Artists in St Ives

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

1912 – 2004

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in December 1954, photographed by Adrian Flowers

With the publication of Virginia Button’s recent book on Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, following on Lynne Green’s monograph W. Barns-Graham, A Studio Life, the achievements of this leading post-war abstract artist are now being fully recognised. Although a key member of the St. Ives group, Barns-Graham was unfairly marginalised in the 1985 survey exhibition ‘St. Ives 1939-64: Twenty-five years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery’, held at Tate St. Ives—although two subsequent solo exhibitions of her work at that museum have gone some way towards remedying the oversight. In some ways, as Button points out, in refusing to remain silent on the issue of gender discrimination, Barns-Graham found herself alienated from the largely male cadre of curators, artists and patrons of the period, who felt she was not ‘playing the game’. The frontispiece in Button’s book, a photograph portrait taken by Adrian Flowers in 1955, shows the artist in her studio. During his visit, Flowers also took photographs of her paintings, sculptures and geometric plaster reliefs.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in 1954, photographed by Adrian Flowers

The paintings, including White, Black and Terracotta (1954) are hard-edged abstract compositions, angular, often with interlocking forms. At that time, Barns-Graham was achieving widespread recognition; two years before, the first solo show of her work had been held in London, at the Redfern Gallery. Flowers photographed Barns-Graham and her then husband David Lewis, standing together, but at a slight distance. Having married in 1949, they were a golden couple in the art world, photogenic, stylishly-dressed and very much of the Modernist era, but Flowers’ images also capture a certain awkwardness between them.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and David Lewis in 1954.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Born into a well-off family in St. Andrews, Scotland, Barns-Graham studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, where in addition to conventional studio tuition, where the emphasis was on observational drawing, she attended lectures by Herbert Read, and was tutored by William Gilles, whose modernist abstract works were a great influence. In 1940, after spending some time travelling on the Continent, Barns-Graham settled in St. Ives where she met Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Borlase Smart, Naum Gabo and Bernard Leach, and began to explore abstraction. Although her early work was representational, and she showed with the Newlyn Society and at the Royal Scottish Academy, Barns-Graham quickly became seen as a leading progressive artist, not only for the quality of her work but also in terms of media coverage of the burgeoning art scene in Cornwall. Her marriage in 1948 to Lewis reinforced this celebrity, especially when he became secretary of the Penwith Society.

Tall, good-looking, gregarious and charming, Lewis was ten years younger than Barns-Graham. However, having come to Cornwall from South Africa, he was ambitious and by 1954 was beginning to see St. Ives as a cul-de-sac. The year after these photographs were taken, he and Barns-Graham split up, Lewis eventually settling in Canada, where he became a professor of architecture and urban planning. Their marriage was annulled in 1960. Although these events were a blow to Barns-Graham’s personal self-esteem, the set-back was temporary, and while retiring somewhat from the world, she continued to develop her art. Experimenting with different styles, she maintained an abiding interest in geology, which provided, so to speak, a bed-rock for her creative process. This was not surprising, as it was in Edinburgh that James Hutton in the eighteenth century had pioneered the modern interpretations of rock formation. The Cornish coastline and the beach at Porthmeor were a continuing inspiration to Barns-Graham, but from the 1960’s onwards, she travelled extensively, seeking both artistic inspiration and emotional solace in the harshest of landscapes, including the glaciers of Switzerland (which she had first visited in 1949) and the volcanic terrain of the Canary Islands. While her later paintings are more fluid, with colours mixing and merging, the earlier works tend to be hard-edged and geometric. Some echo the fractures and dislocations of faults in strata, while the use of red, reminiscent of liquid magma, is a recurring feature in her art. Barns-Graham’s use of vibrant colours gives her paintings an emotional kick, while her abstract compositions are hard-won, based on close observation of nature, careful thought and inspiration. In the 1990’s she created a series of energetic and colourful paintings, some with a series she titled ‘Scorpio’. Joyous and colourful, these works have echoes of jazz improvisation, and dance. From 1998, at the Graal Press near Edinburgh, she also explored the medium of screen-printing, working with the press’s founders Carol Robertson and Robert Adams. Although Barns-Graham died in 2004, both her work and her contribution to art are sustained by the Trust set up in her name.

