One summer afternoon in 1928, the artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood were strolling through St Ives when they caught sight of an intriguing-looking cottage. Glancing inside, they noticed that its interior was “plastered with homemade pictures of boats”, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. The cottage belonged to Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), a “reclusive mariner turned rag-andbone merchant” who had turned his hand to art. A “completely untrained amateur”, Wallis had devoted his later years to painting in an “unselfconsciously naive” style, often depicting Cornwall’s old and fastdisappearing maritime way of life. The visit was the start of a “groundbreaking relationship” that would see Wallis’s unorthodox vision influence “a sophisticated circle” of modern British artists. Nicholson’s friend Jim Ede, the art-lover who left Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge as his legacy, became Wallis’s “keenest collector”. The new exhibition there – now closed until the end of the lockdown – celebrates the recent discovery of three of Wallis’s sketchbooks and shows them in the context of 40 “wonderful” pictures that Ede bought .
Wallis received only a basic education, said Lucy Davies in The Daily Telegraph. An eccentric man “prone to fits of pique”, he owned only two books and had a highly idiosyncratic approach to spelling. He took to sea in his teens, “sailing schooners from Penzance to Newfoundland” and with fishing fleets in the North Sea – before returning to land to be with his wife, Susan. He scraped a living by running a marine salvage business in St Ives, and came to art only in his 70s, following Susan’s death: he painted, he claimed, “for company”. He worked on whatever materials he could lay his hands on – “scraps of wood, the back of a train schedule, his fireside bellows, even the doors of his kitchen cupboards”. His unconventional compositions, which drew on his knowledge of Cornwall’s “coves, rocky firths and windblown headlands”, often entirely dispensed with perspective and other accepted rules of representational art. As a result of Nicholson and Wood championing his work, word spread and Wallis became improbably fashionable; many of his paintings ended up in major international art collections from London to New York.
It’s not clear what Wallis made of this acclaim, said Jackie Wullschläger in the FT. “All I do is what used to be in ships and boats,” he wrote, and said that he painted to provide himself with memories when he could no longer travel. Yet his approach embodied the pure, “primitive” spirit that the British avant-garde “was earnestly seeking”. Displayed here alongside letters and sketchbooks, Wallis’s paintings depict “churning waves”, “boats slicing through water” and “windblown sails”. Although his range is limited, “the effect is unique”. “A good Wallis,” said Nicholson, is not “representational, it is simply real”.