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Alfred Wallis, Artist and Mariner, by Robert Jones

Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), mariner and fisherman, who lived for most of his life in Cornwall and is most closely identified with St Ives, at the end of his life was a self-taught painter whose paintings of ships, harbours and the sea provided significant inspiration to the generation of artists who came to Cornwall in the 1920s and 30s. His influence on painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood is most often cited, but he was accorded a sort of bemused respect and affection by many more, and his work can be seen at the root of so many of other painters’ works that have been created in that jewel-clear air of West Cornwall. This wonderful book seeks to rescue the man from the legend and stereotype and the somewhat patronising label of ‘primitive’.

What most people know about Alfred Wallis comes from the time that he became known to the wider world. He was a seaman and fisherman for half his life, born just over the border in Devon of Cornish parents (seemingly, it is possible his mother might have been Scillonian, which appeals to me). He grew up in Penzance, went to sea at a very young age, married very young, and in later life moved to St Ives to run the Marine Stores with his wife. His wife Susan, whom he married at 20, was a widow who was much older than him, with children near his own age. Her death in 1922 marked the end of the business, and, all alone and in his seventies, he took up painting to pass the time and ease his loneliness. He painted on cardboard from grocers’ boxes, with boat paint, and he said repeatedly that he was painting what he knew from his past, before it was all forgotten. Part of the legend is the story of Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood walking past his open door and seeing paintings stacked up all around the walls. They saw merit in what he did (unlike his neighbours in St Ives) and supported his work by buying paintings for the rest of his working life. They spread the word, and another buyer and supporter was H S (‘Jim) Ede, a curator at the Tate, who used the collection of Wallis paintings at the heart of his living gallery at Kettles Yard in Cambridge – the best place that I know to see Alfred Wallis’s work and a fascinating and beautiful place in itself.

His paintings, on the face of it, are ‘wrong’ – to get the wealth of detail into his harbourscapes, he didn’t use perspective, but would turn things on end. If one ship is going from West to East it is painted in its right orientation; if another is going from South to North, it is standing on its stern and sailing ‘up’ the painting. In some ways, his pictures combine the elements of a seascape with those of a map or chart – it is almost, but not quite, a birds-eye view. I have loved his paintings from the first time I saw them, in Tate St Ives. I find it impossible to look at them and not smile. They mean Cornwall to me, and the sea around its coast. Their liveliness and vigour and love for the sea-going life are wholly infectious.

Robert Jones, who is a painter and fisherman himself, in this book does a wholly admirable thing by Alfred Wallis – he rescues him from under the labels that have been piled on him – naive painter, primitive, old sea dog (and the calumny that he was not an old sea dog at all, but a St Ives store-keeper with an inaccurate and vivid imagination). More than a work of art history or art criticism, this is a properly researched biography of the man who is so easily dismissed as just an ‘influence’, and whose life is known only in his latter years of lonely and irascible widowhood and retirement. Jones works on shipping records to trace the voyages of a man who worked on long distance trading ships and fishing boats until moving into a shore-based trade in his 40s. Nicholson and his circle respected him and supported him, but conceivably never fully understood him – there is a story that Wallis said he would sell some of his work only on the condition that the buyer promised to amend his life and read the bible every day. This was not mild eccentricity, but the real man – he and his wife were Salvationists with a particular fierce piety. The legend of a poor man painting on and with whatever came to hand does not wholly stand up, either. There is such a thing as a chosen medium, and Wallis appeared to relish adapting his compositions to the odd shaped pieces of card that came his way. He favoured a particular brand of boat enamel too, and bought it for the purpose. He was certain about his palette, and Jones quotes him thus: ‘Been a lot of paintings spoiled By putin Collers where They do not Belong.’ So, he is a thoughtful painter, with his own aesthetic theories.

Wallis must have produced thousands of pieces of work, of which a few hundred survive. There are tales of him recompensing people for errands with paintings which when brought home were disregarded or thrown away. Wallis was rescued by the St Ives artists and given the respect he deserved, if not entirely understood. He lived to a very great age, his final years clouded by a mental condition tinged with religious mania. Having outlived anyone who had a claim to care for him, he ended his days, as he would have feared, in Madron workhouse, although it is on record that he was beyond caring for himself at home and while in Madron his mental and physical state improved enough for him to start to draw again. The debt that the artistic community owed to him was remembered, Nicholson and his wife Barbara Hepworth were among those who visited him there, and the artists who knew him paid for his burial in Barnoon Cemetery, St Ives. The memorial to him is by the noted potter, Bernard Leach.

I thoroughly recommend this book, beautifully illustrated with Wallis’s work, and a careful, necessary tribute to a serious and influential artist and a man whose way of life had disappeared in his lifetime. It is interesting to speculate how far he was aware of the impact of his work. I would like to think that he had some idea.

