The collection reflects a deep-set connection and respect between both artists, one that would prove a source of inspiration for Barns-Graham with some of Adams forms mirroring ideas she explored within her own work.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham acquired more works from the sculptor and painter Robert Adams, than any other specific artist, and this does suggest a deep and close friendship and a respect for each other’s art. Both artists were included in the Gimpel Fils British Abstract Art exhibition in 1951, when Adams was exploring a constructivist and abstract vocabulary, and she was moving in that direction. It was during this period in the 1950s that Adams first became associated with the artists of St Ives, having visited the town for a few weeks each summer since at least 1952 when he had been invited by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and David Lewis (her husband), along with his wife Pat to stay with them. They developed into a close-knit foursome, and made regular visits to each other’s homes in Hampstead in London, and St. Ives subsequently.
Barns-Graham made a point of always having Adams’ work on display, and on moving into her new studio at Barnaloft on Porthmeor Beach in St Ives in 1963, the ceramic plate by him was the first thing hung in her new home. This plate (Lot 51) is particularly noteworthy within Adams’ oeuvre in indicating his development to abstract art. Through the 1950s he taught at the Central School of Art and Design in London, coming into contact with Victor Pasmore and artists such as Kenneth Martin and Mary Martin who were pursuing abstract and constructivist ideas in Britain at this point, and it was at this time he loosely joined in the activities of this liked-minded group, remaining allied to them until around 1956. During this period Adams sent both paintings and sculptures to group exhibitions of their work and it is likely that this ceramic could have been among these works, specifically as Pasmore and Kenneth Martin were also known to have made designs for plates, some being exhibited at the Redfern Gallery in May 1952.
The composition of the plate with the white ground broken and juxtaposed with black vertical bars and sharply edged lozenges reflect a more rigorously abstract art than he had considered before, and was reflected in a small group of further prints and collages he produced around 1952, that also resemble the art of Robert Motherwell which Adams had seen in New York and as Alastair Grieve noted must have been one of the earliest examples of the New York School in Britain.
Adams played further with these ideas he had been developing in 2D in Rectangular Bronze Form No. 2 (1953) noted to be one of his earliest works in bronze and shown at his 1953 Gimpel Fils exhibition. A double-sided H-shaped bronze, made of an assortment of rectangular overlapping forms abutting one another with central planes cut away that allowed the viewer to penetrate the work and glimpse elements of the other side. However, each side is not a mirror-image of the other which defies easy interpretation as the edges and faces of the blocks slant and are not aligned to a parallel border. The two rectangular bronze forms developed in 1953 were the starting point for a colossal concrete sculpture exhibited in Holland Park in 1954, and the earliest in a series of eight architectural works, the majority of which were shown in the following one-man exhibition in 1956 at Gimpel Fils, London. Patrick Heron and David Lewis specifically praised his architectonic bronzes from this period with Heron pronouncing them as ‘certainly the most wholly non-figurative sculpture being made by a younger English sculptor today’ (Patrick Heron, Round the London Galleries, The Listener, vol.I.V, no.1407, 16 February 1956, p.256.) and Lewis observing that ‘Adams is alone in Britain in the important field of sculptural development, of sturdy sharp-edged and sharply differentiated geometrical masses which are rhythmically and energetically related in space and in light and shadow.’ (Quoted in Alastair Grieve, The Sculpture of Robert Adams, p.61)
Maquette No.2 For Triangulated Structure No.1, 1960 presents a development in his sculptural approach to a period where he shifted his focus to welded metal sculpture converging on a strong sense of movement created by the juxtaposition of horizontal planes and vertical rods. The maquette was the basis for a large steel sculpture designed for Battersea Park in 1960 and as Adams later commented with these sculptures ‘I am concerned with energy, a physical property inherent in metal. A major aim I would say, is movement, which I seem to get through asymmetry’ (Quoted in Alastair Grieve, The Sculpture of Robert Adams, p.76).
Sphere (1980) by comparison, belonging to Adams last flourishing as an artist, evokes a calmness and stillness contrasting to his work of the early 1960s and focus on movement. Small, rounded with a highly polished surface the ovoid form is suggestive of potential birth, life and completion and most closely echoes the work from the beginning of his career.
This charming and personal collection of works by Robert Adams, works spreading throughout his whole career, reflects a deep-set connection and respect between both artists, one that would prove a source of inspiration for Barns-Graham with some of Adams forms mirroring ideas she explored within her own work such as Ultramarine II (2000) which uses Adams’ Rectangular Bronze Form as direct inspiration. There is no doubt that Barns-Graham understood the significance of Robert Adams and his work in the post-war British sculptural canon and would have been forthright at positioning him at the forefront of this school.
The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Collection was shown alongside our Autumn 2021 edition of the bi-annual MODERN MADE auction at The Mall Galleries in London.