[see Virginia Button Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (Sansom & Company, 2020)]

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

Artists in St Ives Portraits

Michael Snow

1930 – 2012

Michael Seward Snow in December 1963,
photographed by Adrian Flowers

Although a stalwart of the St. Ives art world through the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Michael Seward Snow is today not so well-known as his fellow artists who settled in Cornwall, such as John Wells, Bryan Wynter or Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Yet, with his love of poetry and painting, Snow’s aesthetic embodies the vibrant connection that existed between literature and the visual arts in St. Ives. He was multi-talented; writer, painter, sculptor, tutor and occasional photographer. Snow’s photographs of his friend, the poet William Sydney Graham, are in the National Portrait Gallery. Along with his second wife Margaret Lambert, he edited Night Fisherman: Selected letters of W. S. Graham, a testament to the writer whose work celebrates both the Cornish landscape and the artists inspired by its rocky coastline.
The son of a schoolteacher, Michael Snow was born in Manchester in 1930, and attended the Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, where he developed an interest in art and poetry. He worked for some years as a librarian, painting in his spare time. In 1951, after visiting Liverpool and seeing an exhibition of contemporary art from St. Ives, he and his first wife Sylvia Jarrett, and their friend Alexander Mackenzie, decided to settle in Cornwall. A graduate of Liverpool College of Art, Mackenzie was one of the early influences on Snow’s development as an artist.

Michael Snow. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Largely self-taught, Snow was a generation younger than Terry Frost, Barns-Graham and Ben Nicholson, and was receptive to the new ideas expressed in their work. In his own art, he sought to emulate their approach to abstraction, and in paintings such as Sea Cliffs – West Penwith created a visual translation of the rhythmic motion of waves and the ragged line of Cornish clifftops. Other abstract works, such as Earth Slip and Triad 2, evoke the sea-rounded stones on the shores below those cliffs. He fitted in well with the St. Ives art scene, was elected a member of the Penwith Society in 1953 and became its secretary the following year. A talented artist and a fine colourist, he was more literal in his approach to abstraction than Ben Nicholson or Patrick Heron, and his paintings do not have the same hard-won abstract visual language that characterises the work of Peter Lanyon, but nevertheless he produced fine paintings, with an instinctive sense of form and colour.

Michael Seward Snow and Margaret Lambert on Porthmeor Beach, St Ives 1963
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In 1956, Snow and his wife divorced, with Sylvia then marrying their mutual friend, the poet Robin Skelton. In a neat and amicable reciprocation, Margaret Lambert, Skelton’s partner, then married Snow. The following year Snow and Skelton were in Manchester, where, along with John Anthony Connor, they founded the slightly anarchic Peterloo Group, and held a number of exhibitions, the first being in the large front room of Skelton’s flat. Skelton and his wife Silvia later settled in British Columbia, where he became a university professor, prolific author, and an authority on Irish poetry. Snow and Margaret Lambert returned to St. Ives, where they had a son, Justin. The Peterloo Group proved resilient, evolving from informal beginnings into the Manchester Institute for Contemporary Art.

Mike and Margaret (and Sarah, Adrian’s dog), on the rocks of West Penwith. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Not long after their return to St. Ives, in December 1963, Adrian Flowers visited the town, photographing Snow and Margaret Lambert, walking on the beach below Porthmeor Studios, and along the nearby clifftops. He also recorded the dramatic rock formations of West Penwith and the sea-rounded stones that inspired many of Snow’s paintings.

Back in the studio above Porthmeor Beach, Flowers took a sequence of dramatic photographs, in which Snow laid a canvas flat on the studio floor, and then prepared it for painting. He evidently preferred to work standing above his paintings, using long-handled artist’s brushes. In one sequence, Snow is actively painting: an abstract composition evolves, circular motifs juxtaposed with parallel lines. Climbing up to a roofspace, Flowers photographed the artist from above. Other images record Snow accessing the beach below his studio, by simply climbing out the large window and shinning down a ladder. Adrian’s dog Sarah, a boxer labrador cross, accompanied him and appears in several photographs.

