Artwork Description / Detail
Allan Barns-Graham was born in Gisborne in 1906. A war artist, Barns-Graham is well known for his insightful portraits of New Zealand army troops as well as his eloquent descriptions of the Pacific landscapes they were stationed at.
Just before World War I, his family returned to Britain until 1920 when Barns-Graham was sent to Christ’s College in Christchurch. A highly regarded Classics scholar, he was given permission to skip mathematics lessons and attend classes at the Canterbury College of Art.
Barns-Graham returned to the United Kingdom in 1927 to study at the Glasgow School of Art, but following an alleged attempt by his aunt to adopt him, he was swiftly transferred to the Slade School of Art in London, where he met fellow New Zealander Peter McIntyre.
At the end of his time at the Slade, Barns-Graham returned to New Zealand and attempted to establish himself as a portrait painter in Auckland. He married Eleanor Hope in 1936 and had two children at the outbreak of World War II when he was drafted into the New Zealand Army 3rd NZ Division as a war artist.
This position saw Barns-Graham joining the New Zealand troops in Bourail to record wartime life and chronicle the development of their camp, which Barns-Graham described as ‘at first primitive and later more comfortable’. He also completed several portraits of the troops stationed there in a wide variety of media – charcoal, crayon, pastel, as well as oil and watercolour. Many of these portraits are part of the National Collection of War Art, such as his rendition of Captain Gillespie, the Divisional Historian, and Lieutenant Don Bain, who was a war correspondent with the 3rd Division.
Between September 1943 and May 1944, Barns-Graham and the 3rd Division were relocated to Vella Lavella in the Solomon Islands and to Nissan Island, before he permanently returned to New Zealand in May 1944 and was demobilised in August the following year. During this in-between stage, Barns-Graham toured New Zealand with an exhibition of 84 of his paintings, which generated nationwide interest.
After his exit from the army, Barns-Graham returned to Auckland and re-established himself as a portrait painter. When this did not work out as planned, he returned to Gisborne where he became a teacher at Gisborne Girls’ High, which enabled him to continue painting. Several of his works are illustrated in Jennifer Haworth’s The Art of War: New Zealand War Artists in the Field 1939-1945, published in 2007.
Barns-Graham died at the age of 101 in October 2006.