St Andrews artist’s work in the frame

Wilhemina Barns-Graham's 'Autumn Series 5 Balmungo'
Wilhemina Barns-Graham's 'Autumn Series 5 Balmungo'
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St Andrews painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham is usually classified as a St Ives School artist, yet her Scottish roots and her continuing close links with her homeland had a huge influence on her work.

And now a major exhibition marking the centenary of her birth is being held at The Fleming Collection in London from now until April 5.

Entitled ‘W. Barns-Graham: A Scottish artist in St Ives,’ the exhibition will radically reappraise her career looking at the influence of her artistic training in Edinburgh, the inspirational resource she found in Scotland and its continuing creative importance as she divided her time between Cornwall and Fife.

The Fleming Collection, which has become an embassy for Scottish art in London, is the first to look at the artist from this perspective, in association with The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust.

Curator is Lynne Green, who has written extensively on the artist and is the author of the major monograph, W. Barns-Graham: a studio life  - the second enlarged edition of which is published by Lund Humphries to mark the artist’s centenary year,  2012.

Selina Skipwith, keeper of art at The Fleming Collection, told the Citizen: “Wilhelmina Barns-Graham is usually regarded as a St Ives School painter which does not do justice to the immense influence that Scotland had on her work.

“The centenary of her birth provides us with an appropriate opportunity to set the record straight.”

Barns-Graham was born in St Andrews on June 8, 1912, and, after deciding that she wanted to be an artist while at school, enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art in 1931.

The exhibition at The Fleming Collection will examine her training in Edinburgh under the tutelage of such senior figures in Scottish art as William Gillies, John Maxwell, S.J. Peploe and briefly, yet crucially, William MacTaggart.

The delight in drawing instilled by Gillies never left her and the influence of both Gillies and MacTaggart can be seen in her extraordinary sensitivity to and use of colour. The show will include works which have their origins in the rigorous academic training that Barns-Graham received in Edinburgh.

In 1940, Barns-Graham moved to St Ives, Cornwall, where a group of modernist artists from London had settled and where she met, among others, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Bernard Leach and Alfred Wallis. While this formidable group of painters, sculptors and potters certainly had a profound effect on the 28 year-old Scot, she did not arrive as a blank canvas. Her origins and her new life in Cornwall combined to provide the inspiration and structure for her work as a consummate draughtswoman and painter.

The exhibition also explores Barns-Graham’s continuing links with Scotland following her move to St Ives.

Over the next 20 years she visited and exhibited in Scotland regularly and in 1955 was included in an exhibition of contemporary Scottish painting in London. These contacts were reinforced when she inherited a small family estate from her aunt, Mary Niesh in 1960.

“Despite the practical problems of retaining two properties at opposite ends of the country, the acquisition of Balmungo House, near St Andrews, offered Barns-Graham much-needed respite from the intensity of life in a busy, competitive and internationally known artistic community,” writes Lynne Green.

“Equally importantly, it re-established a tangible link with her family roots and a refreshment of the Scottish dimension of her character.

‘‘The renewal of her connection with St Andrews re-awakened her emotional bonds with Scotland and reinforced her presence in the Scottish art world. From then on she divided her time between the south-west and the north-east – with working studios in each – and drawings and canvases moved up and down the country with her.

‘‘There is little doubt that without these twin creative centres, Barns-Graham’s work would have developed differently and that without her Scottish base important themes might never have emerged.

‘‘By the time of her death in 2004, Barns-Graham was an artist celebrated both for her contribution to British modernism, associated with St Ives, and to the contemporary art of her native Scotland.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham bequeathed her entire estate to The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust at Balmungo House, which she established in 1987.

Its aims are to advance the knowledge of her life and work, create an archive of works of art and papers, and offer grants and bursaries to art and art history students. More information can be found at www.barns-grahamtrust.org.uk