Room 1 in Modern Conversations

Making Stories: Alfred Wallis

John Wells, Aspiring Forms  1950

In a letter written in 1992 John Wells singled out Aspiring Forms as his favourite painting. Painted in 1950, it is one of his largest works and reflects his increasing confidence in his work. The composition follows the principle of the Golden Section, a structure based on ideal proportions that Wells used repeatedly. Its corkscrew forms describe the movement of the birds he watched wheeling around the cliffs of west Cornwall. 'You can see them using the air currents,' he said. 'You can feel the dynamism of their flight and the shapes of their wings all the time.'

Gallery label, September 2004

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Red Form  1954

Born in St Andrews, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham visited Paris and Rouen as a teenager. She studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art between 1932 and 1936, and in 1940 moved to St Ives in Cornwall, on the recommendation of an artist friend, Margaret Mellis. There she got to know Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach and Naum Gabo. The economy of Gabo's sculptural shapes and the transluency of the modern materials he used had a great impact on her. 'Red Form' was painted in her St Ives studio by Porthmeor beach, and reflects the interest she took at the time in the Golden Section.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Peter Lanyon, White Track  1939–40

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Bernard Leach, Spherical Vase  c.1927

The 1920s saw a revival in traditional crafts. The potter Bernard Leach mixed a revival of pre-industrial English designs with similarly traditional styles from Japan, where he had studied. He exhibited his pots alongside painters like Ben and Winifred Nicholson. A resurgence in craft practice in painting and sculpture, as well as pottery and other crafts, had its roots in the anti-industrialism of the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement. It was given more urgency in the wake of the mechanised destruction of the First World War.

Gallery label, September 2016

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Margaret Mellis, Number Thirty Five  1983

Mellis trained as an artist in Edinburgh and Paris. Between 1939 and 1946 she became part of the community of avant-garde artists living and working in and around St Ives. This included Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who lived briefly with Mellis and her husband Adrian Stokes in 1939. Impressed by the work of Nicholson and Naum Gabo she became a constructivist. This work comprises pieces of driftwood, including mahogany, pine and plywood, which she collected from the beach at Southwold, where she moved in 1976. Some of the pieces of wood were already painted when found, others were painted by the artist. She refers to her walk on the beach as a hunt and the driftwood collected as her trophies.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Tacita Dean, Ship of Death  2001

Ship of Death belongs to a portfolio of twenty black and white photogravures with etching collectively entitled The Russian Ending. The portfolio was printed by Niels Borch Jensen, Copenhagen and published by Peter Blum Editions, New York in an edition of thirty-five; Tate’s copy is the fifth of ten artist’s proofs. Each image in the portfolio is derived from a postcard collected by the artist in her visits to European flea markets. Most of the images depict accidents and disasters, both man-made and natural. Superimposed on each image are white handwritten notes in the style of film directions with instructions for lighting, sound and camera movements, suggesting that the each picture is the working note for a film. The title of the series is taken from a convention in the early years of the Danish film industry when each film was produced in two versions, one with a happy ending for the American market, the other with a tragic ending for Russian audiences. Dean’s interventions encourage viewers to formulate narratives leading up to the tragic denouements in the prints, engaging and implicating the audience in the creative process.

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Tacita Dean, The Sinking of the SS Plympton  2001

The Sinking of the SS Plympton belongs to a portfolio of twenty black and white photogravures with etching collectively entitled The Russian Ending. The portfolio was printed by Niels Borch Jensen, Copenhagen and published by Peter Blum Editions, New York in an edition of thirty-five; Tate’s copy is the fifth of ten artist’s proofs. Each image in the portfolio is derived from a postcard collected by the artist in her visits to European flea markets. Most of the images depict accidents and disasters, both man-made and natural. Superimposed on each image are white handwritten notes in the style of film directions with instructions for lighting, sound and camera movements, suggesting that the each picture is the working note for a film. The title of the series is taken from a convention in the early years of the Danish film industry when each film was produced in two versions, one with a happy ending for the American market, the other with a tragic ending for Russian audiences. Dean’s interventions encourage viewers to formulate narratives leading up to the tragic denouements in the prints, engaging and implicating the audience in the creative process.

