The artist was born into a wealthy family in St Andrews, Fife, Scotland. Much against parental wishes she decided to study art. From 1932-37 she attended the Edinburgh College of Art, establishing her own studio there until taking up an Andrew Grant Travelling Fellowship, first arriving in St Ives on 10th March 1940. From that time until her death, her working year was divided between times in St Andrews and St Ives, maintaining home and studio in each place, and travels abroad on painting trips with companions.
Her close circle of artist friends locally included Phil Whiting (of Edinburgh originally), Borlase SMART, Barbara HEPWORTH, Ben NICHOLSON, Bryan WYNTER, Guido MORRIS and Naum GABO amongst others in the modernist camp. Willie was a member of the CRYPT GROUP who exhibited work not found acceptable to the more traditional members of the St Ives Society of Artists, and therefore they could only obtain the crypt of the Society's Gallery, situated in a former church.
In 1949 she married the writer David Lewis (dissolved 1963), who later determined to train as an architect at Leeds School of Architecture. For one year (1956-7) Willie took up a teaching post at Leeds School of Art, at the end of which contract she returned to St Ives, living separately from Lewis from that time. Her work grew in abstraction the longer she lived, and her artist statement from her biography defines that stand: 'Abstraction is a refinement and greater discipline to the idea: truth to the medium perfects the idea.'
Willie held strong opinions about the difficulties of women artists 'in a man's world' and frequently complained of being overlooked and crowded-out by male artists with large egos (and often, in her words, of lesser talent). In later life, she relied heavily on her companion and friend, Rowan James, as driver, cook, and framer of her work, as these were everyday nuisances which she had never learned (nor wanted) to do.
Though ultimately her achievements in draftsmanship, colour and form were increasingly recognised, and with this progress her forthright confidence grew, it seemed often to be never enough to satisfy Willie's need for recognition. Both the award of the CBE for her services to art, and her four Honorary doctorates late in life, at St Andrews, Falmouth College of Art, Plymouth University, and Herriot Watt, Edinburgh, gave her great pleasure; Dr Willie was an active and generous patron and member of the Hypatia Trust (1996-2004). In her will she framed the plans for the Barns Graham Memorial Trust, which operates from her former home at Balmungo, St Andrews, Scotland. It is set up to preserve her work, but also to provide working studio space and financial aid for young artists. The Trust can be contacted at: www.barns-grahamtrust.org.uk .
Abstract painter: drawing and painting in all media; prints, monotypes, chalks
works and access
Access to works: Arts Council; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; St Ives Library; Tate (8 works)
1947: Downing's Bookshop, St Ives June
1949, 1951: Redfern Gallery Solo
1954: Roland, Browse & Delbanco Gallery, London, Solo
1960: NAG Painters in Cornwall, Plymouth City Art Gallery; Art First, London Ten year Retrospective2002
1968: Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh 1968
1987: NAG & RCALooking West ;
1988: Crawford Art Centre, St Andrews, Fife, Scotland 1988
1989: A Century of Art in Cornwall 1889-1989, Truro at CCC ;
1989: Retrospective1989-90 and Touring, NAG
1992: Artists from Cornwall, RWE, Bristol
1999 Tate St Ives Solo, & book launch
Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
2008: The Great Atlantic, Arwenack Street Gallery, Falmouth, 'The Golden Age of Cornish Art'
2018: W Barns Graham : A Unique Collection of Works on Paper, Belgrave Gallery, St Ives (2-23 Apr)
2019: The World as Yet Unseen, Falmouth Art Gallery (6 Apr-15 June)
2019: A Distant Isle, Belgrave St Ives (10-29 June)
2021: Selected Works 1951-2004, Belgrave St Ives (11 Sept-4 Oct)
2022: Tate St Ives (28 May-2 Oct)
The Crypt Group
Hypatia Trust (Council)
Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall
STISA (Founder member)
Newlyn Society of Artists from 1960 ff
Telegraph 28 Jan 2004 (Obituary)
Barns-Graham (1999) A Studio Life (Illus Autobiography)
Bird (2008) St Ives Artists: Place & Time
Brittain, Sarah and Cook, Simon (2001) Behind the Canvas, 40 Artists working in West Cornwall;
Buckman (2006) Dictionary of Artists in Britain since 1945
Cross (2002) Catching the Wave: Contemporary Artists in Cornwall (pp 48-51; likeness & illustrations)
Davies (1994) St Ives Revisited - innovators & followers
Great Atlantic Publications & Clark Art Ltd (2008) the golden age of cornish art
Gunn (2007) The Prints of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: A complete catalogue
Hardie (1995) 100 Years in Newlyn: Diary of a Gallery (Retrospective at NAG 1989, illus)
Hoyle, H (Dec 2010 Women Artists in Cornwall www.cornishmuse.blogspot.com) Review of BBC4 documentary 'Art of Cornwall'
Hoyle, H (May 2012 Women Artists in Cornwall www.cornishmuse.blogspot.com) 'From blogging to printmaking - a journey of discovery'
Hoyle, H (Oct 2013 Women Artists in Cornwall www.cornishmuse.blogspot.com) 'Margaret Mellis and St Ives Modernism'
Hoyle, H (April 2016 Women Artists in Cornwall www.cornishmuse.blogspot.com) 'Taking Space at the Crypt Gallery'
Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly: Oil Paintings in Public Ownership
RWE (1992) Artists from Cornwall, Bristol
Tate (1985) St Ives 1939-64: 25 Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery (biog notes p115 with photo c1953)
Whybrow (1996) Another View, Art in St Ives
Whybrow (2013) St Ives: The Story of Porthmeor Studios;