A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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
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’