Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: artist’s life celebrated

Friday 7 December 2012
Selection of catalogues and invitations for exhibitions of art work by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, the renowned Scottish abstract artist, has been attracting a lot of attention this year, with several recent events to celebrate the centenary of her birth.

She was born here in St Andrews on 8 June 1912, into a family connected to the landed gentry in both Fife and Stirlingshire. Despite opposition from her father, she pursued her natural artistic talents at Edinburgh College of Art from 1931-1937, and in 1940 arrived in St Ives, where she soon joined fellow artists in the St Ives Society of Artists. She was an exhibitor with the Crypt Group and a founder member of the Penwith Society. Her career stretched over 60 years as she continued to paint with colour, verve and style into her 90s, working towards the ultimate abstraction, and influencing the development of the British Modernist movement.

Geoffrey Bertram and Kirsty Wark at the opening of Balmungo (courtesy of Alan Crumlish)
Lynne Green in conversation (courtesy of Alan Crumlish)

In 1960 she was left Balmungo House, near St Andrews, by her aunt Mary Neish, and she divided her time between Scotland and St Ives for the rest of her life. Before her death in 2004 she set up the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust to help young artists, by providing scholarships and bursaries for art students, helping visiting scholars in art history, and setting up residencies for poets and artists. The house was left to the Trust as a resource and educational centre. Newly re-furbished and hung with examples of her works, Balmungo was officially opened on 30th October. At a lively gathering at the house, Kirsty Wark unveiled of a plaque to commemorate Willie’s life and legacy. A short film about Willie’s life and work had been commissioned for the event. Called Looking in, Looking out by local filmmaker, Tim Fitzpatrick, the background for the film was researched from Willie’s own papers, now housed in Special Collections. This fascinating collection will be accessible to the public with permission of the Trust, and feature in our newly launched online Archive Catalogue where records of letters, diaries, notebooks, photographs, exhibition catalogues, reviews, interviews, awards, reminiscences, and other evidence of Willie’s long creative life can be seen.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in St Ives, c.1950

Letters include those from friends from her time at Edinburgh College of Art and fellow St Ives artists including Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Denis Mitchell, John Wells and Roger Hilton, as well as novelist Phyllis Bottome.

WBG studio sketch
Description of Wilhelmina’s Porthmeor studio in St Ives in letter to Mary Neish, 1947 (msdep132/1/2/6)
Travel journal from trip to France, 1937 (msdep132/5/8)

The archive is not fully catalogued yet and the records available online reflect the unfinished nature of the work. Also very recent and personal material is subject to data protection legislation but applications can be made to the Trust to see other papers for appropriate research reasons. Willie’s family also have other connections to be found in the catalogue to the Bayne-Meldrum, Maitland and Graham of Morphie families.

As well as the catalogue launch and the opening of Balmungo, a major new exhibition has just opened at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. Curated by Lynne Green, one of the Barns-Graham Trustees, it looks for the first time at the influence of Willie’s Scottish roots on her art. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, A Scottish Artist in St Ives runs until 17th February.

Selection of exhibition catalogues (msdep132/3)

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