Born in St Andrews in 1912, Barns-Graham trained at the Edinburgh College of Art from 1932-37. She was awarded a Postgraduate travelling scholarship in 1938 and in 1942 became a member of the St Ives Society of Artists; a group which included artists such as the painter Ben Nicholson and the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Barns-Graham worked variously in London, St Ives, St Andrews as well as internationally throughout the course of her career and also spent a year teaching at the Leeds College of Art. She was awarded a D. Litt from the University of St Andrews in 1992, the same year as a touring retrospective exhibition took place - just one of her innumerable solo shows. Her work demonstrates a distinctive feel for composition, using radiant colour and pleasing simple forms to create an aesthetic harmonious effect.
Wilhelmina made the transition from painting to printmaking in her 80s. At first she was sceptical of the medium but became inspired by the amount of work she could now accomplish and began creating more work than her printmaker could keep up with.
"At my age, there's no time to be lost. I say to myself, 'Do it now, say it now, don't be afraid.' I've got today, but who knows about tomorrow? I'm not ready for death yet, there's still so much I want to do. Life is so exciting; nature is so exciting. Trying to catch one simple statement about it. That's what I'm aiming for, I'll keep on trying."
Despite being born into a wealthy Scottish family, no one could accuse Wilhelmina Barns-Graham of not working hard to get the recognition as an artist that she felt she deserved. Her journey was not an easy one, filled with deterrents, sickness, and many hardships along the way but nothing would stop Wilhelmina in her passion for creating. Wilhelmina's parents were so against her dreams of enrolling in art school that they forced her into the Edinburgh College of Domestic Science where she slipped away from classes to read art books. Six months later, she was enrolled in the Edinburgh College of Art to begin her life as an artist.
After graduating, Wilhelmina moved to Cornwall and became part of the St Ives artist community, developing her sense of abstraction based on the Cornish landscape. For the rest of her life, Wilhelmina would divide her time between her studios in Cornwall and St Andrews, working hard to gain recognition as a female artist in what she saw as a world dominated by male artists. She saw her artwork in much the same way -"I want my work to be a simple statement: A world in itself - of small area against large masses." By the end of her life, Wilhelmina had achieved what few other artists had - honorary doctorates by esteemed universities; a trust to preserve her legacy; and perhaps most important to her, recognition for her contributions to 20th century art.
The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust was established by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in 1987 and came into effect following her death in January 2004. It was created to secure her life's work and archive for future generations.