Alfred Wallis

Alfred Wallis - Artist and Mariner

Alfred Wallis was a Cornish fisherman and mariner who took up painting in his old age. Born in Devon in 1855 to Cornish parents, Wallis grew up in Penzance. When he left school he joined the merchant navy, sailing schooners across the north Atlantic between Penzance and Newfoundland. After his marriage and the death of his two infant children, Wallis moved his family to St Ives, where he worked for twenty years as a marine scrap dealer, buying and selling iron, sails and rope for use on sailing boats.

Alfred Wallis painting - Newlyn
'Newlyn' by Alfred Wallis

After his wife died in 1922, Wallis took up painting 'for company', finding his inspiration in 'what used to bee out of my memery what we may never see again.' Very poor, Wallis used whatever materials were to hand. 'Two Masted Ship' was painted on the back of a G.W.R cheap fare schedule for 1928, 'Two Boats' is painted on the back of a Selfridges box lid, and Wallis' pallette was limited to the paint he could get from ship's chandlers.

In 1928, Alfred Wallis was discovered by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, both established artists, when they came to St Ives to found an artist's colony. They 'passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall, with particularly large nails through the smallest ones. We knocked on the door and inside found Wallis, and the paintings we got from him then were the first he made.' Wallis was propelled into a circle of some of the most progressive artists working in Britain in the 1930s. His influence on them is undeniable, although the influence was all one way, and Wallis continued to paint as he always had, with an immediacy and directness that they could never match.

Nowadays, Wallis' paintings are considered fine examples of 'naïve art', the most striking feature of which is probably the way in which perspective is ignored and the scale of objects is based on their relative importance in the scene rather than on their size.

Alfred Wallis Grave - St Ives
Alfred Wallis Grave
Despite being introduced to art dealer, Jim Ede, and much admired by artists working at the time, Alfred Wallis died penniless in the Madron workhouse in 1942. Nevertheless, he influenced a generation of painters. As Nicholson remarked, Wallis' paintings represented 'Something that has grown out of the Cornish seas and earth and which will endure.'

Wallis is buried in the Barnoon graveyard, which overlooks Porthmeor beach and the Tate St Ives, which holds many of his paintings. His tomb is covered by an elaborate gravestone, made from tiles by Bernard Leach and depicting a tiny mariner at the foot of a huge lighthouse.