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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (8 June 1912 – 26 January 2004)

British Modernism was arguably one of the most integral movements within British art of the Twentieth Century. This fact comes as no surprise, but perhaps the more surprising aspect was that this revolution and re-thinking of British Art did not come from the cities but from a small fishing village in Cornwall: St. Ives. From the period of 1939 to 1964 artists such as Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham worked in St. Ives and created some of the most important artworks in British Art History. It is Wilhelmina Barns-Graham that I am most intrigued by. Overshadowed by all of these names – all male apart from Barbara Hepworth – Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s story and art is equally as compelling.

 

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Untitled (Still Life, Yellow), 1936, oil on canvas, 52 x 74.8 cm, The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust
(image source: www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/wilhelmina-barns-graham)

 

Although Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s work is part of St. Ives’ art identity, Wilhelmina’s story begins in St. Andrews, Scotland where she was born on 8 June, 1912. The Barns-Graham family were an established Scottish family that were part of the modest side of gentry and upheld a certain amount of respect. As with most female artists of this generation, Wilhelmina was restricted to the trappings of society that were embodied in the looming presence of her authoritarian father. To imagine his daughter with a career that was outside the realm of nurturing and teaching would not stand next to the ideals of his world.

Despite this, since the age of eight, Wilhelmina knew she wanted to be an artist, stating that one of her earliest memories was of her “pencil and crayons drawings, abstract, irregular or rectangular shapes”. No matter what prevented her, this desire to draw and experiment finally came to fruition in the Autumn of 1931 when Wilhelmina was accepted for an Art Diploma Course of Edinburgh College of Art. It would be here that she became an award-winning student, who dedicated her talent and evolved from the guidance of her tutors. Within the vibrancy of Edinburgh and the art college, this would be the first place that she could feel free and where her dream to become an artist began.

When coming to the end of her time at the Edinburgh College of Art, Wilhelmina took a life changing step into the unknown and towards Cornwall.

“I came to St. Ives in 1940, partly to get away from my family. I had friends here in St. Ives and through them I met Nicholson and Hepworth but I didn’t want to get too mixed up with them at that stage because I knew they would be too strong an influence on me and I very much wanted to go in my own direction.”

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, The Blue Studio, 1947 – 48, oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm, The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust
(image source: www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/wilhelmina-barns-graham)

 

Despite this initial thought, Wilhelmina’s new contemporaries (Hepworth and Nicholson) would impact her life greatly and create a crucial foundation for her life and her work. Within this group, she would meet her husband, the writer and critic David Lewis and it was during this period that Wilhelmina would make a breakthrough that would evolve her art forever.

On a holiday with friends to Switzerland, she witnessed the Grindelwald glaciers and at this precise moment, her fascination with form began. The transparency, the melting, the reformed geometry of the ice and the layering of form was like nothing that she had seen before. Inspired by these concepts, which started to work their way into Wilhelmina’s work, she began to create a well-regarded and explorative body of work. Despite this new breath of life, the next step forward for her would be within a dark period of her life. As a result of the breakdown of her marriage, Wilhelmina would continue to explore form, creating order, disorder and their relationship to life itself.

 

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Composition (Sea), 1954, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 76cm, The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust
(image source: www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/wilhelmina-barns-graham)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Assassination, Black, White and Orange, oil and acrylic on aluminium panel, 50.1 x 49.8 cm, Dumfries and Galloway Council (Gracefield)
(image source: www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/wilhelmina-barns-graham)

She began painting little squares of cardboard and, with a lot of time and patience, line them up and put them in order. It is at this point where she would kick the configuration which would create a disorderly effect. For Wilhelmina, this was a metaphor for any moment that happens within a life but more specifically to her, her marriage and the heart-breaking ripple effect of the breakdown of the relationship. Within these works, it is not just the form of the squares but the colours and how each colour relates to the varying emotions she was going through in this period. This was undeniably a period of change and evolution for Wilhelmina, but sadly in regards to her popularity, it marked a time of quietness.

 

This never stopped Wilhelmina and her continued passion for creating art because, from her previous exploration of colour, there would come the final and most poignant outpouring creativity. Within the last ten years of her life, she felt a urgency to make the most of her time and this undeniably became part of her art.

“It is very important what you do and say when you’re old. Now at the stage of urgency, my theme is celebration of life, joy, the importance of colour and form, space and texture. Brushstrokes that can be happy, risky, thin, fat, fluid, textured. Having a positive mind and constantly being aware, and hopefully being allowed to live longer to increase the celebration.”

From her later works, the vibrancy for life in colour and for celebration in brushstrokes is unmistakable and as a result, in her later years this vivacity reignited a fascination in her works, and the awarding of a CBE in in 2001, three years before her death on 26 January 2004. With this determination to live and create, she now lives on through her artworks. When discussing Wilhelmina, her friend and biographer Lynne Greene talks of her feisty personality that was full of enormous energy and determination. When regarding her work, from the early days at Edinburgh to her final years in St. Ives, her life story and personality are embedded within the art that she created.

 

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Untitled, 05/99, 1999, acrylic on paper, 56.8 x 76.6 cm, The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust
(image source:www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/wilhelmina-barns-graham)
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Barnaloft Studio, 1985, working on an oil painting Summer Painting No.2. Photo: David Crane
(image source: www.barns-grahamtrust.org.uk)

Selected Recommended Reading:

Geoffrey Bertam, Evolution: The Work of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Sherborne House Arts, 2006

Lynne Green, W. Barns-Graham. A studio life, Lund Humphries, 2001

Ann Gunn, The Prints of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: A Complete Catalogue, Ashgate, 2007

‘Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE HRSA HRSW – Profile’, The Barns Graham Charitable Trust: http://www.barns-grahamtrust.org.uk/The-Artist/Profile.html