Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: St Andrews Artist

The latest article by volunteer blogger, Anna Venturini, reflects on the life and legacy of the St Andrews-born artist, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. At Museum Collections, we have a number of Barns-Graham’s paintings in our stores. You can search through our collections catalogue here: 



Nowadays, St Andrews and its university are home to a number of exceptional women who happen to be the most recent names in a long list of brilliant female personalities whose manifold contributions to humanity have been shaping the town’s history throughout the centuries. To celebrate such richness and challenge the results of a 2015 study – according to which women often perceive themselves as less creative than men –  I have chosen to focus on a fascinating figure filled with both creativity and artistic ambition – the artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.

Fig. 2
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Porthmeor Studios, 1947.
By Ross Irving on behalf of the Barns-Graham Trust – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66004496

Born in St Andrews in 1912, Wilhelmina (or, as she preferred to be called, Willie) had really clear intentions about her future since an early age: she knew she would become an artist, and firmly fought against her father’s opposition to pursue her dream.

After graduating from Edinburgh College of Art in 1937, Wilhelmina moved to St Ives, Cornwall, soon after the outbreak of WWII and gradually entered the St Ives Society of Artists, a lively circle of painters and sculptors, featuring amongst its members’ brilliant personalities such as Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. Over the course of her studies, she had already been developing an interest for the most contemporary developments in the arts – something that she could further explore through her personal and professional relationships with many of the group’s members. However, although the Society formally committed to integrating modern artists into their exhibitions, in practice their role remained quite marginal and in 1947 some of them – including Wilhelmina – began to organise separate shows to popularise their innovative views on art, which tended to clash with the Society’s more traditional inspiration. A year later, this reactionary group evolved in the Penwith Society of Artists, a creative hub interested in developing and promoting abstract art both locally and internationally. Wilhelmina was one of its most prominent members, and over the years she was able to develop a very personal language based on form, movement and colour.

Fig. 1
Scorpio Series 3, No. 9, 1997, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust.
By Ross Irving on behalf of the Barns-Graham Trust – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66003072

A woman with a strong character, Willie was also supported in her choices by her husband, the poet David Lewis, whom she had married in 1949. Although their marriage only lasted until 1963, he was a meaningful companion to her, and in the 1950s they travelled Europe together far and wide to meet other modern artists and be inspired by the continent’s rich cultural scene.

In 1960, Wilhelmina’s ties with her Scottish past were finally rekindled: in fact, having inherited a family house in Balmungo (near St Andrews), she could now divide her time between St Ives and St Andrews. This choice resulted in a loss of exposure in St Ives, although her work continued to enjoy a certain success in the 1960s and 1970s. A tireless genius, always open to change, Wilhelmina kept on innovating and pushing the boundaries of her art until her death in January 2004, occurred after she had received honorary doctorates from St Andrews and other universities and been elected honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy. In 2001, she had also been awarded a CBE.

Fig. 3
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham at Art First, 2000. The shot was taken in the front gallery of Art First, London. Her screenprint Another Time hangs on the wall behind. Photo: Simon Norfolk.

As Willie was a free and creative spirit, so was her art, which continuously altered and evolved through the years like a living being: the scope of her work is impressive, ranging from representational, to abstract and expressionist. Landscape always played an important role in her artistic production, prompting her to approach it from multiple angles and with different purposes in mind. She also experimented with a variety of different media, producing a wealth of drawings, studies, and – since the 1990s – a series of screen prints that almost form a separate corpus (these have all been catalogued by Senior Lecturer of Art History at St Andrews, Ann Gunn, in The Prints of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : A Complete Catalogue – 2007).

Nowadays, Willie’s legacy is preserved and promoted by the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust, a charitable foundation she had established in 1987. Besides advancing the knowledge of Wilhelmina’s ground-breaking art and intriguing personality, the Trust is also committed to providing a number of bursaries in support of promising students with a keen interest in the study of art and curatorship. This latter was a heartfelt point for Wilhelmina and a core principle of her philanthropic vision: in fact, throughout her life she never ceased to be grateful for the many scholarships she had received as an art student, which inspired her to help others pursue their ambitions and dreams.

The study I refer to at the beginning of the post is mentioned in an article by the Harvard Business Review available online at this link: https://hbr.org/2015/12/even-women-think-men-are-more-creative


by Anna Venturini


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