Michael Snow in his studio. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

A later sequence of photographs taken by Flowers, 5 x 4 colour transparencies, depict abstract paintings by Snow, including the canvas Archangel, a work dating from April 1962. There are also photographs (undated), labelled “Mike Snow” showing a large welded metal sculpture, perhaps four metres high. Based on the structure of a leaf, this white-painted sculpture was probably a commission, destined for a public site. [AF 4258]

In 1964 Snow showed at the Rowan Gallery in London and the following year, took a job teaching at the Exeter College of Art and Design, a post he held for two decades. Having access to the college’s sculpture department, and inspired by an interest in cosmology and physics, he decided to make a series of welded metal sculptures. These works, some with metal discs, are not unlike the contemporary sun and moon sculptures of Morris Graves. In 1967, Flowers took large-scale colour transparencies of one of these metal sculptures by Snow. Two similar pieces are in the Box gallery collection in Plymouth, where Snow’s friend Alexander Mackenzie was Head of Fine Art from 1964 to 1984. In later years, the Snows lived on the edge of Dartmoor. Margaret died in 2009; Michael, aged 82, in 2012.

[see Robin Skelton “Retrospect- 4: A Brief Account of the Peterloo Group” in Ambit No. 10 (1961) pp 5-8]

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

Artists in St Ives Portraits

Victor Pasmore

1908 – 1998

Victor Pasmore photographed by Adrian Flowers, April 1955

On 7th January 1956, on the first floor of a house in Blackheath in south London, Adrian Flowers set up his studio lights and large-format Sinar camera, to photograph works by the artist Victor Pasmore. Facing the heath, the three-storey Georgian house was large enough to accommodate both the artist’s studio and family living space. Victor and Wendy Pasmore (née Blood) had moved into this bomb-damaged but elegant house in 1947; their son John was born there in 1953. On this day, and during at least one subsequent visit, using 35mm and 120 film, as well as large-scale colour transparencies, Flowers photographed Pasmore, his studio and artworks.

One transparency shows Pasmore, dark-haired, bearded and wearing a grey suit, seated in an armchair, with three plates on a bookcase behind him. Decorated with bold abstract patterns by the artist, the plates evoke a Japanese aesthetic, as does the accompanying branch of cherry blossom, in a glass vase. [The flowering blossom suggests this photograph was taken in March.] Although a picture rail is visible in some of these photographs, Pasmore subsequently removed this architectural feature, to create more of a white cube. The sitting room was furnished with a white couch, vases on the chimneypiece and louvered shutters outside the windows.

Three weeks after Flowers’ first visit, Pasmore wrote to him from Newcastle, requesting a photograph for a forthcoming article in Art and Architecture magazine. [Victor Pasmore, 46 Eldon Place, Newcastle on Tyne, to Adrian Flowers, 25 Jan 1956 (AF archive)].
By 1956, Pasmore had been head of fine art at Newcastle on Tyne for two years, but commuted regularly back to his Blackheath home and studio. In another Flowers photograph, he looks through a transparent section in one of his abstract reliefs. Suspended from a piano wire, this work cantilevered out from the wall. Behind it is the relief Abstract in White, Black, Indian and Lilac, a work now in the Tate (where it is dated 1957, but may date from the previous year). As the photography progressed, Pasmore hung a selection of Perspex and wood reliefs in different combinations on the sitting room wall.

Victor Pasmore work including Abstract in White, Black, Indian and Lilac 1956.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

The room was on its way to becoming a gesamkunstwerk, with abstract constructions, painted chimneypiece, striped cushions, and hanging mobile sculptures. The furniture is mid-twentieth century Modernist, including what appears to be an early Poang chair, and a wingback armchair. The modernist couch is a Hille design, from Heals. Like Pasmore, Hille’s principal designer, Robin Day, had worked on the 1951 Festival of Britain; his seating in the Royal Festival Hall was a triumph of modernist design.

Victore Pasmore’s studio. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Flowers’ photograph of the studio work table at Blackheath reveals that Pasmore used household enamels to paint his perspex and wood abstract relief constructions, his preferred brand being Enamel-it. According to the label on the tin, this lacquer paint was made ‘from bakelite’. There was also Fergusson’s gloss enamel, some pigments and oil colours, and a tin of Naylor’s cellulose, used as a thinner. The brushes were a mixture of those used by fine artists and house decorators. A sculpture made of wooden spools and discs threaded onto a cord, hung over the studio work table.

Victor Pasmore in January 1956.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In another image, Pasmore is sitting on a metal chair, in front of a fireplace, above which hangs an abstract relief. Other geometric artworks hang on the wall alongside the fireplace. In making these works Pasmore had been influenced by American artist Charles Biederman’s book Letters on the New Art (1951) which advocated the use of industrial materials. The photographs show Pasmore during a period when he was at the peak of his career, a confident artist, thoughtful and reflective.

