Current exhibition in our Tall & Sunken Galleries
Artist & Mariner
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942) was a mariner and scrap merchant born in Devonport, Plymouth, who spent most of his life in Cornwall. He started painting around the age of seventy, with no formal training and little income. Despite these challenges, his artistic output was prolific.
After going to sea as a cabin boy at the age of nine, Wallis spent his early life working on lugger and deep-sea fishing boats off the Cornish coast and in the Atlantic. He later set up a marine scrap store in St Ives. Following the death of his wife, he turned to making art as a creative release from the loneliness he felt.
Whilst visiting St Ives in 1928, the artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood encountered Wallis painting in his cottage. He was surrounded by artworks that he had pinned to the walls with large nails, still visible in some of the works. Nicholson and Wood were drawn to the freshness of Wallis’ approach: disregarding rules of scale and perspective, and painting memories and experiences, rather than from life.
A year later, Nicholson arranged for Wallis’ paintings to be included in an avant-garde group exhibition organised by the Seven and Five Society in London. He also introduced Wallis’ work to Jim Ede, a Tate curator who later created Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Ede quickly purchased his first Wallis and a lively letter correspondence with the artist ensued, lasting from 1929 to 1939. Kettle’s Yard’s collection was built upon their close friendship and contains over one hundred works, a significant number of which are displayed in this exhibition.
Part of what makes Wallis’ work so distinctive is his use of unconventional materials. Working with a limited palette of boat or household paints, he would recycle pieces of cardboard, often from the local greengrocer, allowing the irregular shapes to dictate the composition and leaving areas bare to reveal the colour and texture of the cardboard. In spite of this, Wallis was able to manipulate his materials to achieve a variety of expressive effects, from lively impasto brushwork to convey the churning waves of the stormy sea, to delicate and precise line drawings that illustrate ships and boats with an almost diagrammatic accuracy.
As well as providing respite from the loneliness he felt after the death of his wife, Wallis used painting as a nostalgic outlet, expressing his love for the ships and boats of his youth. Many of his works depict places and scenes from an earlier era – ‘what used to be’ – featuring the types of people and vessels he would have encountered during his long career at sea and in St Ives. Brigantines and barques with magnificent sails and figureheads are illustrated in meticulous detail, conjuring the relics of a lost age. Wallis had direct experience of sailing on these larger vessels, working as a merchant sailor and undertaking Atlantic voyages as a young man.
In the summer of 1941, Wallis’ friend, the art critic Adrian Stokes, arranged for him to be cared for at the Madron Institute, a workhouse in Penzance, owing to the artist’s deteriorating health.
Ben Nicholson wrote to Jim Ede on the day of Wallis’ death in 1942, ‘I don’t think a good Wallis is representational, it is simply REAL?’ Since his death, Wallis’ paintings have entered public collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Wallis rarely strayed from St Ives, but as Jim Ede remarked, recognising the universal spirit of his paintings, ‘Wallis is never local’.
All works in the exhibition are by Alfred Wallis and from the collection of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge.
Main image: Death ship, 1941-42, Oil on card (dark brown), 198 x 359 mm, © Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge
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