Artist biography

English painter, fisherman and scrap merchant. He claimed to have gone to sea at the age of nine and was involved in deep-sea fishing, sometimes sailing as far as Newfoundland. In 1890 he moved to St Ives where he set up as a marine scrap merchant. In 1912 he retired. His wife died in 1922, whereupon he took up painting.

In 1928 Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson discovered Wallis in St Ives. Both artists were already working in a primitive idiom but were further encouraged by the discovery of Wallis. His principal subjects were ships at sea and shipwrecks, especially the ships that had disappeared during his lifetime. Other typical subjects were landscapes with trees and houses. His paintings rarely depict people. He used very few colours, and one associates with him some lovely dark browns, shiny blacks, fierce greys, strange whites and a particularly pungent Cornish green.

Wallis regarded his paintings as expressions of his experiences. He was unaware of linear perspective but arranged the objects depicted in terms of relative importance, determining their sizes accordingly. Thus the principal subject of a painting would be the largest object depicted, regardless of where it stood in relation to others. While his pictorial naivety appealed in particular to Wood, his handling of materials attracted Nicholson. Wallis died in Madron Workhouse. Although his paintings have a directness and distinction of their own, his principal importance lies in his relation to the prevailing interests in English art.

Bibliography
S. Berlin and B. Nicholson: ‘Alfred Wallis', Horizon, vii (1943), pp. 41–50
S. Berlin: Alfred Wallis: Primitive (London, 1949)
E. Mullins: Alfred Wallis: Cornish Primitive Painter (London, 1967)
Alfred Wallis (exh. cat., ed. A. Bowness; London, ACGB, 1968)

JEREMY LEWISON

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