Visual Arts in Ayrshire

The Maclaurin Art Collection  ~  Middle Period Purchase

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE HRSA HRSW 1912 - 2004

1.   Barns Graham




Wilhelmina Barns Graham CBE HRSA HRSW 1912 - 2004

1.   Small Blue 2, by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, 1985–1986, Collage, Acrylic and oil on wood, 350x 483 mm. Signed and dated November 1985-6. Maclaurin Art Collection, purchased from The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh.  © Barns-Graham Charitable Trust.  Photograph©The Maclaurin Trust

Exhibited in A Different Way of Working: The Prints of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and St Ives Painting, The Dick Institute, Kilmarnock, 19th January - 11th May 2013.

2.  Wilhelmina Barns-Graham working in Alva Street Studio, Edinburgh, 1937.  Photograph ©Barns-Graham Charitable Trust.

3.   Cornish Window, 1945.  Whilhelmina Barns-Graham 1912 - 2004.  Oil on panel, signed and dated 13 x 17. 

Exhibited by Austin/Desmond Fine Art and illustrated in their catalogue Aspects of Modern Art IV, Sunningdale, Berks.

In 1992 the Crawford Arts Centre in St Andrews presented a retrospective exhibition of Whilhelmina Barns-Graham's work.  This show was presented in Ayr as the opening exhibition of the Maclaurin's 1993 programme.  Willie, accompanied by relatives and Terry Frost, attended the preview and the artist's lunch at the gallery.

By the time this exhibition came to Ayr, the gallery had already acquired the small collage 'Small Blue 2' and was actively considering the acquisuition of a work by Terry Frost.  Other 'St Ives' works had been added to the collection, notably a figurative painting by Roger Hilton and a early representational work by Patrick Heron.

Like many artists of her time, Willie was widely travelled; she visited France in 1936 travelling with Margaret Mellis, a fellow student. In 1940 she moved to St Ives where Mellis and her husband Adrian Stokes introduced her to their circle of friends. Barns-Graham painted portraits of fishermen and local people. She was also experimenting with abstraction, developing it along with her landscape drawings and paintings. Her friendship with Borlase Smart, a founder member of the St Ives Society of Artists and Peter Lanyon's teacher, brought Ben Nicholson and the other so-called 'Moderns' into the Society.   In 1947 Frost, Scott and Heron and exhibited at Downings Gallery with Peter Lanyon and others.

In 1951 she exhibited in London, Paris and New York. By the mid 1950's she was showing her work internationally; a visit to Italy during this time inspiring abstract work which had especial assurance and confidence.  She had a series of one-man shows and mixed exhibitions in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980s and has been acknowledged as one of the foremost British abstract painters of the post-war period, with work in over thirty public collections.

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.

Why was the St. Ives School considered important when forming a collection in Ayr?  For further information, please follow this LINK

Work identified and championed by Mike Bailey.

[Text based, in part, on Gallery records and personal recollections.]

Wilhelmina Barns Graham

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was one of the foremost British abstract artists, resident in St Ives and a founder member of the influential Penwith Society of Arts.

Known as Willie, Barns-Graham was born into a Scottish landed family at St Andrews, Fife, on 8 June 1912. As a child she showed very early signs of creative ability, deciding 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.  It was a marvellous time to be at Edinburgh, with William Gillies and John Maxwell among her tutors, and William Gear, Margaret Mellis and Denis Peploe among her fellow students.  On graduation in 1937, following a period of illness, the college principal, Hubert Wellington, suggested that should go to St Ives; it would be good for her health and her art.

She moved to St Ives, Cornwall, in 1940, near to where a group of Hampstead-based modernists had settled to escape the war.  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.  She became a founder member of a breakaway group of abstract artists, the Penwith Society of Arts. .

Her own work had been developing steadily since her arrival in Cornwall. From the more straightforward treatments of landscape and architecture influenced by Alfred Wallis and Christopher Wood, she had, under the influence of Nicholson and Naum Gabo, begun to evolve a style mixing abstract and figurative. She used to go off with Nicholson in his MG sports car to draw the local landscape and, though the resulting work showed much of his style at work, her own artistic personality began to emerge more clearly. There was always a fascination with architecture - sometimes very literally in the paintings and drawings of houses, with steps and balustrades that she did in 1948 and which earned her the nickname W Balustrade Graham.

With the exception of a short teaching term at Leeds School of Art (1956–1957) and three years in London (1960–1963), Willie lived and worked in St Ives.  She travelled regularly over the next 20 years to Switzerland, Italy, Paris, and Spain.  Her studies of glaciers in the Swiss Alps had a more fundamental structural quality, freeing her from literal description. Above all, they provided the basis of a series of rhythmic abstract compositions of great originality, forms hollowed out like sculpture and combining a great delicacy of colour with a compositional robustness. An Italian government travelling scholarship in 1955 allowed her to work in Tuscany and Sicily, and during the course of her time there she met Giacommetti, Arp and Brancusi.

From 1960, on inheriting a house outside St Andrews from her aunt Mary Niesh, 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 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. This publication was followed in 2007 by The Prints of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: a complete catalogue by Ann Gunn.  Her work is found in all major public collections within the UK.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham 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.

Writing in the Guardian in January 2004 Douglas Hall noted:

If evidence were needed of the liberating effect age can have on creative individuals, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who has died aged 91, would be a good case in point. In middle age, Barns-Graham (always Willie to those who knew her) was a worried woman, depressed by personal problems and, as a painter, oppressed by sexist, classist and envious undercurrents in the artistic community of St Ives, Cornwall, where she had made her home since 1940.

In old age, however, despite physical weakness, she discovered a serenity that came out in a series of radiant works in the 1980s and 1990s. She no longer found it necessary to pose questions, or set conundrums, still less to look over her shoulder at what others were doing. She no longer had to work doggedly through some course of work she had set herself years before, or fear that something she painted was not quite 'characteristic'. In practice her work always was so, whether she chose to express herself through representation or joyous invention.

Barns-Graham stayed on at St Ives after the war when it ceased being a centre of modernism and became an outpost, albeit an important one. She threw herself into the art politics of the place and played her part in creating a separate identity for the modernists, whose relationship with the many traditionalists was uneasy. Modernist art at St Ives began to evolve its own distinctive look, born of a marriage between the light and landscape of Cornwall and the non-objective inventions of the Abstraction/ Creation group in Europe. The evolution continued through the late 1940s and 1950s. Barns-Graham was a faithful exponent of this development, but for reasons hinted at above she never established herself as a leader of the school.

She was now on her own. There were few if any painters with her background living in Scotland, where a different practice had prevailed. Her work of the later 1960s and 1970s is neither St Ives nor Scottish, but looks to a tradition of modernism more disciplined, abstract and formal than either; and she followed the tradition with rigour and persistence.

But later, something of the spirit of Scottish colouristic freedom of expression seemed to creep in with liberating effect, while at the same time she began again to be more interested in her environment, both in Scotland and in Cornwall, where she continued to spend time.

As ever, her works were abstractions rooted in observation; gouache drawings of shells, molluscs and other subject matter drawn from natural history and possessing a strong sculptural feeling. Above all, though, they were filled with a bold and exuberant energy.

[Text based on biographical information on the Barns-Graham Trust website, obituaries in the Guardian and The Telegraph, supplemented by personal recollections, publications by Austin/Desmond Fine Art and other information in the public domain.]


This page is based on recollections by Mike Bailey , and other published sources.   Mrs Mary E Maclaurin's Trust is a Registered Scottish Charity

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Maclaurin Art Collection ~ Updated March 5, 2016