Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham – Studio interview
Video: transcribed from BBC documentary ‘Primetime’ on the St. Ives Group. First broadcast 17/02/1993.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was born in 1912 in St Andrews, Fife. After attending Edinburgh College of Art (1932-37) she moved to St. Ives in 1940, quickly becoming part of the group which included Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo. She became a member of the Newlyn Society of Artists and the St Ives Society of Artists, then broke away as a founder member of the Penwith Society of Artists, exhibiting with the Crypt Group. Her peers in St Ives came to include Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron and John Wells.

Barns-Graham travelled regularly over the next decades ­ to the revelatory Grindelwald Glacier in Switzerland, to Italy, Paris, and Spain. With the exception of a short teaching term at Leeds School of Art (1956-57) and three years in London (1960 - 63) she lived and worked in St Ives from 1940 to 2003, with regular stays at Balmungo House, St Andrews, which she inherited from her Aunt in 1960. Since her death in 2004, Balmungo has become the home of the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust which she established in 1987, to secure her life's work and archive for future generations and to financially assist art and art history students. (www.barns-grahamtrust.org.uk)

She received four Honorary Doctorates (St Andrews University, 1992, Plymouth, 2000, Exeter, 2001, Heriot Watt Universities, 2003). In 1999 she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and the Royal Scottish Watercolourists (RSW); and in 2001 she was awarded CBE.

Barns-Graham has exhibited consistently since the 1940s. As part of the St Ives Group she has been in all the major survey exhibitions including the significant 1985 St Ives 1939-64, at the Tate Gallery, London. This was followed by the Retrospective exhibition (1989­90), W Barns-Graham at 80 (1992-93), and W Barns-Graham: Painting as Celebration (2002–4), all of which toured to Museums around the UK. In 1999 Tate St Ives presented a major survey exhibition, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: An Enduring Image, and in 2005, Tate published a new catalogue with an essay by Mel Gooding to accompany their exhibition of selected highlights from Barns-Graham's career, Movement and Light Imag(in)ing Time. Her Centenary year began in London with the Fleming Collection's significant survey exhibition: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham; a Scottish artist in St Ives.

Barns-Graham has emerged as a key contributor of the St Ives School and is acclaimed as a foremost British Modernist. Her vibrant sense of colour is exceptional and she paints with great conviction and power, though often on a smaller scale than her peers, and always with the ability to surprise. Her images derive from acute observations of natural forms and places she has visited, pared to their bare essentials. These can be traced through a remarkable body of drawings made throughout her life. One of her Centenary exhibitions included drawings from a span of 50 years; the first release onto the market by the Barns-Graham Trust (Art First, 2012).

Since 1994 Barns-Graham has had over fourteen exhibitions with Art First, her principal London gallery, which had the privilege of working with her for the last successful decade of her life. In 2001 the long-awaited Lund Humphries publication of the book, W Barns-Graham: A Studio Life, written by Lynne Green was launched at Art First, and was recently updated and republished in paperback in 2012 in time for her Centenary.

Barns-Graham's work is in public collections throughout the UK including Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Arts Council of Great Britain, The British Museum, Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Leeds and Manchester City Art Galleries and the Fleming Collection.