass on Nappery, Indian Yellow’ is not seen by Lewis as an abstraction. It is evidence of a new relationship with colour, mined from the collage and flower paintings. Paint is applied in blocks, but then scraped back in a series of edits to reveal under-painting of lime greens and turquoise blues.

These bigger paintings are informed by the smaller oil studies, back and forth. The balances Lewis sees in nature must be worked out. A plane of white goblet in ‘Still Life – Café 6!’ must be restrained with the tone of its context. It is a work of establishing foregrounds and avoiding ‘splintering’ the composition’s unity.

For Lewis, ‘On the Table’ is not a series of compositions. It is her latest report on the slow and patient process Van Gogh describes. It is a theatre of conversations around the stage of the table, as well as a series of spatial concoctions. For the viewer, it is the product of a discipline of finishing.

CNK, August 2014.

Our first summer 2016 exhibition


In her first solo exhibition for Belgrave St Ives ‘About Home’ Jessica Cooper explored repeated journeys made between her home in the far west of Cornwall and St Ives as a metaphor for life; evoking memories of childhood in a small hamlet, just off the coast road linking St Ives to Cape Cornwall, whilst also conjuring images of domestic objects and family rituals tied together by the thread of her journey through time and place.

This new exhibition has taken shape in the context of a number of trips made to Los Angeles, California and considers her art practice and personal philosophy with reference to her experience of home in West Penwith in relation to her recent encounters with America’s own west coast.

The working title for this exhibition was initially ‘Caught Between Two Places’ which remains the title of one of the key works in the show and captures the essence of a duality that underpins the new works. Many of the paintings – although distinctly individual pieces – were conceived as pairs and as such the gallery has presented these works in twos, both in the catalogue and in the gallery installation. By showing the work in this way the observer is allowed an insight into the tensions that inform each realised piece as an individual work and also in comparison with its companion.

For example, the relative opulence implied by ‘Fig + Chocolate’ and perhaps implicated in the seeming glitz of ‘LA’ life is presented alongside the relative austerity of ‘Spinach + Water’ which possibly corresponds more closely to casual perceptions of the sparseness of West Penwith. In these particular paintings, as in all of the artist’s work, the tensions extend beyond considerations of object and place into the artist’s practice (colour versus no colour, restraint versus abandon etc) and on into life itself (groundedness versus restlessness, concealment versus honesty etc).

Perceived stereotypically as a place of artificial glamour, densely populated and congested, Jessica’s visits to LA have revealed compelling similarities to West Cornwall with which she can readily relate. Beyond the city itself wider Los Angeles County is a ‘hard’ place; an environment of mountain, sea and desert and her home in West Penwith is similarly hard; a place of cliffs, sea and moorland. Feeling lost in a new environment to which one is a comparative stranger can lead to feelings of loneliness which in their own way can lead almost perversely to a new sense of freedom. This freedom reveals itself in the new body of work which the artist sees as transitional.

Richard Blackborow, May 2016



Kate Nicholson

We are ready for our Easter exhibition, a perfect start to Spring, ‘Kate Nicholson – Cumbria and St Ives’

Kate, the daughter of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, has lived for a large part of her life quietly in Cornwall, well away from public attention. However, she exhibited in many exhibitions from the 1950s to the 1980s including one-person shows at the Waddington Galleries and Marjorie Parr Gallery (both London) and LYC Museum and Art Gallery, Cumbria. Her work was also included in the landmark exhibition ‘St.Ives 1939-64; Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery’, at Tate Gallery, London in 1885.

Kate Nicholson is represented in several public collections, among them: Arts Council Collection, University of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, Kettles Yard, Pallant House and Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery.

A catalogue is available on request. An essay from our 2013 exhibition is online as the catalogue from that show is now out of print.

The back gallery.






A view of the front gallery as we carry out the finishing touches to the back. More images to come as we celebrate the start of Spring with our private view tomorrow evening.


The front gallery




First visitors arriving at PV






Kate Nicholson

The below essay was written for our Kate Nicholson solo exhibition in 2013.

Here is an inspired flow of words that could be applied directly to Kate Nicholson’s paintings:

“. . . the rhythms, the variety, the weights, the aerial delight and certitude – as free as swallow’s flight – no correction – no cloying sweetness . . . . “

This was written by a potter about the “linear brushwork” decorating an ancient Chinese stoneware jar. The potter was Bernard Leach. Kate knew him at St Ives, and surely listened intently to him. His eloquent words touch on the intuitive naturalness, the freshness, of her works no less than the pot they describe.

