Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE HRSA HRSW

WBG at Art First, London, 2000.<br/>Photo: Simon Norfolk

WBG at Art First, London, 2000.
Photo: Simon Norfolk

Early Life

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, known as Willie, painter, printmaker and draughtsman, was born in St Andrews, Fife on 8 June 1912, the eldest child of Allan Barns-Graham and his wife Wilhelmina Meldrum, of an old landed family in Stirlingshire and Fife.  It was a family already old-fashioned in its formality, even austerity; religious, quietly philanthropic but not given to showing emotion.  Though secure in their status the Barns-Graham family was far from rich.

This was not a background conducive to art.  Willie showed very early signs of creative ability which could safely be dismissed by her parents as mere diversions of childhood. But the sensations of artistry were too deeply imprinted to go away. By the time she was a senior pupil at St Hilda’s School in Edinburgh, Willie’s determination to become an artist had set as hard as her father’s determination she should not.  With the support of an aunt, the dispute was resolved in her favour, but it exacted a toll on both parties.  Allan Barns-Graham did not reject his daughter but it was again her aunt who negotiated with him that Willie could attend the Edinburgh College of Art.

Edinburgh College of Art

Barns-Graham attended the College from October 1931 and finally graduated, after setbacks caused by illness, in 1937.  The connection with the College did not end with graduation.  Barns-Graham was awarded her first scholarship in June 1935, and further awards in each of the following five years.  Thus intermittently continuing study at the College until 1939, she also exhibited at the Summer Exhibitions of the RSA until 1945.  This does not imply a parochial background.  She and her friends such as William Gear and Margaret Mellis were acquainted with modern art in both London and Paris in the 1930s.  The Principal of the College since 1932, Hubert Wellington, was aware that some of the most advanced talents in Britain had gathered at St Ives in Cornwall for the duration of the War.  In 1940 both the war situation and Barns-Graham’s poor health suggested to him that this would be a suitable refuge for her, and she arrived in St Ives in March 1940.

 

WBG painting at her easel. The  painting in progress, Edinburgh Interior, exists in the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust’s collection (BGT328). WBG Alva St Studio Edinburgh 1937.
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WBG painting at her easel. The painting in progress, Edinburgh Interior, exists in the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust’s collection (BGT328). WBG Alva St Studio Edinburgh 1937.
No.1 Porthmeor Studio, St Ives, 1947
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No.1 Porthmeor Studio, St Ives, 1947
WBG with 'Rock Form', 1954. The Rock Form images comprise an important series of paintings of the early/mid 1950s. The version shown is one of the largest. Photo: Western Morning News.
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WBG with 'Rock Form', 1954. The Rock Form images comprise an important series of paintings of the early/mid 1950s. The version shown is one of the largest. Photo: Western Morning News.

St Ives Beginnings

From that date Barns-Graham’s history is bound up with the School of St Ives, where she retained a studio until her death. Through Margaret Mellis and her husband, Adrian Stokes, who were already there, she was early introduced to Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, leaders of the modern artists.  She got to know the ‘primitive’ Alfred Wallis and the autodidakt Sven Berlin.  Barns-Graham’s concerns with precise drawing and ordering of shapes and colour were confirmed by these experiences.  Nicholson liked her drawing and while she learned from him the relationship was not one-sided.  The group of painters now known as the St Ives School began to form only after the end of the war, with Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton all living or staying frequently in St Ives. With their arrival as young men determined to make careers and exploit a new atmosphere favourable to modernism, the St Ives scene became competitive.  As they strove to establish their names and dealerships in London or abroad, Barns-Graham began to feel that she was being side-lined.  

Another visitor to St Ives in 1947 was an aspiring young poet, David Lewis.  They met and despite an age difference of about ten years, were married in 1949.  The next ten years saw the full development of Barns-Graham’s powers as a modern painter. It was, in general terms, in line with that of St Ives School, starting with abstractions based firmly on perception, as in her Glacier paintings of the early 50s, and moving to a free and intensely personal use of the brush. These were also years when Barns-Graham and her husband travelled widely, met other modern artists in Paris and toured in Italy.  It was not to last. In 1956 David Lewis enrolled in the School of Architecture at Leeds.  Accompanying him, Barns-Graham taught for a session at Leeds School of Art.  She did not return for the next session and her separation from Lewis became permanent.  They were divorced in 1963.