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Peter Lanyon, Porthleven  1951

This work exemplifies Lanyon’s idea of the ‘experiential landscape’, which involved approaching a place from different positions and combining these views with allusions to geology, history, culture and myth. Here he depicts the fishing port of Porthleven from several perspectives, revealing its two harbours and clock tower. Lanyon later identified a human presence in the work, reading the shape on the left as a fisherman with lamp and his wife wrapped in a shawl on the right. Influenced by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and his theories of the unconscious, the artist saw these as figures embodying the cultural identity of his home.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Janet Leach, Large Dish with foot  c.1965

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

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Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, Small Bottle  1927

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Tomie Ohtake, Untitled (from the series Blind Paintings)  1962

Untitled 1962 is an oil painting with an abstract composition consisting of a large central spiral where ripples of layered white and blue paint converge, recalling some form of cosmic phenomenon. The thin layers of paint have been meticulously overlaid in order to achieve a complex layering which reveals the artist’s characteristically painstaking and methodical process. Ohtake allowed natural rhythm to infuse her compositions whilst at the same time tempering them. Like all of her works, this painting is left untitled. The Brazilian artist Lygia Clark (1920–1988) stated of her friend’s work, ‘A painting by Tomie has no title. It is.’ (Lygia Clark quoted in Instituto Tomie Ohtake 2009, p.71.) Though born in Japan, Ohtake moved to Brazil in 1936 and this painting would have been made there.

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Ben Nicholson OM, 1934 (relief)  1934

Nicholson was interested in the ways in which paintings can represent space. In the 1930s, he made shallow reliefs in which areas of different depths define actual space. In the most radical of these, colour was reduced to just white or grey to achieve a sense of purity. Depth and plain colour make the play of light and shadow an intrinsic part of the work. This emphasis was related to new ideas about living and, especially, to modern architecture, in which natural light and formal simplicity were major concerns.

Gallery label, December 2016

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Joan Eardley, Salmon Net Posts  c.1961–62

Joan Eardley studied at Glasgow School of Art and lived in the city from 1940 to 1961. In 1950 she discovered the small fishing village of Catterline on the east coast of Scotland, and was captivated by the place. She rented cottages there from 1950 to 1961, when Catterline became her permanent home. Fishermen caught crabs and lobster in summer and cod and haddock in winter. There was also a salmon season from February to August when these fish were caught in bag nets. The nets were stretched out to dry on the grass above the high water line of the Catterline shore and Eardley painted them on the spot.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Christopher Wood, Porthmeor Beach, St Ives  1928

Porthmeor Beach, St Ives 1928 depicts a small section of Porthmeor beach, a long sandy strip on the Atlantic coast of St Ives in south-west Cornwall. Less than half of the picture’s surface portrays the sand itself, the rest of the composition being devoted to houses, pathways and people on the streets behind, beneath a small portion of sky. The view shows Wood turning his back on the coast and sea. Instead it depicts everyday life on the bordering pathways which connect the beach to the town. Large grey rocks occupy the sandy terrain in the foreground. The sand especially has been painted in broad, dynamic brushstrokes of thickly applied paint, evocative of the malleability of sand. In the middle-ground a small figure wearing a black hat crosses the back of the beach, walking towards stone steps to the street above. Other figures populate the streets above, so that the scene seems to show quiet everyday activity. Two female figures are shown walking along the top of the wall on a pathway between the beach and a grassy bank that would lead them towards the town and harbour. Another female figure walks on a further raised path in front of some houses. A bright cream house has been painted with two black squares for windows, a black rectangle for a door and a triangular roof outlined with thick red lines. To a side of this house another smaller figure in black sits on a horse-led vehicle which seems to move towards an opening in the brown wall on the right-hand edge of the painting to the streets behind. Chimneys high in the distance also set this scene within the wider town. The sky of the scene is painted in a light blue-green characteristic of depictions of St Ives.

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Andrew Lanyon, The discovery of Alfred Wallis by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood on a visit to St Ives in 1928 ~ 50 years after ~  1978–9

This is an oil painting on a landscape board support, made on an intimate scale. It merges two scenes or spaces: on the left two small figures – which the work’s title tells us are the painters Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) and Christopher Wood (1901–1930) – are crossing The Island, a headland in St Ives, Cornwall; on the right a figure in black with a black cap – identified by the title as retired mariner and untutored painter Alfred Wallis (1855–1942) – stands in his St Ives house at a table. The white triangle in his hands probably refers to the variously shaped pieces of cardboard Wallis used as supports for his paintings (see, for example, St Ives c.1928, Tate T00881). Unlike Nicholson and Wood, Wallis does not seem to look to the coast. A wall of his house is absent, which permits the viewer to look in and creates a configuration reminiscent of a theatre stage. This is a surreal and theatrical evocation of a moment well known within histories of modern art in St Ives, when Nicholson and Wood first encountered Wallis painting on boards at his table during a visit to St Ives in the summer of 1928. Wallis became for them an important example of the power of naïve expression, an untutored artist who could help artists and audiences to see the world afresh. The work is titled to suggest that it marks the moment of encounter between these men fifty years later, a symbol itself of the ongoing legacy of such an event.

