Alfred Wallis spent most of his working life as a fisherman. He claimed to have gone to sea aged nine and was involved in deep-sea fishing, sometimes sailing as far as Newfoundland in Canada. In 1890 he moved to St Ives in Cornwall, where he became a marine scrap merchant. He began painting at the age of seventy “for company” after the death of his wife. In 1928 artists Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson chanced upon Wallis painting in his backstreet St Ives cottage. As Nicholson later described it, they:
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… We knocked at the door and inside found Wallis.
They saw in his unconventional paintings an authentic, expressive vision, and a freshness and immediacy they aspired to in their own work. Wallis regarded his paintings as memories, recollections or expressions of his experiences - he said he painted ‘what used to be’. His principal subjects were ships at sea, especially the working sail ships that had disappeared during his lifetime, and the local towns and landscape. He didn’t use traditional linear perspective, instead arranging his subjects in terms of relative importance - the main subject of a painting would be the largest object, regardless of where it stood in physical relationship to its surroundings. Wallis painted with whatever household materials were to hand. He often used household or ship’s paint rather than artists’ materials, and thought too many colours could spoil a good work. The rhythm, colours and textures of his works were often dictated by the irregularly-shaped boards he found to work on. Artist Margaret Mellis remembered:
People often paid Wallis with old exercise books, bits of board, cardboard, and occasionally old canvases. Then Wallis painted on the back - or sometimes on the front
Two Boats is painted on the back of a Selfridges box lid. The two boats are small fishing smacks: boats that were typically used to bring fish to market in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a sailor first, the types of boats Wallis encountered in his working life are clearly recognisable in his paintings. These are cutter-rigged - meaning that the sails were rigged to a centrally placed mast. Though there are no precise identifying landmarks, the two cutters may be in Mounts Bay, an important fishing ground on the western end of the south coast of Cornwall. The ‘Wallis Moon’; the peculiar downward-facing crescent, which can be seen in other works such as Schooner under the Moon ?c1935-6 was noted by Margaret Mellis. She said that this was not his invention but actually corresponded to the real position of the moon on September evenings, as she had observed it herself. Wallis’s supporters in the contemporary art world included his work in exhibitions and key texts of the time, and linked him with ‘primitive’ painters, like Henri Rousseau, who inspired avant-garde painters on the Continent. However, he did not make a living from his work, and Wallis died in 1942 in the Penzance Union Workhouse in Madron. Wallis is now recognised as one of the major artists associated with St Ives, whose work affected a generation of British artists, and shaped the development of British Modernist painting. Work by Alfred Wallis. Ben Nicholson and Margaret Mellis is currently on display at Tate St Ives in Object, Gesture, Grid: St Ives and the International Avant-garde. A walking tour of St Ives which includes sections on Wallis’s house and grave is also available to download for free.