Artist, designer and printmaker
As the centenary of her birth approaches, it’s time to give fuller appreciation to the legacy of the Scottish artist and St Ives School founding member, writes Catherine Coyle “In my paintings I want to express the joy and importance of colour, texture, energy and vibrancy, with an awareness of space and construction. A celebration of life – taking risks so creating the unexpected.” Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was as bold in her personal life as she was in her professional one.
Her career as an artist spanned more than six decades and saw her take a pivotal though understated position within one of Britain’s most important artistic movements. Willie, as she was affectionately known to her friends, was a leading light of the modernist movement that exploded in post-war Britain. Though she might not have fully appreciated the task she faced, Willie was fighting for acceptance in a man’s world, battling the competitive, testosterone-fuelled nature of the artistic set she had joined, as well as establishing herself – an outsider from rural Scotland, young and inexperienced – in the entirely new location of Cornwall.
She was a quietly tenacious person, though. She was born in St Andrews in 1912 into a typically Scottish family where religion, a deeply engrained work ethic and an old-fashioned sense of propriety prevailed. Willie found her passion for art early on, and by the time she was at St Hilda’s senior school in Edinburgh, she was determined to become an artist. A career in art was not what her parents had in mind for their daughter, however. It took some difficult negotiations, with her aunt intervening on her behalf, before Willie’s parents would agree to her attending Edinburgh College of Art. But while they acquiesced to her desire to follow this route, their relationship had been damaged. Willie studied at ECA from 1931 to 1937 and maintained a relationship with the school after graduation, receiving scholarships and exhibiting at summer shows.
She had worked under luminaries such as William Gillies, SJ Peploe and William MacTaggart, and their influence made an indelible impression on the young painter. She took from them a love of colour and a thorough training as a true draughtsman – skills that remained with her throughout her extensive career. Despite her subsequent prominence as a central figure in the St Ives School, it was at Edinburgh College of Art that the foundations were laid; Scottish roots that never faded away. The College’s principal, Hubert Wellington, advised Willie to make her way to Cornwall where, he said, an exciting new movement was emerging.
After suffering a bout of ill-health, Willie took the bold step to move away from Scotland, heading to the fishing port of St Ives aged just 28, to where a clutch of avant-garde artists had been evacuated during the war. Here in this artists’ colony, immersed in the stunning coastal surroundings and exposed to some of Britain’s brightest artistic lights (among them sculptor Barbara Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Russian sculptor Naum Gabo), Willie flourished, embarking upon a new chapter in her career. A young woman thrust into a vibrant scene, she thrived on this exciting group and drew on their collective expertise. It was here that she met the writer and critic David Lewis, whom she married in 1947. Together they travelled extensively throughout Europe, Willie taking particular interest in the colour and free, expressive styles emanating from France and Spain and translating them into her own works. The membership to this exclusive group changed in the years following the war, with a younger bunch of artists drawn to this creative hub. By the 1950s – the period during which the St Ives School really prospered – a new set of artists had emerged, who later became synonymous with the movement.
Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton and Peter Lanyon all took centre stage and, while Willie’s output was just as prolific and arguably more skilful, she was never regarded quite as highly as her male counterparts. Not surprisingly, she felt marginalised. In an 1985 exhibition curated by the Tate Gallery charting the work of the St Ives School from 1939 to 1964, just three of Willie’s works were shown compared to 20 by Roger Hilton. She had long suspected that her role was one of supporting act to their star billing. In the early 1960s, by which point she and her husband David were divorced, she was left a house in Scotland in her aunt’s will. This marked a turning point in her career, these personal milestones affecting the art she was creating. With a permanent base in Scotland (her house was in Balmungo just outside St Andrews), Willie split her time between the two locations, spending summers by the sea in Cornwall and winters 700 miles away in her Scottish studio.
This later phase stretching into the 1970s gave way to an impressive body of work but one that is only now beginning to be fully appreciated. As if liberated by her twilight years, Willie continued to paint into her 90s. She appeared to have received a new lease of life, one that displayed confidence, joy and a clarity of thought that came from her long and varied experiences as an artist. Perhaps she no longer felt the constraints of being part of a male-dominated group; perhaps age had brought wisdom and a more secure sense of her abilities. Either way, the disappointing 1985 Tate exhibition gave way to a retrospective at Edinburgh’s City Arts Centre in 1989 and subsequently in Penzance. Willie was made a CBE in 2001 and a full biography of her life and times was published that same year. She died in St Andrews in 2004, leaving her estate to the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust, a body she had established in 1987 to preserve her legacy, create an archive of work (not just her own but that of her contemporaries) and to provide bursaries to aspiring artists.
Balmungo House has recently undergone refurbishment and has opened as a resource centre for art students, complete with exhibition spaces. A live-in residency programme is also in progress, allowing artists and writers to develop their work alongside her legacy. Containing paintings, sketches, notes and photographs of her work and that of key artists of her time, the archive is a rare and much-coveted treasure for Scotland that the public are gaining access to for the first time. And with 2012 marking the centenary of her birth, a biography of Willie and her work by Lynne Green is due to be published in the new year. r W Barns-Graham: A Scottish Artist in St Ives is at the Fleming Collection, London, January 10 to April 5, 2012, www.fleming collection.com; 01334 479953, www.barns-grahamtrust.org.uk