Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE (8 June 1912 – 26 January 2004) was one of the foremost British abstract artists, a member of the influential Penwith Society of Arts, and The St Ives School.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, known as Willie, was born in St Andrews, Fife, on 8 June 1912. As a child she showed very early signs of creative ability. Determining while at school that she wanted to be an artist, she set her sights on Edinburgh College of Art where, after some dispute with her father, she enrolled in 1931, and after periods of illness, from which she graduated with her diploma in 1937.
At the suggestion of the College’s Principal Hubert Wellington, she moved to St Ives, Cornwall, in 1940, near to where a group of Hampstead-based modernists had settled, at Carbis Bay, to escape the war.This was a pivotal moment in her life. Early on she met Borlase Smart, Alfred Wallis and Bernard Leach, as well as the painter Ben Nicholson and the sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo. Barns-Graham became a member of the Newlyn Society of Artists and the St Ives Society of Artists but was to leave the latter when, in 1949, the St Ives art community suffered an acrimonious split, and she became a founder member of a breakaway group of abstract artists, the Penwith Society of Arts. She was also one of the initial exhibitors of the significant Crypt Group. In the same year she married the young author and aspiring poet (later noted architect) David Lewis (the marriage was annulled in 1960).
She travelled regularly over the next 20 years to Switzerland, Italy, Paris, and Spain. With the exception of a short teaching term at Leeds School of Art (1956–1957) and three years in London (1960–1963), she lived and worked in St Ives. From 1960, on inheriting a house outside St Andrews from her aunt Mary Niesh (who had been a support to her throughout her art college years), she split her time between summers in Cornwall and winters in Scotland.
Post-war, when St Ives had ceased to be a pivotal centre of modernism, her work and importance as an artist was sidelined, in part by an art-historical consensus that she had been only as a minor member of the St Ives school. In old age, however, she received belated recognition, receiving honorary doctorates from the University of St Andrews in 1992 and later from the universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Falmouth . In 1999 she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Scottish Watercolourists. She was awarded a CBE in 2001, the same year that saw the publication of the first major monograph on her life and work, written by Lynne Green — W.Barns-Graham : A Studio Life (Lund Humphries). This publication was followed in 2007 by The Prints of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : a complete catalogue by Ann Gunn (also a Lund Humphries publication). Her work is found in all major public collections within the UK.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham died in St Andrews on 26 January 2004. She bequeathed her entire estate to The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust, which she had established in 1987. The aims of the trust are to foster and protect her reputation, to advance the knowledge of her life and work, to create an archive of key works of art and papers, and, in a cause close to her heart, to support and inspire art and art history students through offering grants and bursaries to those in selected art college and universities. Information about the trust and its activities is to be found at http://www.barns-grahamtrust.org.uk
Through the course of her life Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s work generally lay on the divide between abstract and representational, typically drawing on inspirations from landscape. From 1940, when she arrived in Cornwall, her pictures are exploratory and even tentative as she began to develop her own method and visual language. The influence of St Ives then starts to arise, to take hold as local shapes and colours appear in the images – the Cornish rocks, landscape and buildings. Perhaps the most significant innovation at this time derived from the ideas of Naum Gabo, who was interested in the principle of stereometry – defining forms in terms of space rather than mass. Barns-Graham’s series of glacier pictures that started in 1949, inspired by her walks on the Grindelwald Glacier in Switzerland, reflect the idea of looking at things in a total view, not only from the outside but from all points, including inside. In 1952 her studies of local forms became more planar and two dimensional, but from the mid-1950s she had developed a more expressionist and free form attitude following journeys to Spain.
In the early 1960s, reflecting the turmoil in her personal life, Barns-Graham adopted a severe geometrical form of abstraction as a way of taking a fresh approach to her painting. Combined with a very intuitive sense of colour and design, the work often has more vitality than is immediately apparent. Squares tumble and circles flow across voids. Colour and movement come together and it is at this point in her work that St Ives perhaps exerts the least influence; rather, this approach more likely reflects an interest in the work of Josef Albers who was exciting UK artists at this time, in embracing new possibilities offered by the optical effects of a more formulaic abstraction.
Nonetheless there is evidence to suggest that many images did stem from observations of the world around her. This is seen in a series of ice paintings in the late 1970s and then in a body of work that explores the hidden energies of sea and wind, composed of multiple wave-like lines drawn in the manner of Paul Klee. The Expanding Form paintings of 1980 are the culmination of many ideas from the previous fifteen years – the poetic movement in these works revealing a more relaxed view.
From the late 1980s and right up until her death, Barns-Graham’s paintings became more and more free; an expression of life and free flowing brushwork not seen since the late 1950s. Working mainly on paper (there are relatively few canvases from this period) the images evolved to become, initially, highly complex, rich in colour and energy, and then, simultaneously, bolder and simpler, reflecting her enjoyment of life and living. “in my paintings I want to express the joy and importance of colour, texture, energy and vibrancy, with an awareness of space and construction. A celebration of life — taking risks so creating the unexpected.” (Barns-Graham, October 2001) This outlook is perfectly expressed in the extraordinary collection of screen prints that she made with Graal Press, Edinburgh, between 1999 and 2003.