Primarily known for her abstract paintings and prints, it may be surprising to learn that during Barns-Graham’s first years in St Ives she painted and drew portraits or ‘heads’. Working on commissions provided some income, grew her reputation amongst the St Ives community and provided a subject during the period when painting outdoors was prohibited during the war.


Unknown Number of Portraits

We do not know how many portraits Willie created at the beginning of her career as many portraits she worked on were either commissioned or bought by the sitter. Her notebook from the time gives us some insight with colourful descriptions of creating particular works and occasional annual lists. The below list from 1944 gives a sense of the variety of people posing for her including: Bob Wagner, a friend and US soldier stationed locally; Helga Berlin, friend and wife of artist Sven Berlin; Susan [sic] Lethbridge, owner of a toy shop in The Digby and wife of artist Bryan Wynter; some doctors whose portraits were uncompleted as they were ‘called away’.

List of Head Drawings, 1944, Extracts from diary 1940-1947, WBG/4/1/6

Mrs Rogers, Sloop Inn, c.1940, oil on canvas, Private Collection

Mrs Rogers


Of the portrait Barns-Graham painted of Mrs Rogers, wife of the landlord of the Sloop Inn, Samuel Rogers, she writes:

OCT. 30th [1940] Wrote to Mr [Hubert] Wellington today. I have begun two portraits since writing in this. Margarita Medina. + Mrs Rogers. BOTH 25 x 30.


MRS ROGERS of “The Sloop”. I am painting in the Sloop [Inn]. This is a job. The light is poor + time limited. 2.45-4 pm. I hope to keep this a decorative composition. In a different colour scheme to my recent paintings – using … Yellow / Alizarine [sp] Crimson / Viridian Green

She is a handsome clear-cut woman with most distinctive hair dressing + a charming attractive personality. Tall + angular. With a sensous [sp] mouth yet almost hard face. Something of the Duchess of Windsor style. So she has often been told + I can see it.

Mrs Rogers gives me tea after upstairs in a tiny well furnished room overlooking the harbour. A wonderful orange russet thick carpet + when the light is on it – oh!

Extracts from diary 1940-1947, WBG/4/1/6, pp.89-90

Portraits and their sitters

Moving On


While heads were an important foundation for Barns-Graham’s career, they were perhaps a subject she was keen to move away from, as hinted at in a letter from 1944. After the 1940s, with the exception of a few portraits in pencil executed in the 1980s, she did not continue with this body of work. This is in contrast to drawing landscapes and views, which she returned to often in her practice.

I met Ben Nicholson the artist, outside my studio yest. + he asked to see my new work + if I would come to tea this week. However I did not take him into the studio as didn’t think head drawings would be of the slightest interest to him. But I hope to go to tea one day!

Letter from WBG to Robert Wagner, 2 July 1944, WBG/1/3/16