You generally get the measure of a person by the company they keep. In the case of painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who lived between the fishing town of St Ives in Cornwall and St Andrews, the company she kept was art royalty.
Barns-Graham, who died in 2004 at 91, was a pivotal figure in the St Ives School; a loyal helpmate to some of the best-known names in 20th century British art. Artists such as Barbara Hepworth and her second husband, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, Bernard Leach and Denis Mitchell, were part of her circle as the Cornish village became the epicentre for modern and abstract developments in art from the early 1940s to the 1960s.
Barns-Graham arrived in Cornwall in 1940 following the outbreak of war with no real connection to the town apart from the fact that her friend from Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), Margaret Mellis, and husband Adrian Stokes, were living there
She had been urged to sit out the war in Cornwall by Hubert Wellington, then principal of ECA. Wellington was conscious that his star pupil was not in the best of health but also mindful that she was one of the most outstanding students at the college since his arrival in 1932. With some of the most advanced talents gathering in St Ives, he suggested the town might provide a suitable refuge.
Despite the competitive culture surrounding Barns-Graham in her working life, she was highly regarded by her peers as a driven, innovative and focused painter. Douglas Hall, founding Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, wrote in an obituary that: “As a draughtsman she was second only to Nicholson himself, and was more versatile. Her crisp drawings of rocks, landscapes and buildings continued to underpin all her other work. As a painter it was unfortunately too easy to regard her as a follower, because her work did follow the same evolution as some of her more assertive (male) contemporaries.”
Although sickly as a young woman, Barns-Graham went on to live a long and creative life, constantly pushing out the boundaries of her artistic practice, chopping and changing direction in the macho world of abstract painting and printmaking until the day she died. Gifted with synaesthesia, a neural condition which blends the five senses, Barns-Graham was able to translate this sensory overload directly onto canvas.
Even in old age, she raged against the dying of the light. From around 1988, Barns-Graham produced work which was charged with purpose, colour and beauty. In an outpouring of vivid paintings and screen prints, she brought the full force of decades of experience to bear on her work.
Among her personal effects in her homes in both Fife and Cornwall when Barns-Graham died was a private collection of around 70 paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, ceramics and jewellery; mostly given to her by artist friends.
One exquisite drawing, a rear view of a woman looking in a mirror, called Figure and Mirror (1948) was a gift from Barbara Hepworth to Barns-Graham when she married an aspiring poet (younger than her by at least a decade), David Lewis, in 1949. The marriage was annulled in 1963.
There were also three works by self-taught St Ives artist Alfred Wallis, whose work – bought for pennies – now sells for tens of thousands of pounds. The former mariner and rag and bone man, who died in a workhouse in 1942, was discovered during a visit to Cornwall in 1928 by painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood. The pair were thunderstruck by the vigour of Wallis’ work and their meeting with him has been described as a watershed in the history of modern British art.
Barns-Graham was given work by Wallis by artist friends, including Sven Berlin and Nicholson, but she refused to buy them from Wallis in his lifetime as she felt that the paltry sum he asked was derisory.
This story speaks volumes about what made Barns-Graham tick. In her seventies, mindful of the financial help she had been given by her supportive aunt, Mary Neish, and also via a series of bursaries as a penurious art student (she had gone to Edinburgh College of Art against her father’s wishes), Barns-Graham set up a trust, which would come into being after her death.
It has been a huge presence in the art world since 2006, donating over a million pounds, through a host of grants to support artists, awards, travel bursaries, PHD students, educational projects, exhibition sponsorship and through gifting artworks by Barns-Graham to museums and galleries across the UK.
Now, after much debate by the board which manages the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust (WBGT), Barns-Graham’s personal collection of art and artefacts is to be auctioned at the end of October.
Rob Airey, director of the trust, which has been based for the last four years in Edinburgh, said: “Funds raised will allow the trust to extend this ambitious financial support for artists and art education, which was central to Barns-Graham’s wishes..”
Charlotte Riordan, Head of Contemporary and Post-War Art with Edinburgh-headquartered auctioneers, Lyon & Turnbull, which is handling the sale, says the collection could be worth £500,000.
“Selling a private collection is always exciting,” she comments, “but handling the sale of a collection relating to significant movements such as the St Ives School is exceptionally rare. The Hepworth drawing is very rare and the works by Wallis are as good as you will get.
“This sale is all about raising funds to support artists. Barns-Graham was a pivotal figure in terms of the St Ives group of painters, but she lived and worked in a very macho circle – apart from Barbara Hepworth, who was regarded as one tough cookie, and her friend, Margaret Mellis; another underrated woman artist, who is finally receiving recognition.”
As well as work by the likes of Terry Frost, Patrick Heron; Roger and Rose Hilton, Bernard and Janet Leach, Denis Mitchell, Ben & Kate Nicholson, Breon O’Casey, Alfred Wallis and Bryan Wynter, the collection has paintings by Barns-Graham, including a luminescent high-colour abstract work from 1961, called Red and Violet.
Prior to the sale, the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Collection will be on show in London at The Mall Galleries on October 27 and 28 before the live online auction on day two. The full collection will go online in the run-up to the sale day.
I was lucky enough to see a handful of the works on show in Lyon & Turnbull’s Edinburgh sale room a couple of weeks ago, including Barns-Graham’s shimmering Red and Violet painting and Hepworth’s sensuous life drawing. This time capsule collection paints a vivid picture of one of the most beguiling eras in modern British art.
The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Collection, The Mall Galleries, St. James’s, London SW1, www.barns-grahamtrust.org.uk & www.lyonandturnbull.com. The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham collection (all 70+ works) will go online at Lyon & Turnbull at the start of October ahead of live online auction on 28 October and will be on show at The Mall Galleries,, London SW1 on October 27-28.
Sarah Urwin Jones is familiar to readers of the Herald Magazine as a fellow surveyor of the visual arts scene in Scotland. The tables are turning this weekend though as Sarah, together with photographer husband Peter and their two young sons, join forces for a family art affair at the Jedburgh home/studio of Thomas Hawson, his wife Jenny and their two children.
Open Studio: The Work of Two Families reflects the wide-ranging creative interests of both families and includes visual art, animation, photography, writing, pottery, woodwork and painting. Ticket donations from the weekend-long event, which started yesterday, will go to the charity John Muir Trust.
A highlight of the weekend is a writing workshop today on the theme of Place, presented by Sarah, who is writing her first book. In this special event, Sarah will be walking participants though how to achieve an essence of place in creative writing.
The workshop is part of the annual three-day long open studio event held at the Hawson family farm and studio, situated next to the Capon Tree (one of the oldest oaks in Britain). Tomorrow sees a walk and talk round the open studio guided by Thomas and Sarah.
Highlights include a large geodesic dome made by Thomas and his son, Fergus, from thin metal. The dome will be placed in the garden for visitors to sit in. Jenny is exhibiting a variety of earthenware and porcelain tableware. Sarah and Peter have made an installation about their stay on Tove Jansson’s island in the Baltic, including a recreation of the cabin writing desk, a pamphlet of Sarah’s writing and an audio of the book-in-progress alongside Peter’s evocative photographs.
Sarah and Peter’s boys Oscar and Felix are exhibiting bird drawings and stop motion animation while Thomas and Jenny’s children are displaying pottery and woodcarving projects.
Apparently the tea and cake is top-notch too…
Open Studio: The Work of Two Families, Hundalee Mill Farm, Jedburgh, Scottish Borders, TD8 6PA, 01835 869931, http://www.thomashawson.com/open-studio-2021-2/, today and tomorrow, 10am – 6pm. Until October 30.
Paintings of figures nestling together in quiet repose mingle with a collection of vivid painterly land and seascapes in this new body of work from Helen Tabor at the Smithy Gallery in Blanefield. Tabor revels in creating texture in her canvases while paying attention to the small details. It’s a heady mix.
Helen Tabor: Walk With Me, Smithy Gallery, 74 Glasgow Road, Blanefield, Glasgow, G63 9HX, 01360 770551, www.smithygallery.co.uk, Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 5pm. Until August 29.