Winifred Nicholson, ‘Sandpipers, Alnmouth’ 1933
Winifred Nicholson
Sandpipers, Alnmouth 1933
© The Trustees of the estate of Winifred Nicholson

This ‘in-focus’ display is the first in a series of projects to stimulate new thinking about key moments in St Ives’ art histories. It revisits the near-legendary meeting of emerging British artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood with Alfred Wallis, a mariner and self-taught painter.

This was a chance meeting. Nicholson, a leading London Modernist, and his friend, the prodigious young painter Christopher Wood, were exploring St Ives that August when they met Wallis on Back Road West. A retired sailor, Wallis had covered his cottage walls with pictures of his life at sea, in household paint on board and card. Their emotional directness and naïve vision inspired Nicholson and Wood to bring Wallis to the attention of the British avant-garde.

Myth and anecdote surround the facts of this important encounter. Nicholson said ‘one only finds the influences one is looking for’. But what was it these artists found so compelling in Wallis’s painting? The display asks what motivated Nicholson and Wood’s original visit to Cornwall, as well as considering how and why the ‘discovery’ was restaged and recorded for posterity.

Paintings from the Tate collection are shown alongside rarely seen correspondence, postcards and photographs from the Tate Archive. As well as works by Wallis, Nicholson and Wood, the display includes works by Ben’s first wife Winifred, whose presence in Cornwall and contribution to British Modernism is often overlooked.

View artworks in this display