Devon, United Kingdom
Madron, United Kingdom
Summary of Alfred Wallis
Alfred Wallis's exuberant seascapes and nautical scenes muster all the energy and verve of modern art, with their expressionistic use of shape, color, and brushstroke, and their multi-focal perspectives. It is all the more striking, then, that Wallis had no formal training, and that the qualities which make his work seem inventive and daring simply express his instinctive feel for his subject matter. Wallis spent his life as a mariner, travelling across the Northern Atlantic, before settling in the small Cornish town of St. Ives to see out his days as a scrap merchant and, ultimately, a poor house inmate. By this time the St. Ives Group of modern artists had become enamored of his work - Wallis's paintings must now be a central feature of any discussion or presentation of the group's achievements. That Wallis remained guarded and aloof about their interest in him isevidence of his single-minded approach to his craft.
- Alfred Wallis in many ways provides the blueprint for our modern understanding of the "outsider artist", an untutored creative spirit whose gift is seen as the product of instinct rather than learning. Around the time that Wallis was "discovered" by Ben Nicholson, other outsider artists were being 'studied' in Europe, such as the mental asylum inmate Adolf Wölfli. The concept of outsider art was formalized by Jean Dubuffet after the Second World War through the term Art Brut (raw art), but much of what Dubuffet proclaimed had been predicted by the St. Ives artists' celebration of Wallis.
- Wallis's paintings show a kind of instinctive Expressionism. Without any conventional formal artistic training, Wallis had no ingrained sense of how objects might be positioned in relation to each other to recreate three-dimensional space, or of how to maintain one implied viewing position across a whole canvas. This meant he was free to present objects and scenes in ways which expressed their emotional and thematic significance to him, and to use multiple perspectives in the same painting. All this is highly reminiscent of the 'form-follows-feeling' approach of the Expressionist movement defined in the early twentieth century.
- Wallis is often spoken of as a member of the St. Ives School. This was a group of modern artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, and the Russian émigré Naum Gabo, who settled in the Cornish fishing village of St. Ives in the 1930s. Together they developed a kind of organic modernism, applying the formal traits of Constructivism, Cubism, and modern sculpture to the natural subject-matter they found around them. Though Wallis never felt entirely comfortable in their midst, his work certainly inspired the early development of their work.
Biography of Alfred Wallis
As a child, Alfred Wallis's life was shaped by absence and loss. His father, Charles Wallis, was a roadworker who was away fighting in the Crimean War at the time of his birth. When Wallis was still very young his mother, Jane Ellis, died. Growing up without her influence or love would have a profound impact on him. Little further information exists regarding Wallis's early years, even regarding how many siblings he had; estimates vary from four to twelve. His closest childhood relationship seems to have been with his only younger sibling, a brother named Charles.
Important Art by Alfred Wallis
Curiously proportioned rows of houses dominate this early landscape work, showing Wallis's hometown of St. Ives. The houses are enclosed on three sides by a bay, the sweep of water around the harbor emphasized by scratched, painterly strokes. In the background, small ships are moored, while in the foreground a figure emerges from one of the houses. The shape of the cardboard on which the painting is produced echoes the curvaceous sweep of the harbor. This, along with the simple blue-and-brown color palette, gives the piece a subtle sense of visual harmony and energy.
While many of Wallis's paintings were produced from memory, and recall his former life at sea, he also produced a number of townscapes and harbor scenes. Though many have viewed Wallis as a mere naïf, there is an important element of thematic stylization in works such as St. Ives. The painting is not a true depiction of the town in the early-twentieth century, but an evocation of how Wallis remembered and idealized it. For Wallis, St. Ives was a community where a simple, self-sufficient life was possible. The idea - already waning in accuracy - that his prosperity as well as the town's was tied solely to the fishing industry is emphasized by the fact that Wallis has surrounded the scene with water. In the foreground the houses and figures even appear to be floating in the ocean. According to artist and biograher Sven Berlin, Wallis's St. Ives paintings tell the story "of men working in a well ordered community until it was squeezed out of existence by the gradual progress of modern politics and finance." Here Wallis has preserved his sense of the St. Ives that once was before modernization caused the local fishing industry to die away.
These images are therefore works of conscious imaginative construction, which sought to embody the kind of life that Wallis treasured. For Berlin, "Wallis' naïveté is not something just personal to himself; it is characteristic of the people he grew from." We might rather say that naivety was a quality he tried to cling to.
Alfred Wallis's crucifixion scene is divided into two halves, possibly by a fold in the found material on which it was created. In the top half of the work, set against a dark landscape of trees, two figures in different shades of gray stand with arms outstretched, one behind the other - though they might also seem to be stacked into a column. On either side of the two cruciform figures white dogs are rendered mid-stride. In the bottom half of the painting, a man in white clothing with a dark grey hat, perhaps the owner of the dogs, walks past, seemingly oblivious to the scene above.
This painting partly evokes Wallis's religious beliefs. A devout Christian, he became completely absorbed in his faith after his marriage to Susan Ward in 1875, joining her in her allegiance to the Salvation Army. Wallis would read aloud from the family Bible in the evenings, and he refused to sell paintings on Sundays, seeing it as an act of sacrilege. At the same time, the image begs as many questions as it answers regarding both the content of Wallis's faith and the comfort that it brought him. The two figures in crucifixion shape, in combination with the presence of three figures overall, refers to the Holy Trinity, while the sense of emotional disconnect between the humdrum character below and the scene above suggests some sense of detachment from the salvation that faith might offer. Another interpretation might focus on the dark color scheme and the sense of foreboding generated by the circling, uncannily identical dogs. By this reading the painting could express Wallis's deteriorating mental health, characterized by the fear that he was being pursued by agents of the devil.
Whether it presents a positive or a negative expression of religious faith, Sven Berlin notes that "[Wallis's] paintings came into being from no other source than his own creative soul." The sense of mystery and doubt that the work generates is therefore an expression of the hope, loss, and confusion that shaped Wallis's own character and life.
The most arresting elements of this painting from the 1930s are the two enormous fish that circle around the motorized fishing vessel to the right. In the background is a stripe of green land, with barely visible trees rendered in light, feathery, white brushstrokes. The cliff face in the center of the picture appears to have been painted in two pigments which have not mixed, creating a mottled, marbled quality typical of Wallis's unusual textural effects.
This painting exemplifies Wallis's intuitive, expressionistic approach to form and composition. Classified as a "naïve" painter, he certainly lacked any institutional training, and was unhindered by a conventional sense of perspective. As such, objects seem to assume a size and position relative to their emotional or thematic significance, while perspective is specific to individual objects or sections within the frame. The fish thus assume the proportions appropriate to their importance for a mariner and member of a regional fishing community, and are presented front on rather than in accordance with the aerial perspective on the ocean. The apparent lack of distance between ship and shore, and the way that the flat landscape behind the water seems more vertical than horizontal, add to the overall impression of formal play.
The element of personal memory in these paintings is also significant. Wallis's paintings were drawn from his recollections of early life at sea, so what is glimpsed here is perhaps the relative scale with which objects and scenes loom in his retrospective imagining of that life. The large fish evoke something of the vast, prodigal, non-human life of the ocean, while the land may suggest the promise of return after each trip. In Wallis's case, then, lack of formal training in no way equates to a lack of depth or profundity.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Alfred Wallis
- Alfred Wallis: PrimitiveOur PickBy Sven Berlin
- St. Ives Artists: Alfred WallisBy Matthew Gale
- Alfred WallisBy Matthew Gale
- Alfred Wallis: Cornish PrimitiveOur PickBy Edwin Mullins