Alfred Wallis Fishing boat with mast steeped

Alfred Wallis
Fishing boat with mast steeped
Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge © The estate of Alfred Wallis

Cornish painter Alfred Wallis (1855–1942) was a retired sailor, fisherman and marine merchant who began painting for company after the death of his wife in 1922. He worked with whatever household materials were to hand, producing images recalling a bygone age of maritime adventure and the Cornish ports and vessels most familiar to him.

Some saw his work as merely the idiosyncrasies of an eccentric old man. Others found them revelatory, in particular two English painters, Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, who found Wallis working in his back-street St Ives cottage in 1928. They saw in his paintings the authentic, expressive vision they aspired to in their own naïve-style work. Gradually a circle of modernist followers gathered around Wallis who particularly admired his intuitive selection of unconventional materials, guided by his own extraordinary set of pictorial values.

The rhythm, colours and textures of Wallis’ paintings were often dictated by the irregularly-shaped boards he chose to work on. He thought too many colours could spoil a good work, and used a minimal palette of black, white, blue, green, yellow and red, mixed together as he applied them; the absorbency of the boards he chose also controlled the appearance of the paint surface. He regarded his paintings as memories, recollections or expressions of his experiences, rather than accurate images of external appearances.

Wallis’s reception by the contemporary art world provoked much scepticism amongst the academic artists living in St Ives. But supporters such as Tate Curator Jim Ede, and critics including Adrian Stokes and Herbert Read, linked him with ‘primitive’ painters, like Henri Rousseau, who inspired avant-garde painters on the Continent. Wallis’s work was included in exhibitions and key texts of the time. This, coupled with the intensity of his images, has permanently rooted him in the development of modern British art.