Other photographs taken by Flowers at a later date, black and white this time, show Pasmore supervising the construction of a temporary exhibition pavilion at the Whitechapel Art Gallery for the exhibition This is Tomorrow in 1956, a collaboration with Helen Phillips and Ernö Goldfinger, in which temporary walls were constructed within the gallery space using a framework of metal tubing and wood, to create an ‘environment’.

Victor Pasmore working on his installation for This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in August 1956. Pasmore was in Group Seven, with Ernö Goldfinger and Helen Phillips.
The foreground of this photograph features a section of the ‘bubble sculpture’ by
Group Eight: James Stirling, Michael Pine, Richard Matthews.
Adrian Heath on the left and Ernö Goldfinger on the right.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Through a lifetime of teaching, designing structures and making art, Victor Pasmore was responsible for leading a wider popular acceptance of Modernist art and architecture in mid-twentieth century Britain. Born in Surrey, he grew up in a middle class household, his mother being a painter, while his father, the medical superintendent at Croydon Mental Hospital, was a keen art collector. Pasmore attended Harrow School, where he was taught by Maurice Clarke and, three years in succession, won the Yates Thompson Prize for art. However the death of his father in 1927 resulted in Pasmore having to secure a job with London County Council. Employed as a clerk in the Public Health Department for ten years, he maintained his art education, taking evening classes at the Central School of Art. Pasmore’s work during this period was sensitive, naturalistic, and inspired by a feeling for nature and respect for artists such as Cézanne and JMW Turner. In 1934 his first exhibition took place, at the Zwemmer Gallery in London. Three years later, along with William Coldstream and Claude Rogers, he founded an independent School of Drawing and Painting at Fitzroy Street. With support and encouragement from the art historian Kenneth Clark and philanthropist Samuel Courtauld, this enterprise later became the Euston Road School. Aided by Clark, Pasmore retired from his job with LCC and became a full-time artist. During the Second World War, Pasmore was a conscientious objector, and with some difficulty succeeded, again with help from Clark and Coldstream, in obtaining exemption from military service. In 1943 he took up a teaching post at Camberwell School of Art, where he taught for six years, and was tutor to Terry Frost. During this time, while living at Chiswick, and later at Hammersmith Terrace, and inspired by Turner’s atmospheric paintings, he produced lyrical views of the river Thames.

In 1948, shortly after moving to the house at Blackheath, Pasmore shifted from painting in a lyrical representational style to one of pure abstraction. He described these works in terms suited to music—as motifs or variations—and was not afraid of what he called ‘arbitrary invention’, although his approach to creativity was in fact highly-skilled and far from arbitrary. A visit to St. Ives in 1950 and meeting with Ben Nicholson were critical to his change in approach, and the following year Pasmore was elected to the Penwith Society of Arts. As with many of his generation, he was idealistic, seeing in art a way towards a better future for society, and actively sought to share his aesthetic feelings with a wider public. In 1950 he was commissioned to create a mural for a bus station in Kingston Upon Thames, and the following year was one of the artists selected by the Arts Council to create works for the Festival of Britain. He also took up a post at the Central School of Art, where he taught for four years. In 1954 Pasmore became head of painting at the Department of Fine Art in Durham University in Newcastle, a position he held for seven years. Teaching at Newcastle provided him with the opportunity of introducing a fine art course modelled on Bauhaus teaching. This course led to a BA degree, one of the earliest in Britain or Ireland. In spite of differing approaches to art, Pasmore and Richard Hamilton worked well together. Pasmore introduced Hamilton into the school as a tutor, and in time the new arrival took over as head of department. Together, these two artists epitomise the best and most progressive art of post-war Britain, creating an energy that in every way matched that of the leading art schools of London. Commissioned to create murals for the Newcastle Civic Centre and Pilkington’s glass works, Pasmore also worked on the Peterlee development, designing a monumental Modernist concrete structure for the new town centre. In 1959, he was selected for Documenta II and two years later represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. He was also appointed a Trustee of the Tate Gallery. In 1966 Pasmore bought a house in Malta, and over the following years, until his death, spent much of his time there. His son John kept on the house at Blackheath, with the studio and other rooms virtually unchanged since the January day in 1956 when Adrian Flowers recorded his first images of Pasmore on film.

Victor Pasmore in April 1965, photograph by Adrian Flowers

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©