Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912–2004) was a leading 20th century artist who was instrumental in the development of British abstract art. Her painting Winter Landscape, is on show in A Curator’s Choice.

Kandinsky painted his famous abstract piece Untitled (First Abstract Watercolour) in 1910, and by the mid 20th century abstract art was just starting to take root in British art.

But working in this new art form was not an easy path to tread. Barns-Graham started at the Edinburgh School of Art in 1931, and recalled:

…it was very academic teaching [at Edinburgh School of Art], and I tried to learn from everybody that was teaching me. But I remember a man teaching composition, and I did an abstract. And I was told to not do that sort of thing. And I remember having a great difficulty.

Then I vanished from class one day and worked at home so as to be free. And I brought it up and Mr Westwater said to me ‘where have you been?’ and I said ‘working at home’ and I produced it. He was quite pleased with me though. I did a chalk drawing on coloured paper.

The teaching was academic, I had to spend many years undoing it. But it had its value, because I think it’s important to know how to draw. But I had to undo a lot of it to feel free.

In the exhibition A Curator’s Choice, visitors can hear Wilhelmina speaking further about the development of her artistic practice.

After art school, she moved from Scotland to Cornwall, where she was surrounded by a vibrant community of artists including Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, and was able to freely develop her style. She became one of the influential St Ives School of painters.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s impressive body of work includes over 400 paintings, as well as drawings and studies. Later in her career, she began experimenting with different materials, including an extensive collection of prints.

More unusually, she also designed a set of over 50 knitted ties. These ties are fantastic examples of her thoughts on abstract art – combining carefully chosen colours and forms.

You can try making your own abstract tie by using this knitting pattern from the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust.


Image courtesy The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust