Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE

  • Grahamslide1
    Detail of View of St Ives. (Copyright: Trustees of the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust)
  • Grahamslide2
    Glacier Chasm (1951)
  • Grahamslide3
    Just In Time (1999)
  • Grahamslide4
    Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Porthmeor Studios (1947)

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE

Studio 3 1940-45, Studio 1 1945-63

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) was a painter, printmaker and draughtsman, and her work generally lay on the divide between abstract and representational, typically drawing on inspirations from landscape.

Determining 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. After suffering periods of illness, she graduated with her diploma in 1937.

At the suggestion of the College’s Principal Hubert Wellington, Barns-Graham moved to St Ives in 1940, finding herself surrounded by a ready-made community of artists including Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. Soon after her arrival she met Borlase Smart, and he became a big supporter, arranging a Porthmeor studio for her and inviting her to join the St Ives Society of Artists in 1942. She later helped to form the Crypt Group of artists in 1945.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s paintings respond to geological formations and the natural environment, from seaside rocks to glaciers. ‘Glacier Chasm’ was painted following the artist’s visit to the Grindelwald glaciers in Switzerland in 1949. In 1965 she wrote of the glaciers: “This likeness to glass and transparency combined with solid rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through and all around, as a bird flies, a total experience.”

In the 1980s she rekindled her interest in her immediate environment: the kites, beach balls and coloured umbrellas beneath her studio window on Porthmeor beach in St Ives.

Text: Ben Crack