Alfred Wallis, Cornish fisherman and, from his late sixties on, self-taught artist, was born in Devonport on the 18th August, 1855. He attended school from the age of seven for at least two years, and at the age of nine – or such was his claim – he may have been employed as cabin boy to the fishermen working the waters off the Cornish coast. There is some doubt, however, that this claim is correct: he more likely worked as an apprentice basket maker after his brief schooling. But from the age of twenty there is clearer evidence for a sea-faring occupation since Wallis is listed as crew-member with the Belle Adventure, one of the many great sailing ships – schooners and brigantines – which carried global trade between 1820-1890 from UK ports to Europe and the United States. The Belle Adventure itself, fishing for cod, crossed the Atlantic bound for the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, and several of Wallis’s later pictures record this voyage (e.g. Voyage to Labrador c.1936). These crossings were often dangerous. Wallis’s ship was itself caught in a storm and survived only by jettisoning the catch. After this Wallis exchanged deep sea for inshore fishing working on the smaller luggers setting sail in the mornings from Mounts Bay and returning, after a days fishing, before nightfall.
Wallis married Susan Ward – a widow twice his age with six children from a previous marriage. They had two children together, but neither survived. They moved from Devonport to St. Ives and here Wallis, leaving his sea-faring occupation, started a small shop selling old rope, nails and paint – marine wares and salvaged goods. He would collect supplies in a small cart calling out ‘old iron?’, and this became his nick-name. One local boy, Thomas Lander, recalls: ‘As boys we used to go on the beaches and collect small quantities of rags and bones. But they had to be clean…if he said ‘tuppence’ it was tuppence….he was a quiet man, an industrious man’.* (1)
From the1890’s on, sailing schooners and brigantines were replaced by larger steam boats. This augured a decline of the traditional fishing fleets, and a decline, too, in the auxiliary activities associated with the fleets. The marine wares trade become unprofitable, and Wallis did odd jobs instead – moving furniture for the local antiques dealer, and working as a labourer to build houses to contain military personnel preparing for the 1914-18 war.
Susan Ward died in 1922, just after the war. The story, oft quoted, is that subsequent to his wife’s death Wallis started to paint, as he claimed, ‘for company’ – a strange statement but one that suggest that painting, if not a replacement for human contact, at least must have assuaged the loneliness he was feeling. Wallis was by nature an outsider, suspicious of human contact. This suspicion became ever stronger after his wife’s death, and led, towards the end of his life, to periods of full-blown paranoia. He painted ‘for company’, but also to recall a happier time: his pictures, largely of boats and harbours, are nostalgic for a time when the sailing fleets still operated and the fishing industry still flourished.
Wallis painted using household paints bought in small tins, and – appropriate for a former rag-and-bone merchant – he painted on discarded bits of card most often cadged from the local grocer’s shop. It was these paintings that Ben Nicholson stumbled upon. In August 1928 he and Christopher Wood ‘discovered’ Wallis. ‘On our way back from Porthmeor Beach’, writes Nicholson, ‘we passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall, with particularly large nails through the smallest ones. We knocked on the door and inside found Wallis, and the paintings we got from him then were the first he made’.* (2)
Wallis is now recognized as one of the most original British artists of the 20th century. The epithet ‘naïve’ is often used of him – indeed he is sometimes referred to as the ‘father’ of British naïve painting. But this kind of art-historical term is applied by lookers on – Wallis himself had no notion either that he was a progenitor of any school or approach, or that he was in any way adopting a particular style in his paintings. Nicholson commented that to Wallis, ‘paintings were never paintings, but actual events’, and this more accurately gets at what Wallis himself was attempting to do. He had a directness of approach; he eschewed perspective, and an object’s scale is often based on its relative importance to him in the overall painting – fish, for instance, are larger than the fishing boat above them, or songbirds bigger than the branches to which they cling. His paintings – simple, direct and fresh – have immense appeal, and a certain nostalgia of content. As he said himself, he painted ‘what use To Bee out of my memery what we may never see again…’ [sic].
Nicholson introduced Wallis to Jim Ede, art collector and assistant curator at the Tate Gallery, London. Ede promoted his work in London, but although both Nicholson and Ede were purchasers of Wallis’s work, the monetary amounts he received for his paintings were negligible and he continued to live in poverty. In 1941, unable to look after himself, Wallis was moved into the Madron Institute – the local workhouse – where he died on 29th August 1942. He is buried in Barnoon cemetery, overlooking St. Ives’s Porthmeor beach and the Tate Gallery (which now has several of his works). His gravestone, depicting a diminutive mariner at the base of a huge lighthouse – a recurring motif in Wallis’s paintings – was made from tiles by Bernard Leach, the potter. Jim Ede, who may not have been able to sell many of Wallis’s paintings in his life, went on to establish Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, and it is there that the main collection of Wallis’s work can now be seen.
(1) Quoted in Alfred Wallis Mathew Gale 2009 – p 17. *
(2) Ben Nicholson., Alfred Wallis, Horizon, vol. 7, no37, 1943.
Public Collections holding work by Alfred Wallis include:
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge; Tate, St Ives; Arts Council of England; Museum of Modern Art, New York.