Tea with Miss Barns-Graham

Tea with Miss Barns-Graham

by David Whittaker

‘Formidable’ – the word recurred when I told people of my planned visit to see the painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (henceforth known as Willie). And one person who knew her well enough said: ‘Good luck mate!’

It was a Sunday afternoon in late January 2003 when I arrived in the town to meet Willie for an informal interview; she was in her 91st year. (She was born in 1912 at St Andrews in Scotland and moved to St Ives for health reasons in March 1940. This was just 6 months after Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo had moved there from London at the outbreak of war. Her life had fallen into a pattern of dividing the year between the Cornish resort and her native home, escaping the hordes of tourists over the summer months.)

Most of the shops were shut but I found one corner shop open where I bought a chocolate cake from the fridge: my token gift in the face of the formidable challenge to come.

Willie lived in a block of luxury flats along Back Road West, not far from Alfred Wallis’s humble abode (indeed she had known Wallis well enough). I rang the doorbell and braced myself. A petite figure in blue approached through the frosted glass and opened the door. Softly spoken with only a hint of accent, she had a slightly formal manner and led me through to her sumptuous living room, which commanded outstanding views over Porthmeor Beach. It had an elegant modernist feel to it. Cream leather sofa and chairs, augmented with steel and glass. There were many books and her own paintings graced the walls. It was comfortable, once again in a slightly formal way, but not cold, and all the while there was the panoramic sea and sky to distract the eye.

Willie called down the stairs, ‘Prepare tea for Mr Whittaker.’ A woman’s strong Cornish accent called back, ‘Miss Barns-Graham, will Mr Whittaker be ‘avin’ milk?’ Willie looked to me and I nodded, ‘Mr Whittaker takes milk.’ The voice from the deep called up again, ‘Miss Barns-Graham, will Mr Whittaker be ‘avin’ sugar?’ Another glance from Willie and I shook my head, ‘No, Mr Whittaker doesn’t require sugar. Please bring up some plates for the cake that Mr Whittaker has kindly brought.’

We got ourselves settled while I explained who I was, where I came from and what I hoped to achieve. My Irishness interested her and this Celtic link had a sudden thawing affect, which produced a warm, attractive and beguilingly youthful smile. She noticed my interest in the bookcase next to me full of poetry books, ‘I used to read a great deal of poetry when I was younger’, she explained.

The tea was now provided along with my tasteful peace offering. The most obvious topic of conversation was the view: an ever shifting and dramatic Cinerama of sea and sky. I noticed Willie’s replies were becoming more and more laboured and with horror I realised that the cake I’d brought had not yet defrosted and was proving to be dentally challenging for her antique mastication system. I hastily suggested she might enjoy it better later. ‘Perhaps you’re right’, she mumbled.

We spoke about the arts in general and she revealed that Cezanne, Miro and Klee made up her pantheon of greats. She was amazed to have read recently that Marcel Duchamp was voted the most influential artist of the twentieth century.

I was keen to get first-hand impressions of some of her illustrious peers and asked her about Peter Lanyon: ‘I personally believe he’s now overrated. He was paranoid about “foreigners” taking over his territory. He was a proud Cornishman and could be vituperative. But I can understand and have sympathy for this. He was born and raised here and suddenly there’s an onslaught of other artists turning the place into a colony. I would have felt the same in my native corner of Scotland.’ At the same time she believed Roger Hilton to be the most underrated painter of that period.

I was interested to discover that she clearly had some gift for dealing with people encountering distress. She was close to Sydney and Nessie Graham and said that Nessie had come to her for comfort when their marriage was going through a difficult period, while they lived at the lodge opposite Trevaylor in the early 1960s. Alan Lowndes was another example of someone struggling with depression and alcoholism who also came to her for her calming effect. ‘Artists have their faults, they’re very vulnerable people.’ She was an integral part of the Hepworth and Nicholson group and emphasised the tremendous kindness that Nicholson had shown her.

Speaking of places, I told her of my love for Zennor and this led her to speak of her psychic experiences. Once, when staying in a cottage there on her own, while in bed, she heard footsteps coming up the stairs, ‘Soft thuds, as if someone was wearing gum boots’, they proceeded down the corridor to her door. A terrified Willie peered over the sheets awaiting the phantom guest to appear, but no one ever materialised. This occurred on several evenings; she’d had similarly inexplicable experiences throughout her long life. (There is a Scottish word ‘fey’ that could be applied to her. It refers to someone with second-sight, particularly regarding premonitions of death.)