 

WBG sketching from a vantage point above Porthgwidden 1950s. Photo: Central Office of Information, London  (COI)
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WBG sketching from a vantage point above Porthgwidden 1950s. Photo: Central Office of Information, London (COI)
WBG at work in her studio. Porthmeor Studios 1947.
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WBG at work in her studio. Porthmeor Studios 1947.
WBG working on Progression, 1966. WBG painting in her St Ives studio. The painting is in the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust collection (BGT473). Photo: Ander Gunn.
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WBG working on Progression, 1966. WBG painting in her St Ives studio. The painting is in the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust collection (BGT473). Photo: Ander Gunn.

Mid Career

In 1960 Barns-Graham inherited from her aunt, Mary Neish, a family house, Balmungo, near St Andrews, initiating a new phase in her life.  She now began to divide her time between St Ives and St Andrews.  For the time being the result was loss of recognition in St Ives with a questionable gain in Scotland or in London. Her work did not falter but it changed direction, now employing hard-edged geometric and linear forms. Her capacity to make them serve the purpose of expression was unique.  Never static, her forms are always in motion across the surface.  These remained the basis of her work for the next two decades. Barns-Graham was not really short of exposure in the 60s and 70s but felt she had lost the commercial edge to other St Ives painters.  The memory of the jockeying for advantage in St Ives remained a bitter one all her life.  This seemed to be confirmed in 1985 when the Tate Gallery organised a large exhibition St Ives 1939 – 64 showing only three works by Barns-Graham against twenty, for example, by Roger Hilton.  However, the event did mark the beginning of a revival in her spirits and fortunes, continued by the retrospective in 1989 at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, and at Penzance.

The Last Years

The last phase of her work was just beginning.  From about 1988 to her death there was an outpouring of triumphant and beautiful work employing the full resources, of line, colour, shape and calligraphic brushwork, employed with all the brio and freedom, of a vastly experienced painter. She added to her repertory the screen prints which introduced the joyfulness of her work to a new market.   Wilhelmina Barns-Graham died on 26 January 2004, deeply mourned and honoured; she was made CBE in 2001. She also lived to see published in 2001 the first full biography, by Lynne Green, a revelation to all who open it, which showed for the first time how tightly woven into the fabric of modern art in Britain and abroad was this remarkable woman.  By her Will, Barns-Graham set up a charitable trust for the better preservation of her artistic legacy, and to provide bursaries for art students such as she herself received in youth.

Douglas Hall

Portraits of Wilhelmina

WBG drawing on beach, Fife, 1982. WBG regularly visited the beaches around St Andrews. The photograph was taken on St Andrews’ East Sands, which was the source behind one of WBG’s most popular images Eight Lines (etched in two editions in 1996 and 2001). Photo: Antonia Reeve.<br/>
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WBG drawing on beach, Fife, 1982. WBG regularly visited the beaches around St Andrews. The photograph was taken on St Andrews’ East Sands, which was the source behind one of WBG’s most popular images Eight Lines (etched in two editions in 1996 and 2001). Photo: Antonia Reeve.
WBG at Rubbish Dump, 1947. WBG searching the local rubbish dump for ‘hidden colours’. Photo: Central Office of Information, London (COI).
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WBG at Rubbish Dump, 1947. WBG searching the local rubbish dump for ‘hidden colours’. Photo: Central Office of Information, London (COI).
At Buckingham Palace receiving CBE, 2001. Photo: Geoffrey Bertram.
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At Buckingham Palace receiving CBE, 2001. Photo: Geoffrey Bertram.
A Meeting of the Crypt Group 1947. Left to right – Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter (hidden), Sven Berlin, WBG, John Wells and Guido Morris. Photo: Central Office of Information, London (COI).
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A Meeting of the Crypt Group 1947. Left to right – Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter (hidden), Sven Berlin, WBG, John Wells and Guido Morris. Photo: Central Office of Information, London (COI).
Balmungo, 1992. WBG working in her studio at Balmungo House, St Andrews. The painting is unidentified. Photo: Laura Graham.
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Balmungo, 1992. WBG working in her studio at Balmungo House, St Andrews. The painting is unidentified. Photo: Laura Graham.
Barnaloft Studio, 1985. WBG working on an oil painting Summer Painting No.2 which is in the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust collection (BGT463). Photo: David Crane.
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Barnaloft Studio, 1985. WBG working on an oil painting Summer Painting No.2 which is in the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust collection (BGT463). Photo: David Crane.
WBG Portrait, 1990s. Photographed in the studio set against an unfinished work on canvas. Photo: Rowan James.
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WBG Portrait, 1990s. Photographed in the studio set against an unfinished work on canvas. Photo: Rowan James.
No.1 Porthmeor Studio, St Ives 1947. WBG at her easel.
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No.1 Porthmeor Studio, St Ives 1947. WBG at her easel.
WBG at Art First, 2000. The shot was taken in the front gallery of Art First, London. Her screenprint Another Time hangs on the wall behind. Photo: Simon Norfolk
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WBG at Art First, 2000. The shot was taken in the front gallery of Art First, London. Her screenprint Another Time hangs on the wall behind. Photo: Simon Norfolk
WBG in Italy, 1955, on the Italian Government Travel Award. Photo: David Lewis.
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WBG in Italy, 1955, on the Italian Government Travel Award. Photo: David Lewis.
Grindelwald Glacier, Switzerland 1949. WBG (second from the left) with the Brotherton Family and local guide. Photo: P.N. Brotherton.
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Grindelwald Glacier, Switzerland 1949. WBG (second from the left) with the Brotherton Family and local guide. Photo: P.N. Brotherton.
WBG with Prof Martin Kemp on receiving honorary PhD St Andrews 1992. Photo: Peter Adams.
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WBG with Prof Martin Kemp on receiving honorary PhD St Andrews 1992. Photo: Peter Adams.
WBG at Tate St Ives 1993<br/>Photo: Anne Purkiss
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WBG at Tate St Ives 1993
Photo: Anne Purkiss
WBG in her Living Room overlooking Porthmeor Beach, St Ives  1993<br/>Photo: Anne Purkiss
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WBG in her Living Room overlooking Porthmeor Beach, St Ives 1993
Photo: Anne Purkiss
Portrait of WBG  1993<br/>Photo: Anne Purkiss
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Portrait of WBG 1993
Photo: Anne Purkiss