Robert Jones: Alfred Wallis, Artist and Mariner. Revised edition. Tiverton: Halsgrove, in conjunction with First Light, 2006. 128pp
ISBN13: 978184110728

If you want to see a selection of Wallis’s work online, there is a gallery here at www.alfredwallis.org. If you want to see a collection of his work in beautiful and appropriate surroundings, I suggest Kettles Yard in Cambridge – and not just for its collection of Wallis paintings – it is a unique experience to visit it. I first saw his work in Tate St Ives, and the Tate Collection does include some of his work, although, rather depressingly, mostly flagged currently as ‘Not on display’

9 comments on “Alfred Wallis, Artist and Mariner, by Robert Jones

  1. Jackie
    May 12, 2012

    This was interesting. I’d never heard of Wallis before & so did an internet search. I see what you mean about perspective, but some of the ships are quite detailed, I was surprised to find. His life & work seems to occupy a place similar to Grandma Moses in the U.S.
    I think it’s a mark of good character that you find Mr. Wallis’ work so appealing.And I’m glad that there are people & places trying to make certain that he isn’t forgotten.

  2. rosyb
    May 13, 2012

    I love his work and I suppose his style is perhaps not as strange or childishly naive to us now we have all the deliberately naive movements of the twentieth century behind us, as it might have appeared at the time. I think what I look for is authenticity and genuineness from artists and I think you get that from Wallis. But whilst his drawings are rather naive – whether deliberately or otherwise, I don’t find his use of materials so child-like. I find the limited palette and the use of the textured paint for the squally seas very striking. He achieves a sort of mythic thing with his images – they seem to conjure a motif, a moment, a time of life, a relation of man to the elements – and all a quite universal symbolic way. For me this is where the power lies. I loved Kettle’s Yard when I visited many years ago. I remember a number of artists with a similar feel – very crafty-looking, with mythic qualities but also a fairly low-key or humble use of materials. Like David Jones.

  3. Hilary
    May 14, 2012

    Thank you both for your lovely comments. I’m so glad Alfred Wallis strikes such a chord. There really is am immense power in his work, I do so agree. That legendary encounter between Nicholson and Wallis goes to show it in a way. Through an open door, and across a dimly lit room, his paintings spoke to Nicholson and Wood.

    Coincidentally, I went to Compton Verney yesterday, the country house gallery in Warwickshire. There is a wonderful collection of English folk art there, which is brilliant, just the greatest of fun – inn signs, a ship’s figurehead. And those wonderful naive paintings of unfeasibly well-fed (and, ahem, well-hung) rams and bulls, prize-fighters, home-sweet-home etc. The collection has a single Wallis (painted on a tea-tray), and next to these paintings it’s instantly apparent that there was something very different about his painting – a particular sort of artistic sensibility, and (I do so agree Rosy) texture and vigour. The ram, bull and prizefighter painters were being very careful to copy and stay faithful to reality – Alfred Wallis filtered everything through an extraordinary imagination.

  4. Rosyb
    May 15, 2012

    It’s funny because trained or not, naive or not, artist or not, I think Wallis has a much more artistic sense than Nicholson to be honest. Who tends to leave me rather cold…

  5. Rosyb
    May 15, 2012

    I suppose I feel it’s all a bit subfusque Cubism. The real stuff though I am a huge fan of. But I always feel that Nicholson’s stuff is trying that bit too hard. And perhaps isn’t as genuine as some. And is a bit insipid what’s more.

    Wallis’s stuff has a very strong sense of self and is bold and confident artistically and compositionally and in terms of colour schemes.

  6. Hilary
    May 15, 2012

    Yes – by chance, I’ve been looking a Wallis and Nicholson all in the same week. I went to the Nicholson/Mondrian exhibition at the Courtauld, and found that the more Nicholsons I looked at, the less they did for me. There is a sterility about them, and a carefulness on the other hand, I got something of the same buzz off Mondrian as I do from Alfred Wallis – it’s almost as if he can make the viewer excited that he’s repositioned his block of colour, rather as all Wallis’s boats and ships all tell me something new and different about the world. One day I’ll get to grips with understanding why I experience these varied responses when I look at a painting.

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  8. Rosyb
    May 16, 2012

    I like Mondrian too. And I like Malevich’s geometric stuff. And yet the kind of modern minimalism leaves me cold. Of course the early stuff still has that hand-done look and feel so that simple as the shapes are the whole thing almost has a texture to it…

    The debate about what makes a great painting and a meh painting of a similar vein or style is interesting. I feel Nicholson holds back and is -perhaps – overly academic about it all. I feel dissatisfied with a number of the St Ives artists actually.

    Talking of modernist/cubist type stuff -the best thing ever for me was going to the Museum of Modern Art in Prague. It is a treasure chest and there are rooms of cubist paintings – small still lives – by Picasso and Braque. Never been that fussed about them in reproduction but the real things are just mesmerising and very beautiful. The museum is interesting as it shows how the Eastern Europeans kept on with cubism long past anyone else with the tradition just continuing on into the 60s. It seems to represent the whole man/machine in a positive way thing that perhaps was lost very much quicker as an idea in France say. I find it interesting in the same way I find the difference between Eastern European andFrench surrealist theatre interesting. I prefer the Eastern European sort – I think because they use the obliqueness, the paradoxicalness and ridiculousness to say very pertinent things about their society. Seems more concrete to me.

    There was also some fantastic Russian Cubist sculpture which I long to see an exhibition of in the UK. There is so much brilliant stuff that has not been properly included in “our” version of art history.

    Of course there was also a great pile of Socialist Realist crap but never mind about that…

    Sorry for rambling.

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