I now spoke of my enthusiasm for the painter Tony O’Malley. I had visited Tony and Jane only two months earlier. He had been very frail and I showed her a photograph of him with me beside his bed, with his firm grip on my hand. The picture had an alarming effect on her. Looking startled she handed it back to me saying, ‘That man has death in his face.’ At the time of my visit to the O’Malleys there was still considerable optimism that Tony would rally, as he had done often enough before. Looking into the distance she spoke very affectionately of their friendship. ‘He would often call around in the evenings for a whiskey, after a day in the studio, and show me some of his sketchbooks, saying: “There’s a good one, and there’s another good one”, but they weren’t all good. He did far too much work, he never stopped. An artist must stop to take stock.’ (She did a good impression of an Irish accent, in fact she was something of a mimic, also doing impressions of the local Cornish folk.)

She went on: ‘He was an enormously loved man. You would nearly fall off your chair laughing at his stories! He knew so much about so much. Tony was uncomplicated but he wasn’t simple’.

It was now time to call a halt and she suggested I look in again before heading home in three days time. As I was leaving she said: ‘Thank you for bringing Tony back into my mind’.

She had kept me on my toes throughout and corrected me on various dates and details. I was impressed by her incisive and well thought out replies to my probing and left feeling exhilarated.

I duly returned with the intention of taking a couple of photographs of Willie before driving back to Oxfordshire. But as she opened the door and ushered me into her living room there was an anxious, concerned look about her. ‘Have you heard the news?’ I shook my head. ‘Tony died two nights ago.’ This was certainly a bombshell following on so quickly from our previous conversation. She offered me whiskey but I thought better of it with the long drive ahead. We both sat in silence while staring out solemnly at the gentle ebb and flow of the waves, which took on a special poignancy. The sea, sand, rocks and clouds carrying on as normal (a view Tony would have known well from his Porthmeor Studio), punctuated by the cry of the gulls ..

Only eight months earlier I had been at my mother’s side when she died, and I felt a sudden need to speak to Willie in detail about this. She seemed intrigued and appreciative of this sharing of grief. She revealed a spiritual side, expressing a belief that the best qualities of people somehow get recycled by life; it’s not all meaningless. She said that she had been very close to her late brother, and dearly wanted to believe they might meet again in some afterlife, but honestly felt it to be unlikely.

We concluded with her saying we must emphasise the positive in everybody: ‘There is so much gossip and back stabbing in art communities, I find one has less ego as one gets older’. I took my photos (in not the most relaxed of atmospheres) and left.

About a week later Willie phoned. She wanted to thank me; apparently she had been depressed herself for some time and hadn’t been working, which increased the vicious circle she felt trapped in. But she had a strong feeling from the moment I started talking of Tony, with the photograph, that this was somehow auspicious. His death, linked closely in time with my visit, confirmed this and she took it as a sign to get painting again; in fact from the moment she closed the door behind me she hadn’t stopped! She was working on a painting for Tony and would let me see it on a future visit. (In the meantime she had received copies of the photos I’d taken of her, but said she didn’t like them much as they made her look old.)

The following month I was back (this time I decided it was safer to take flowers). Willie’s good friend and neighbour Dell Casdagli was on hand to make the tea and we settled down to this before a tour of the studio. Willie complained that her doctor had warned about her high blood pressure and was finding it a bore that she wasn’t allowed her evening whiskey. I then made the mistake of taking from my bag a handsome new book about Nancy Wynne-Jones (who had lived in the area in the ‘50s and ‘60s). This produced a look of horror quickly followed by rage. ‘That woman’s name has never been mentioned under this roof for years’, she snarled. I was really worried that the aforementioned blood pressure would go through this same roof. It made me wonder if there was still some latent jealousy, after all these years, about competing with another local female artist. But before long the mood changed again when the doorbell rang and two old friends of Willie arrived unannounced. I sensed that it was a bit much for her and soon left. Back home a few days later and a letter arrived in her smart hand. She apologised for the interruption and said she had attempted, unsuccessfully, to locate the guest house where I was staying in Penzance, as she was keen that I see her work-in-progress on the O’Malley painting. Oh well, next time for sure …

Meanwhile, on the world’s stage the invasion of Iraq had just happened and I had regular phone calls from Willie venting her Celtic spleen at the madness she perceived: ‘George Bush is a recovering alcoholic and he has obviously suffered serious brain damage.’ She also expressed concern at the terror that the bombing would induce in domestic pets in Baghdad. I was always pleased to hear her and felt privileged to have built such a comradely rapport so quickly.

The last time I saw Willie was in April, and I had tea with her in the Tate, St Ives, followed by a brief visit the next day to her flat (when I also met her long time friend and amanuensis, Rowan James). She was in an agitated state as a film crew was due any minute to interview her for a programme about Barbara Hepworth. Out of luck again with seeing her studio I beat another hasty retreat, but remained optimistic that there would be a next time.

Shortly after this Willie left for Scotland, not realising that this was the last time she would close her front door behind her. She would never see the little fishing harbour, where she had worked so happily and creatively for over sixty years, again. And so it came to pass, that exactly a year to the week from my first tentative encounter with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, it was now time for her own considerable qualities to be recycled. Formidable to the end, she remains an inspiration to us all.

© David Whittaker 2011