Works in Public and Corporate Collections

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s art has been acquired by public and corporate collections throughout the UK as well as internationally.  Collections include:

  • Aberdeen Art Gallery

  • Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal

  • Art in Healthcare, Scotland

  • Arts Council of Great Britain, London

  • Bank of Scotland Collection, London

  • Baring Brothers & Co.

  • Birmingham City Museum & Art Gallery

  • British Council, London

  • British Museum, London

  • Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London

  • Contemporary Art Society, London

  • Cornwall Education Committee

  • Cornwall, Truro School Collection

  • Department of the Environment, London

  • Deutsche Bank AG

  • Diamond Trading Co.

  • Dumfries & Galloway Council

  • Dundee Museum and Art Gallery

  • Edinburgh City Art Centre

  • Edinburgh College of Art

  • Falmouth Art Gallery

  • Falmouth University

  • Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

  • Government Art Collection

  • Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries

  • Hawick Museum

  • Hertfordshire Education Authority

  • Highland Regional Council

  • Hocken Library, University of Otago, New Zealand

  • Hove Museum and Art Gallery

  • Isle of Man Arts Council

  • Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

  • Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museums, Glasgow

  • Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

  • King’s College, Cambridge

  • Kirkcaldy Art Gallery

  • Leeds City Art Gallery

  • Leeds Education Authority

  • Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie

  • London Borough of Camden

  • Maclaurin Art Gallery, Ayr

  • Manchester City Art Gallery

  • Michigan University Museum, USA

  • National Westminster Bank, London

  • Newhall College, Cambridge

  • New South Wales Art Gallery, Sydney, Australia

  • Nuffield College, Oxford

  • Pallant House, Chichester

  • Penwith Galleries, St Ives

  • Peter Scott Gallery, Lancaster University

  • Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney

  • Plymouth City Art Gallery

  • Portsmouth City Art Gallery

  • Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

  • Scottish Arts Club, Edinburgh

  • Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

  • Sheffield Art Gallery

  • Southampton City Art Gallery

  • Southampton University

  • St Ives Borough, Cornwall

  • Tate Gallery, London

  • The Fleming Collection London

  • The Royal Collection

  • Truro School Collection, Cornwall

  • University of Dundee

  • University of Edinburgh

  • University of St Andrews

  • University of Stirling

  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London

  • West Riding Education Authority (the former)

  • Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

  • Wolverhampton City Art Gallery

  • York Museum Trust

Selected Bibliography

This bibliography highlights the principal books and articles on Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s art and includes those which describe her art within the wider context of C20th British Art. 

Obituaries

  • January 28, 2004 The Times

  • January 28, 2004 The Daily Telegraph

  • January 28, 2004 The Independent

  • January 29, 2004 The Guardian

  • January 29, 2004 The Cornishman

  • January 29, 2004 West Briton

  • January 30, 2004 Dundee Courier

  • January 30, 2004 The St Ives Times & Echo

  • January 30, 2004 The St. Andrews Citizen

  • February 2, 2004 The Scotsman

  • February 7, 2004 The Yorkshire Post