Artist to Know: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Liz Catalano
Published on

Lyon & Turnbull Offers Painting from Scottish Abstract Artist

During World War II, Scottish artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham sought refuge in a small Cornwall town called St Ives. She believed that the sea air would improve her health, and the remote location would shield her from the war. Barns-Graham instead found herself in the company of Britain’s leading Modernist painters, an environment that helped grow a passion for abstraction. Decades later, she would be recognized as one of Scotland’s most prominent women artists.

A painting from Barns-Graham will highlight Lyon & Turnbull’s upcoming post-war art auction. The sale will begin at 10:00 AM BST (5:00 AM EDT) on October 23rd, 2020. Before placing a bid, learn more about Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in her studio, 1985. Image from David Crane for the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in her studio, 1985. Image from David Crane for the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust.

The child of a prominent landed family, Barns-Graham enjoyed early opportunities at the Edinburgh College of Art. The relationships she formed during those academic years connected her to the St Ives artist group, which came into its own during the 1940s and 50s. A distinct interplay of light and beautiful scenery kept Barns-Graham near the Cornwall shores. However, the community quickly grew crowded and competitive, qualities that eventually weakened the movement.

By the 1960s, Barns-Graham had grown apart from her St Ives peers to start personalizing her abstract paintings. They became more geometric and defined, characteristics that ran parallel to her marital troubles and subsequent divorce. The artist’s style grew increasingly experimental as well. For a time, she repeatedly painted square blocks of color to examine how parts form a whole. “I can’t stop,” she said in a 1966 interview after years of painting the squares. “They have endless possibilities.”

Available in the upcoming Lyon & Turnbull event is an example of these square paintings. The untitled piece was completed in 1960, right when Barns-Graham’s obsession with the shape began. “This work reads like a study or experimental exercise, in which she tests the vibrations provoked by the juxtaposition of contrasting, often jarring, colours,” the auction house states in the lot essay. It is offered with an estimate of GBP 4,000 to £6,000 (USD 5,200 – $7,800).

Untitled painting by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, 1960. Image from Lyon & Turnbull.
Untitled painting by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, 1960. Image from Lyon & Turnbull.

Barns-Graham spent the majority of her career deeply exploring color, form, and shapes. This only accelerated as the years advanced. The British art scene gradually came to appreciate her contributions to Modern art, an area that had previously neglected the work of women artists. A 2001 biography, published a few years before her death, helped boost this public exposure. In Barns-Graham’s last years, she also established a charitable trust that assists young art students.

More recently, Barns-Graham’s work came into focus at The Scottish Gallery in a 2019 retrospective. “She is to art what Megan Rapinoe is to football,” Scottish artist Kate Downie said in a preface to the exhibition, “unapologetically talented and successful but someone who had to emerge from a baseline of critical derision and exclusion amongst her largely male peer group during her large career.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Small Vortex, 1951. Image from Clarke Auction Gallery.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Small Vortex, 1951. Image from Clarke Auction Gallery.

The paintings inspired by her travels to Switzerland have performed particularly well at auction. Small Vortex, a 1951 oil painting, has colors and forms strongly influenced by a visit to the Grindelwald Glacier. The piece reached USD 55,000 at a Clark Auction Gallery sale in 2018, a price almost ten times higher than the high estimate of $6,000. Another icy painting, titled Glacier (Bone), reached GBP 106,250 (USD 138,500) at Sotheby’s in 2016.

These works are outliers in Barns-Graham’s career, however. Her more abstract square paintings dominate the market and tend to fetch between USD 5,000 and $10,000. Though more common, critics identify these later works as more evocative and personal. They balance decades of experience and experimentation and indicate Barns-Graham’s progression as an artist. Lyon & Turnbull summarized this later period: “Above all she was committed to the notion of remaining true to her artistic voice, in whichever form it led her to progress.”

The artist’s untitled 1960 painting will be available on October 23rd, 2020, starting at 10:00 AM BST (5:00 AM EDT). Find the full listings and more information on the Lyon & Turnbull website.