The three paintings in this collection by Alfred Wallis were gifted to Barns-Graham by individual friends: Mary Buchanan, Sven Berlin, and Ben Nicholson. Wallis died in 1942 two years after Willie settled in St Ives. There was time however for her to become acquainted with him, and to act as a sort of ambassador for those who wished to meet the self-taught painter (he could be crotchety).
She admired, as did Ben Nicholson and other painters before her, the simplicity and directness of his imagemaking. There was a freedom, a lack of formality, that the Moderns strived for. To Wallis, painting was a physical event: perspective and relative scale was irrelevant as he storyboarded his memories. It is difficult today, when his work commands so much attention, to imagine the ease with which one could acquire his work, and also give it away.
Mary Buchanan and her husband, the novelist George Buchanan were among those friends the newly arrived Barns-Graham made through the auspices of her Edinburgh College of Art fellow painter Margaret Mellis, and her new husband the art critic and painter, Adrian Stokes. The latter was the catalyst for the move to Cornwall of Barbara Hepworth, her husband Ben Nicholson and the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo with his wife, Miriam. The Stokes’ Carbis Bay home, Little Parc Owles, was a magnet for all new arrivals, and those visiting from London and elsewhere.
Despite the house being full of senior Modernist figures, Barns-Graham never forgot her first encounter with the group of Wallis paintings Stokes owned. Always a note-taker, she recorded the oddly shaped bits of cardboard he painted on, and his particular colours: black boats, green and white seas, and grey houses. Some very early St Ives paintings of sheds by Willie owe something to Wallis, the flattening of perspective and his palette.
The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Collection was shown alongside our Autumn 2021 edition of the bi-annual MODERN MADE auction at The Mall Galleries in London.