Alfred Wallis

Alfred Wallis

An artist and a mariner, Wallis’ work contains prime examples of early twentieth-century naïve art, so influential on Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood’s artist colony in St. Ives, which would in turn become a centre of painting innovation as important as Paris or London in the history of Modernism. Read more

Unschooled and lowly paid, from the 1870’s Wallis worked as a merchant sailor on schooners between his native Cornwall and Newfoundland, and mostly painted on cardboard ripped from packing boxes and a limited palette of colours brought from ship’s chandlers.

He also spent much of his life as a rag and bone man, and only began painting in his seventies. The world of sea was his abiding artistic concern.

In his paintings, perspective is largely ignored and an object's scale is often based rather on its relative importance in the scene. This gives many of his paintings a map-like quality. Wallis painted seascapes from memory, in response to the fact that steamships were replacing the world of sail he knew. As he put it, his subjects were "what use To Bee out of my memory [and] what we may never see again..."

In 1928, a few years after Wallis had started painting seriously, Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood came to St. Ives and established their artist colony. They were delighted to find Wallis, embracing him and celebrating his direct approach to image-making. Nicholson later said: "to Wallis, his paintings were never paintings but actual events, something that has grown out of the Cornish seas and earth and which will endure''. Wallis was propelled into a circle of the some of most progressive artists working in Britain in the 1930s. The influence, however, was all one-way; Wallis continued to paint as he always had.

Despite the attention and appreciation of other artists and critics, Wallis sold very poorly during his life, and continued to live in poverty until, in 1942, he died in the Madron Workhouse in Penzance. His importance has only been fully recognized posthumously.

June/July/August 2014

Britain best-loved illustrator Quentin Blake has turned his hand to drawing the beach at Hastings for a new exhbition at the towns Jerwood Gallery. Blake worked with the gallery to select 10 works from the permanent collection to reinterpret including a piece by Alfred Wallis. The exhibiton will run until October 20th.