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Pacita Abad, Bacongo VI  1986

This is one of a group of three quilted canvas works in Tate’s collection by the Filipino artist Pacita Abad (see also Bacongo III 1986, Tate T15298, and European Mask 1990, Tate T15297). They are part of a series that Abad began in the late 1970s. Referring to them as trapuntos, from the Italian word for embroidery or quilt, these works are the artist’s responses to the cultural traditions that she encountered during her travels in Asia, Africa and Latin America, although they also refer to vernacular traditions of sewing – a traditional part of family education in the Philippines. They were made using large pieces of canvas onto which the artist stitched forms, creating a three-dimensional effect by stuffing the canvases and transforming their surface with paint, shells, buttons, beads, mirrors and other objects collected on her travels. Their decorated surfaces integrate a range of patterning techniques to create semi-figurative forms with what look like large eyes set in stylised, mask-like faces. Abad dispensed with stretcher bars and hung these works directly on the wall or from the ceiling and this, combined with the distinctive technique, transformed the relatively flat surface of a picture into something more multi-dimensional. The portability of the trapunto form can be said to resonate with the peripatetic aspect of a migrant existence as experienced by the artist, being an object that can theoretically be rolled up and more easily transported than a stretched painting.

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Michael Cardew, Soya Sprinkler Bottle  c.1955

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Shoji Hamada, Vase  c.1960

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Patrick Hayman, Lady weeping at the crossroads  1970

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Dame Barbara Hepworth, Two Forms  1933

This sculpture is carved from alabaster. The softness of alabaster suits Hepworth’s organic forms and she exploited this characteristic to incise such details as facial features and abstract patterns.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Simon Bayliss, Teapot with screw-cap (Mermen of Zennor)  2021

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Simon Bayliss, Pasty (for Mashiko)  2021

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Simryn Gill, Channel #28  2014

These photographs show evidence of sea pollution in a small mangrove forest in Port Dickson, Malaysia, Gill’s hometown. Colourful plastic bags and other rubbish have washed up with the tides, getting stuck in branches and roots. In the black and white photographs, it can be hard to distinguish the waste among the plants. The first photo shows large cargo ships in the distance. This suggests the activities of Port Dickson’s commercial harbour are the source of the detritus. More widely, the series raises questions about the consequences of globalisation on the environment.

Gallery label, April 2021

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Ben Nicholson OM, 1933 (guitar)  1933

By using an oddly shaped piece of wooden board rather than canvas, Nicholson created a work that lies somewhere between sculpture and painting. The effect is heightened by the texture of the surface, which was prepared with a layer of special plaster that the artist cut into while it was still wet. Though now framed, Nicholson preferred to leave the work unprotected. Photographs show that instead of hanging it on a wall like a conventional painting, he kept his 'scratched surrealist guitar' propped on a mantelpiece in his studio.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Eva Hesse, Tomorrow’s Apples (5 in White)  1965

Hesse trained as a painter but, in the mid-1960s, experimented with making reliefs like this one, and began to use materials such as wool and string. This development was prompted by the difficulties she was having in translating her often complex drawings into painting. From making reliefs, Hesse naturally gravitated towards sculpture. This is one of Hesse’s earliest relief works and, like others of the time, is characterised by semi-organic shapes and trailing linear elements.

Gallery label, April 2009

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Katy Moran, Lady Things  2009

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Alfred Wallis, Schooner under the Moon  ?c.1935–6

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Jackson Pollock, Number 23  1948

Pollock began to drip and pour paint in 1947. This work, in which streams of black and white enamels were poured onto the surface, shows the improvisatory possibilities of this method. The sweeping arc of Pollock's gesture can be seen in the liquid black, which has bled into the white painted background to become grey. This acts as a base over which the thicker white paint is deliberately woven. The effect is rhythmic but controlled, energetic but delicate. Although there was an element of chance, Pollock frequently emphasised the importance of decisions over the merely accidental.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Art in this room

T02231: Aspiring Forms
John Wells Aspiring Forms 1950
T02238: Red Form
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Red Form 1954
T03324: White Track
Peter Lanyon White Track 1939–40
T12061: Spherical Vase
Bernard Leach Spherical Vase c.1927
T04930: Number Thirty Five
Margaret Mellis Number Thirty Five 1983
P20246: Ship of Death
Tacita Dean Ship of Death 2001

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