Alfred Wallis - Biography and Legacy
Devon, United Kingdom
Madron, United Kingdom
Biography of Alfred Wallis
Childhood and Education
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.
Growing up in extreme poverty, Wallis sent to work on a schooner when he was nine years old. Over the years, Wallis would serve first as a cabin boy and then a cook before becoming a full seaman. According to the artist Sven Berlin, the first person to conduct detailed research on Wallis's life, "it is almost certain he never went to school. What little he knew of reading or writing he taught himself while he was at sea." Still, while the water may have prevented him from obtaining a formal education, it would have a profound influence on the art he would begin to create six decades later.
Despite spending much of the year at sea, as a young adult Wallis settled when on dry land in the Cornish town of Penzance, where he briefly shared a home with his brother Charles and Charles's wife. The family dynamic was not an easy one, as Wallis did not get along with his sister-in-law, and the brothers eventually had a falling out. One account has it that Wallis's brother, an alcoholic, tricked him out of an inheritance from a distant maternal uncle. Regardless of the reason, the brothers became estranged, and Wallis never spoke to Charles again.
While living in Penzance, Wallis developed a friendship with a man named George Ward. Desperate for fellowship, Wallis began spending time with Ward's family, and after Ward's father died in 1872, Wallis began a relationship with Ward's mother, Susan. The couple married in 1875 when Wallis was twenty and his new wife forty-one. Susan had already given birth to seventeen children and when they married Wallis became an instant stepfather to her five surviving children (including his best friend, George, who was two years his senior).
While Wallis was away sailing on the Atlantic his wife gave birth to a premature daughter who lived only a few months. Saddened by this loss, and tired of being away for such long periods of time, in 1880 he gave up work on deep-sea boats and took up more local fishing. Not long afterwards a second daughter was born but sadly also died in infancy.
Needing a greater income to support his family, in 1890 Wallis gave up fishing altogether and moved to St. Ives, where he opened a marine rag-and-bone business. He quickly became well-known in the town and, according to Berlin, "brought up scrap iron, sails, rope, odds and ends of all kinds from the boats, and made a regular tour of the town with a sack on his back, calling: 'Rag-a-bone! Old iron! - Old iron! Rag-a-bone!' He became known in the town as 'Old Iron,' and is still remembered as such."
After working in this career for more than two decades, industrial developments and the decline of the Cornish fishing market forced Wallis to close his business in 1912. With the children grown, Wallis and Susan moved to a smaller cottage where he did any work he could to try to scrape by, including, according to the art critic Edwin Mullins, "various odd jobs such as moving furniture and building government huts during the First World War." According to Berlin, one job stands out the most, when Wallis became "the first man in St. Ives to make ice-cream and take it in the streets for sale."
Depending largely on each other in these late years, Alfred and Susan became, according to Mullins, increasingly isolated: "Wallis withdrew into himself keeping company only with Susan, the newspapers and a large black family Bible which he would read aloud on Sundays." Then, on June 7, 1922, Wallis's wife died. The already financially perilous situation in which he had been living was exacerbated when he discovered that the little money he and his wife had managed to save away in their linen trunk had been slowly but completely removed by his stepchildren prior to their mother's death. Left penniless, he disowned his family and became increasingly isolated from the community in which he lived.
In 1925, at the age of seventy, Wallis began to paint. There was apparently no single, momentous event that led to this. It is quite likely that loneliness and boredom were the chief causes. Berlin describes how Wallis declared his intentions to a local shopkeeper: "Aw! I dono how to pass away time. I think I'll do a bit' a paintin' - think I'll draw a bit." According to Berlin, he then immediately went into the shop next door to buy brushes and paint, returning to the shop the next day to show the shopkeeper his first works.
Wallis never showed any interest in becoming a professional artist. With no formal training he seems to have painted mainly to busy his mind, taking for subject-matter the scenes and landscapes that he knew best: oceans, harbors, and the houses and streets of St. Ives.
Despite living near the Porthmeor Art Gallery and a large community of St. Ives artists, Wallis never associated with them. Having often stated, "I am not a real painter," Wallis did not aspire to join the artist ranks. According to Berlin, "the fact that he was always referring to the St. Ives artists as 'real painters' suggests that he had a clear distinction between himself and them from the beginning." Unlike the professionals, Wallis never painted on canvasses, in large part because he could not afford them, choosing instead to paint on materials and surfaces he found in his house, such as irregularly shaped scraps of cardboard, book covers, pieces of wood, his walls, and old glass jars. He never used artist's paints, instead using the hardy, weatherproof paints used to cover ships. This seems to have been a point of pride for Wallis, who once stated, "I don't use the paint artists use; mine's the real paint. Don't want the muck they've got."