In the striking photograph by Pamela Chandler of Kate in her St Ives studio, beautiful pots gather on her large table. Pottery has been an emphatic inspiration for her, clearly, both in form and decoration. On the wall behind her is one of her own paintings. It is next to a white relief by Ben Nicholson, her father, and a hanging scroll or banner decorated with Eastern calligraphy. The meaning of this calligraphy would seem to lie in image and gesture, in movement and deftness quite as much as in language. In her abstract paintings Kate adopts and invents her own swift forms of “calligraphy.” They speak for themselves in colour and brush-sweep. They seem to have leapt into existence with sudden energy and “certitude” out of some kind of deep contemplation. “Nonchalance” Leach also wrote, “is a good word to describe the way the Koreans and other craftsmen of the East approach their work” He quickly added that nonchalance is by no means the same as sloppiness. “. . . nonchalance and care are both present. It all depends on the spirit in which the work is done.” Again he could be speaking of Kate’s paintings. She, like Leach, tried to bring East and West together, exploring ways of balancing the West’s mechanistic culture and personality-worship by an Eastern kind of craftsman’s humility.

I first encountered her paintings years ago when Kate invited me down to St Ives. She persuasively suggested that as a very new writer-about-art something would be lacking if I had never been at least temporarily immersed in the St Ives atmosphere – clearly for her a centre of the art universe. She introduced me to several luminaries, including Bernard Leach. I could see that Kate held him in high regard. What was precisely said on that visit I do not really recall, but I do remember feeling his presence and his “certitude” while sipping a delicate green tea. Here, I realised, were certain depths of thought and experience I had not been aware of before.

But today when looking at Kate’s paintings, on very welcome display in Belgrave St Ives, past history is not what comes to mind. These paintings express nowness. They seem recent and new. The immediacy of a quick, vital swirl or curl, wave, ripple, flick, loop or upswing, is something sharply and swiftly in the present. These “aerial delights” occur on the picture plain, or in some imagined space between the viewer’s eyes and the canvas surface. There often are movements and colours interplaying and interweaving behind this prominent frontal happening. But all this movement has nothing to do with conventional linear perspective. Nor is it simply a descriptive foreground and background. It is – without being “kinetic art” that actually moves – a liberated free flight.

In a letter to Kate, the painter Winifred Nicholson, her mother, talked about the “gulf” of air between the very near (perhaps flowers on a windowsill) and very far (horizon or hill) that greatly engaged her attention. She suggested, however, that Kate might not see it that way. I believe that Kate didn’t see it that way. Her work seems more a matter of near and nearer, rather than a contrast of very near and very far. As her work became more abstract, the energy and content of her paintings were less and less restricted by a recognizable subject. Their theme is increasingly the direct encounter of brush with canvas, of paint and gesture. “Gesture” might be an ambiguous word here if it suggests some sort of theatricality, a performance act rather than an authentic experience. Kate was certainly aware of such apparently playful artists as Miro and Klee, and of “action painting” or “abstract expressionism.” Her time as a student of Bath Academy of Art, taught by William Scott, would have made her fully aware of such things. She was particularly struck by the work of Mark Tobey, another artist bringing together Eastern and Western culture. But she found her own individual means of discovery.

There is playfulness in her work, a hop-skip-and-a-jump quality, but it is not showing off and it is not naïve. Nor does it carry sinister or surreal undertones. This sense of light-hearted play may have been inherited to some extent from Ben Nicholson, who on at least one recorded occasion joined in with the very young Kate and her older brother Jake, playing a game that involved rolling a ball around one of his reliefs. “Fun” was a very allowable part of making art, however serious that art may be. The titles attached to her paintings have a poetry and humour that hint at this lightness of touch. These titles are not really frivolous or naïve, but have a kind of innocence: “Spring Frolic” and “Snatched in Short Eddies” in this exhibition join such earlier titles like “Fancy Free” and “Skip and a Twist” and “Hay Diddle Diddle.”

“Liquid Sky” is another title that perfectly conveys one aspect of her work which connects the earlier, comparatively realistic paintings in this show with the later, more abstract ones. In these early landscapes, she is without question a wonderful and exciting painter of skies. She relishes the ever-moving changes of cloud and light. Her skies are not looming or ominous; they are filled with obvious delight as if she is saying “Here is a realm where the very act of painting is set at liberty, where observation and imagination can mingle in a free cosmic dance.”

When her images have been most successful – like the marvellous “Sun Dance” in this exhibition – Kate Nicholson has managed to invest her paintings with a remarkable balancing act. On one hand they seem evanescent and elusive. On the other they have bold strength and distinct permanence. The originality of her achievement deserves far greater recognition.

Christopher Andreae April 2013
Catalogue Kate Nicholson Painting from the Artist’s Studio
First published in 2013 by Belgrave St Ives