As we celebrate the birth of Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) this month, our Curatorial Assistant Kari Adams looks at his significance within the St Ives group and British Modern Art in our latest blog.
The Early Years
Alfred Wallis was born on 18 August 1855 at Devonport, Plymouth. His father was a master paver from Devon, and his mother was Cornish and from the Scilly Isles – she died when Alfred was only a small child. At the age of nine, Alfred went to sea in the deep sea fishing fleet where he worked as a cabin boy and later as a cook - the schooner boats fished for cod in the North Atlantic waters off the coast of Newfoundland. In around 1880 he changed to inshore fishing, working on boats which fished for pilchards, herring and mackerel.
In 1875, aged 20, Alfred married Susan Ward who was a widow twenty-one years his senior (she had borne 17 children, the eldest living was one of Alfred’s closest friends). Together they lived at her family home of 2 New Street, Penzance and had two daughters, but neither survived infancy.
The family moved to St. Ives in 1889 and Alfred decided to leave the sea for good, opening up a ‘Marine Store’, much like the one his brother owned in Penzance. He made some inshore fishing trips at this time, but the marine store soon proved a full-time occupation. Susan ran the store during the day whilst Alfred worked as a scrap merchant. The business thrived up until 1912 when he decided to retire and buy a house of his own. He then began to make ice cream, and is believed to be the first man who sold ice cream on the streets of St. Ives. Alfred and Susan suffered a period of disagreement in the years which followed, as it is believed she helped one of her sons financially, giving over the majority of their savings without Alfred’s knowing. By the time of her death in 1922, Alfred felt quite distressed by the situation and cut himself off from the rest of the family.
The Painting Years
From this point he lived alone and became increasingly reclusive. For him, painting was the only thing he had ‘for company’. Alfred’s interest in painting had started when he was still working in the store - he would use bits of cardboard and any paints that came to hand. But now, at the age of 67, he gave painting his full attention and it very quickly became an obsession.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham had a studio only a couple of doors away from Alfred Wallis’ cottage. For two years, part of her daily routine included seeing Alfred coming and going, putting rubbish out, and occasionally the pair would chat. Barns-Graham remembers seeing “paintings all down the side of the – inside door[,] on the walls, there were paintings from the ceiling to the floor, done on the wall and on top of the table”.’
Wilkinson, D., The Alfred Wallis Factor: Conflict in Post-War St Ives Art, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2017) p. 10
Alfred became very nostalgic living alone, reflecting on his youth and his experiences of deep sea fishing, but also on his surroundings of St. Ives. In a letter to friend and art collector H. S. Ede, dated 6 April 1935, Alfred explains, “what I do mosley is what used To Bee out of my own Memery what we may never see again as Things are altered all to gether”.  The local grocer, Mr. Baughan, often gave Alfred spare cartons, advertisement cards and packets from Quaker Oats – in a variety of different shapes – to paint on. Alfred would use the plain side to work on, often leaving the colour of the packet as the background, stating, ‘I do not put Collers what do not Belong’. Marine paint was his medium of choice as it came readily to hand, which may well have influenced his limited colour palette. Ben Nicholson gave him sketchbooks which he filled with crayon drawings – still favouring a limited palette of mostly blues, with occasional yellows and hints of red.
Indeed, it was Ben Nicholson who ‘discovered’ Alfred Wallis when he and Christopher Wood went to St. Ives for the first time in August 1928. On passing Alfred’s cottage, they were both intrigued and excited by the paintings they could see through an open door. They knocked on the door, met Alfred and subsequently purchased some paintings from him. What was paid for the works was not recorded, however, it is believed subsequent paintings were bought and sent off in the post for sixpence a piece – a price Alfred thought was ‘fair’. The paintings bought by Nicholson and Wood that day were the first Wallis had ever sold.
One of Nicholson’s acquisitions ended up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is believed that Nicholson visited Alfred on one occasion to tell him about it and he showed him a reproduction of the work. Alfred’s response was full of disinterest, exclaiming, “O yes!” he said, “I’ve got one like that at home”.’
Wilkinson, D., The Alfred Wallis Factor: Conflict in Post-War St Ives Art, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2017) p. 19
At the age of 86, Alfred wasn’t able to look after himself properly and became somewhat unwell. He was moved from his small home to Madrona Workhouse above Penzance, where he continued to paint. However, fourteen months later on 29 August 1942, Alfred died. As per his request, he was given a Salvation Army funeral, which was attended by many of his artist friends including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Bernard leach and Adrian Stokes. A great many paintings still remained in Alfred’s house at the time of his death, of which Stokes managed to rescue a number of before the Council got the chance to incinerate them.
His grave at Porthmeor Cemetery is a raised slab which is covered with tiles made and hand-decorated by Bernard Leach. The tiles feature a lighthouse standing amidst waves, and depict a small man carrying a stick, on which there are the words: ‘Alfred Wallis, Artist and Mariner’.
Alfred’s circle of St. Ives artist friends played a significant role in making his work more widely known through their support of his painting endeavours. Initial enthusiasm was sparked by Nicholson and Wood during the summer of 1928 when they were immediately inspired by Alfred’s unique vision. Along with all of those who befriended Alfred, they helped shape a legacy which now places him as one of the most important artists of British modern art.
‘When art reaches an over-sophisticated stage, someone who can paint out of his experience with an unsullied and intense personal vision becomes of inestimable value. The way in which he used the very simple means at his disposal – yacht paint and odd, irregular scraps of cardboard and wood – is an object lesson to any painter. Wallis shows such easy natural mastery of colour and forms that one can only look with delight and astonishment.’
- Exhibition Publication, Alfred Wallis (Arts Council: 1968), from the Introduction by Alan Bowness
Alfred Wallis works are represented in collections of modern painting throughout the world. The Pier Arts Centre’s collection holds 6 works, 3 of which are recto, verso and feature paintings on both sides as in the example below.
In the gallery, his paintings sit alongside his contemporaries - works by Nicholson, Hepworth, Gabo, and Mellis; unfolding conversations about colour and shape, and the relationship between artist and landscape. Alfred was well respected amongst his friends and his creative output had a great influence on the work they produced at this time: in the words of Barbara Hepworth, “He certainly didn’t know how much we all learned and took off him.” (as quoted in, Icons of the Sea: Recollections of Alfred Wallis, in ‘The Listener’ 20th June 1968).
Alfred’s paintings and drawings speak of the sea and of a time gone by, but they can also be very much telling of the here and now. As we look at these works today, their intimacy has the ability to capture the viewer and provide a porthole to our own experiences – past, present or indeed future. In such moments, there is the potential to inspire, which carries with it the hope that his work will continue to delight and inform others throughout time.
A selection of Alfred Wallis paintings are currently on display in our Collection exhibition, THEN NOW WHEN.
Framed and unframed Alfred Wallis prints are available to purchase through the ArtUK website.
 Exhibition Publication, Alfred Wallis (Arts Council: 1968), from the Introduction by Alan Bowness