An artist born in St Andrews: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

By Anja Ivic

Moved by the exhibition in Modern Two (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) named Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965, I found an interesting fact – an artist born in St Andrews. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham is one of forty-five women artists whose work is included into the rich and interesting exhibition that opens up an enormous general quest for Scottish female artists. Surely, this research that resulted with an exhibition isn’t the conclusion statement but just the beginning of studies made on a very rewarding field. 

Going back to Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, she was born in St Andrews in June 1912 and was rewarded with CBE, the most excellent order of the British Empire. After disputes with her father, he decided to let her enroll to Edinburgh College of Art, which she finished in 1937. 

The Second World War had an impact on many, and on a group of artists who moved to Cornwall, where Barns-Graham also settled in 1940, on the advice of Hubert Wellington, the Principal of the Edinburgh College of Art. There she encountered people of great impact on her work, such as Borlase Smart, Alfred Wallis, Bernard Leach, Ben Nicholson and the sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo. Correlating with other artists of same interest, she took part in various societies of artists, but was a founder member of the Penwith Society of Arts, a group of abstract artists which emerged from the more conservative St Ives School. Although being pretty much settled in Cornwall and Scotland, she was a passionate traveler and she spent almost 20 years on the road, travelling and soaking up impression from other parts of the world. Although of poor health, Barns-Graham, or Willie as she was called, had a burning desire to see as much as she can of the world and of art from all over Europe, as it gave her inspiration for her own pieces. 


An active production of art characterizes almost all of her life stages. Amongst others such as Plymouth, Exeter and Falmouth, Barns-Graham received an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews in 1992. Having died in January 2004, she is buried against the western wall of the Eastern cemetery, which can be found near the old cathedral in St Andrews. 


As she spent her summers in Cornwall and winters in Scotland, the picturesque landscape was one of her most frequent motifs and painting themes. But far from ‘dull’ landscapes, Barns-Graham interpreted landscapes in her own visual language that was on the border of abstract and figural, with their own rhythm and beat. Surely, Naum Gabo had an impact with her thinking about kinetic art and concentrating on spaces rather than masses. During the years we can track the opening and evolution of the artist’s line, shape, color and volume. Also, the movement is more and more unleashed and produces traces on the canvas that have lyrical but also dynamic potential in every bit of it. Not to intervene this article with too many graphical content (although in art history there is no such thing), I would like to refer to a rich online gallery of Willie’s works. The official web page of her own fund was a brief description of her works, her life and graphical material. Also, facts about her can be found on the web pages of our University, as on many others. The only fault of the content is that it is mostly repeating and that it is very fragmented as not a lot of research material and results are available online. 

To a contemporary eye, her work seems very up to date, as the abstract forms and her modest but meaningful expression charms us and involves us into its never-ending motion. Her work did see changes and anomalies that occurred in phases of her artistic path, but Willie never gave up from her abstract and reductive expression.


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