For many artists who live into their eighties and nineties, retirement isn’t an option. Unless the frailties of old age curtail it, the creative impulse continues, nourished perhaps by a sense of being free of external expectations and demands, and directed by years of experience.
Painter and printmaker Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was born in Edinburgh in 1912 and arrived in St Ives in March 1940, joining the group of artist-evacuees from the London Blitz which included Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo. She died in St Andrews in 2004 aged 91, still hard at work on an exhibition of new paintings and one of the last surviving voices of the St Ives Modernists.
Lynne Green’s comprehensive account of Barns-Graham’s life and work, my Book of the Week, was first published in 2001. Ten years later, in time for the artist’s 2012 centenary, we published an updated edition with a twenty-five page ‘Coda’ covering the last three years of her life. For her final years had seen a prolific outpouring of new paintings and powerful prints, reflecting what she called a ‘letting rip’. She continued to love life, to be sustained by an ongoing engagement with the raw material of her art and by a single-minded urge to create. And the need for artistic expression was becoming increasingly urgent, as she explained to critic John McEwen in 2001: ‘Now I am at the stage of urgency. My theme is celebration of life, joy, the importance of colour, form, space and texture. Brushstrokes that can be happy, risky, thin, fat, fluid and textured. Having a positive mind and constantly being aware and hopefully being allowed to live longer to increase this celebration.’
I remember visiting her 2002 exhibition at Art First in London and being struck by the extraordinary vibrancy of her recent work. It suggested youthful vigour, although the artist had just turned ninety. There’s now another opportunity to see her wonderfully liberated late paintings – considered to be amongst the best work she produced – at Art First, whose exhibition Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: In Perspective: The Late Works continues until 17th May.
Lucy Myers, Managing Director
W. Barns-Graham: A Studio Life by Lynne Green. Paperback, 344 pages, 290 x 249 mm. Includes 191 colour and 41 b&w illustrations. November 2011. 978-1-84822-095-9. £25.00/$50.00.