Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, known as Willie, painter, printmaker and draughtsman, was born in St Andrews, Fife on 8 June 1912, the eldest child of Allan Barns-Graham and his wife Wilhelmina Meldrum, of an old landed family in Stirlingshire and Fife. It was a family already old-fashioned in its formality, even austerity; religious, quietly philanthropic but not given to showing emotion. Though secure in their status the Barns-Graham family was far from rich.
This was not a background conducive to art. Willie showed very early signs of creative ability which could safely be dismissed by her parents as mere diversions of childhood. But the sensations of artistry were too deeply imprinted to go away. By the time she was a senior pupil at St Hilda’s School in Edinburgh, Willie’s determination to become an artist had set as hard as her father’s determination she should not. With the support of an aunt, the dispute was resolved in her favour, but it exacted a toll on both parties. Allan Barns-Graham did not reject his daughter but it was again her aunt who negotiated with him that Willie could attend the Edinburgh College of Art.
Edinburgh College of Art
Barns-Graham attended the College from October 1931 and finally graduated, after setbacks caused by illness, in 1937. The connection with the College did not end with graduation. Barns-Graham was awarded her first scholarship in June 1935, and further awards in each of the following five years. Thus intermittently continuing study at the College until 1939, she also exhibited at the Summer Exhibitions of the RSA until 1945. This does not imply a parochial background. She and her friends such as William Gear and Margaret Mellis were acquainted with modern art in both London and Paris in the 1930s. The Principal of the College since 1932, Hubert Wellington, was aware that some of the most advanced talents in Britain had gathered at St Ives in Cornwall for the duration of the War. In 1940 both the war situation and Barns-Graham’s poor health suggested to him that this would be a suitable refuge for her, and she arrived in St Ives in March 1940.
View this artist's work in our loan collection here.