Alfred Wallis of St Ives

The painting career of Alfred Wallis

Alfred Wallis moved to St Ives in 1890 at the age of 35, where he set up a business as a marine stores dealer. From about 1912, after the business closed, he worked for the next ten years or so as an odd job man for a local antiques dealer. When his wife, Susan died in 1922, he found himself alone, and so took up painting “for company”.

His paintings are truly naive, totally untutored and uninhibited. Perspective is largely ignored, and the size of an object will vary according to the importance he placed upon it! He had no regard at all for “proper artist’s” paints – preferring to use ordinary household or ship’s paint (and indeed anything else that came to hand – pencil, crayon, etc). He was also happy to paint on whatever scrap of material came his way – often using bits of old cardboard salvaged from the local grocer. These he would cut into irregular shapes to suit his purpose.

Alfred Wallis meeting Ben Nicholson

Alfred Wallis meeting Ben Nicholson

By a lucky chance, Wallis was “discovered” one summer’s day in 1928 by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, who were on a day trip to St Ives and just happened to be walking past Wallis’ cottage in Back Road West when they noticed him seated inside at his table – engrossed in painting.

They bought several paintings at this first meeting, and also took it upon themselves to promote his work and bring it to the attention of the modern art scene of the time. Despite receiving some recognition and selling a fair quantity of his paintings, Wallis continued to live in poverty, and with his faculties deteriorating , eventually had to give up his cottage and was moved into the Workhouse at Madron, where he died shortly afterwards, in 1942 aged 86.

He was buried in Barnoon cemetery overlooking Porthmeor Beach. During his life time, little did he know that his paintings (that he would sell for a few shillings) were to gain such worldwide recognition – changing hands for tens of thousands of pounds.

Alfred Wallis and St Ives

Alfred Wallis and his wife Susan both came from Plymouth, and so would have been regarded as outsiders amongst the closely-knit St Ives community when they arrived during the time when the fishing industry was at it’s very peak. However this did not deter him from opening a successful business on the Wharf in St Ives during the late 1880s. Dealing in secondhand marine stores and other miscellaneous scrap, the business prospered for well over 20 years until the decline of the fishing fleet eventually led to it’s closure. But by using their savings he and Susan were then able to purchase a little cottage in Back Road West, and Alfred continued to make a living as best he could, doing odd jobs around the town wherever he could find them, even making and selling ice cream at one point!

Along with his wife he had always held deep religious convictions and in 1904 Alfred Wallis joined the local Salvation Army, in which he played an active roll. He had moved to St Ives only a few years after the railway came to the town and therefore witnessed at first hand the significant impact of it’s arrival. The railway opened up the little fishing port to a great influx of day trippers and holiday-makers and with them came the artists, who were utterly enchanted with the beauty of the place and it’s stunning light. All around St Ives he would have seen both amateur and professional painters at work and, after Susan’s death in 1922, this probably had some influence on him taking up painting himself. At this point it was fortunate that he had the encouragement and support of three local shopkeepers – namely an antique dealer, a watchmaker and Mr Baughan, the local grocer who kept up a steady supply of bits of cardboard for him to paint on (this was Wallis’ favoured material).

Alfred Wallis, dealer in marine stores

The business - A. Wallis, dealer in marine stores

St Ives Harbour as Alfred Wallis would have known it

St Ives Harbour as Alfred Wallis would have known it

Alfred Wallis in St Ives - Porthmeor Square

Porthmeor Square - subject of several paintings by Alfred Wallis

Wallis continued to live and work in his cottage, but led an increasingly tormented existence – believing himself to be persecuted and pursued by agents of the devil in the form of local children, and also by his dead wife who berated him day and night from the grave. In his pitifully demented state even the wireless was an instrument of Satan, and was regarded with fear and suspicion. By this time he had fallen out with his step-children, who he believed had stolen from him, and neither was he on the best of terms with neighbours, who despite all his apparent hostility continued to help him whenever possible.

Eventually, however matters worsened and he was no longer able to stay in the cottage, and so with his agreement was transferred to the Workhouse at Madron. There he became a little more settled and resumed painting for what was the remaining 14 months of his life. Alfred Wallis was brought back to St Ives for burial and received a full Salvation Army funeral, attended by a number of notable artists including Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. The grave in Barnoon cemetry is fittingly distinctive and is covered with colourful tiles made by Bernard Leach. The inscription reads: “Alfred Wallis – Artist and Mariner”.

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