Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: how her life and travel formed her artwork

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004), was a Scottish painter and one of the principal artists of the ‘St Ives School’ and an important figure in British modern art. We learned about her work and that her foundation preserved boxes of her studio materials, including an abundance of Winsor & Newton materials.


From a young age Barns-Graham knew that she wanted to be an artist. Her formal training began at Edinburgh College of Art in 1931 but, in 1940, due to the war situation, her poor health, and a desire to put some distance between herself and her unsupportive father, she joined other British avant-garde artists in Cornwall.


In St. Ives she found kindred people and it was here she discovered herself as an artist. Both Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo became very important figures in her artistic development and through their discussions and mutual admiration she laid the foundations for her lifelong exploration of abstract art.


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Lanzarote, 1992, Acrylic and volcanic dust on paper, 57 x 76.5 cm, BGT985 © Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust


The trip to Switzerland provided the push needed into abstractionism as she was at that point, in her own words, brave enough. Barns-Graham’s form of abstract work was always rooted in nature. She viewed abstract art as a journey to the essence, a process of feeling out the truth of an idea of letting go of ‘descriptive incidentals’ and instead laying bare the patterns of nature. Abstraction for her should be firmly based on perception. Over her career the focus of her abstract work shifted, becoming less closely tied to rocks and natural forms and more to mind and spirit, however it was never entirely divorced from nature.


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Barns-Graham with the Brotherton Family on Grindelwald Glacier, 1949 Photo: © P.N. Brotherton


Barns-Graham also took many trips through continental Europe in her lifetime and the geography and natural forms she encountered in Switzerland, Lanzarote and Tuscany returned again and again in her work.


From 1960, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham lived between St Andrews and St Ives, but her work truly embodied the core philosophy of the St Ives set, sharing in the values of modernism and abstraction from nature, capturing the interior energy of geographical subjects. However, she had a low profile in the group. The competitive atmosphere and jostling for advantage left a bitterness in her experiences with the other artists.


In the last few decades of her life Barns-Graham’s work became bolder and more brightly coloured. These works were made with a sense of urgency, they are filled with joy and a celebration of life, working in acrylic on paper seemed to liberate her. The immediacy of the medium, its quick drying natured allowed her to rapidly layer colours over each other.


Her Scorpio Series demonstrate a life-time’s knowledge and experience of colour and shape. The remaining challenge for her was recognising when a piece was finished, when all the components had come together to make it ‘sing’. On the series she was quoted to say: “Anecdotally they are a direct result of punishing a sheet of paper with a flailing brush after a failed interview with a journalist, when suddenly Barns-Graham recognized the potential of the raw material within those furious slashes.”