Alfred Wallis, ‘The Blue Ship’ ?c.1934
Alfred Wallis
The Blue Ship ?c.1934

Who was he?

We might know Alfred Wallis as an artist, but to his friends and family he was a fisherman. This was how he made his money. Wallis was born in Penzance in Cornwall. Being on the coast, there was a lot of opportunity to fish. At one point, he even became a sailor. The sea was very important to him. That’s why so many of his paintings are of the sea and the coast. This is what Wallis knew and grew up around.

Wallis met a man called Jim Ede, who became his friend. Jim went back to London where he told people about Wallis’s work. Soon, people outside of Cornwall and Devon knew Wallis as a painter, rather than as a fisherman. He became a small celebrity in the 1930s. Unfortunately, Wallis could not sell many of his paintings and he lived with little money for most of his life.

Why did he paint?

Alfred Wallis
Boats at Rest in Mount’s Bay

In 1876, Wallis’ married the love of his life, Susan Ward. He was 20 and she was 41. He became step-father to her five children. Susan died many years before her husband in 1922. When Wallis felt lonely, he would paint. He told Jim Ede he painted ‘for company’.

In 1928, Wallis met the painters Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood who moved to St Ives, where Wallis was living. The three became close friends. Nicholson and Wood encouraged Wallis to paint, while he influenced them with his style of painting. They liked how Wallis was not worried about getting all the details right, but painted the scene he saw. It was this friendship that helped Wallis become part of a group of painters who were seen as the best in Britain at the time.

Why are his paintings called naïve art?

Alfred Wallis, ‘‘The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach’’ ?c.1932
Alfred Wallis
‘The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach’ ?c.1932

Wallis never had an art lesson. At the time, art was never taught in schools. Wallis taught himself how to paint. Even without any training, he just did it, because he wanted to. This is why his paintings are called naÏve. This means that he did it without knowing any of the technical methods of how to paint. He simply put his paintbrush on the canvas and did what he thought would look good. Some of his paintings may look a little odd, but that's what makes them special. In The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach, the house looks like it is floating on the water and it is too big to fit on the land. Wallis wrote the title himself. The bad spelling shows that he was not the most educated, but it didn't matter. This style of painting became very popular.

Could you go away today and start painting? Wallis is now famous. If he didn’t need to know how to paint, you don’t either. Just paint what you like.

Where can I see his work?

Alfred Wallis, ‘St Ives’ c.1928
Alfred Wallis
St Ives c.1928

You can see some of Wallis’s artwork at Tate St. Ives. This is where Wallis lived for many years. The gallery is on the coast, so you can see the same views that Wallis painted. It’s the best way to see the landscape that Wallis was working in. St Ives is beautiful in the summer and means you can see Wallis’ art and play on the beach.

If you like Wallis's style of painting, why don't you try for yourself? And, best of all, you don't need to be by the sea. You could use a lake, a river, even your bathtub as inspiration. Watch this video, where you'll learn how to make a wave painting. Maybe you'll be the next Alfred Wallis.