Although Wallis was always happy to keep his paintings to himself, in August 1928 two artists, Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, noticed his work through the open doorway of his cottage while vacationing in St. Ives. Instantly impressed, Nicholson later recalled that Wallis's paintings had struck him on first viewing as "just like Cézanne." After inviting them into his cottage, Wallis was genuinely surprised when the pair asked to buy some of his paintings. Having never considered a price he simply told them to give him what they wanted. Not only were Nicholson and Wood responsible for Wallis's first professional sale but they also enthused others in their circle about his work upon their return to London, including the art critic Adrian Stokes.
In spite of his adoption by this new circle, Wallis remained stubborn and eccentric in his habits. Notably, when his new friends returned to visit him, he would refuse to sell them his work on a Sunday. As a deeply religious man he believed that it was sinful to do so. He also remained largely impervious to Nicholson and Wood's insistence on the quality of his work, and never fully realized its impact on them, nor on the artistic scene that was gathering in Cornwall, the so-called St. Ives School. Berlin notes that Wallis was more concerned with how the locals in the town felt about him: "he knew people laughed at his work. Having great difficulty in keeping his modest and simple faith in what he was doing, he was over-sensitive of being made a fool of."
Although Wallis was beginning to thrive as an artist he was also becoming more and more solitary and neurotic in his habits. Remaining increasingly alone in his home, he became paranoid, and his strong distrust of the townsfolk led him to believe that they were attempting to poison him. According to Berlin, Wallis was consumed by a "persecution mania." His "mind began to show the first signs of breaking down, and [he] developed what he called his 'wireless brain.' Wireless was becoming popular: to a man so retarded and against civilization and its inventions it could well have seemed an unholy thing [...] Simultaneously with the appearance of wireless he had begun to hear voices when he was alone in his cottage - especially at night: they called him 'a damn Catholic,' 'a Methodist,' 'a thief,' an 'Irishman,' each representing a different religious body, trying to drag him away from his own belief in the Bible. The rooms upstairs, which he had not entered since Susan's death - save to hang up his washing - was taken over by the Devil: it was from here the messages were sent down at night. They also came down the chimney." When this occurred Wallis would sometimes lock himself in his cottage, screaming so loudly that he would disturb his neighbors, while on other occasions he would ask one of his few friends to come and help him get them out of his house. Berlin describes how these friends would enact a routine of walking through the rooms and removing the 'wires', although after a period they would inevitably return, and the process would begin again.
Then, at some point in 1936 or 1937, Wallis was involved in an accident, which he later described as being "knocked down by a car in the street." Wallis did not believe that the incident was chance and, though his paranoia around it was imprecise, his general sense of unease increased. According to Berlin, "he was very badly shaken up and was never quite the same man afterwards [...] Moreover, he was treated shabbily over this. Very little notice was taken by the occupants of the car at the time of the accident, and no one troubled to call on him afterwards to see how he was. In his own mind he looked upon this as another manifestation of the satanic aggression which was destroying his life."
Eventually, Wallis's mental health proved completely debilitating. He lived in an increasing degree of squalor and his cottage became infested with fleas. He also ate very little. Concerned neighbors called a doctor, who after diagnosing him with bronchitis, reported his living conditions to the authorities. This, coupled with the report of a pension officer who was sent by Wallis's nephew in an attempt to grant him a pension, resulted in Wallis being certified as unfit to live independently. In June 1941 he was sent to the Madron Public Assistance Institution. His greatest fear in later life was that he would be sent to a poorhouse, and that is exactly what happened.
Life at Madron, a small village in West Cornwall, near St. Ives, was dire. Wallis's mental health deteriorated further, which, together with his failing eyesight, caused him to distrust those around him. Still, he did receive visits from Nicholson and Stokes, and with their encouragement he painted as much as he could to pass the time. By this point, however, his paintings had taken on a much darker tone.
After a long and often tormented life, Wallis died in Madron in 1942. Stokes arranged for a coffin and a Salvation Army funeral for Wallis, saving him a pauper's burial - the fate that befell most poorhouse residents. In an act of tribute, the modernist poet W.S. Graham wrote an epitaph for the artist entitled "The Voyages of Alfred Wallis."
The Legacy of Alfred Wallis
Alfred Wallis's work does not just offer us a thematic portrait of the life of a mariner and working-class tradesman in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Cornwall. It also offers us glimpses into the emotional content of his character and of his interaction with the worlds in which he moved. Objects in his paintings, from fish to boats to houses, seem to expand or diminish based on their significance to the artist, while his paintings adopt by spontaneous instinct the same multifocal perspectives that Cubist artists such as Paul Cézanne had pioneered.
It was this untutored vision that impressed highly tutored visitors such as Ben Nicholson, who at the time of his first meeting with Wallace was pioneering the development of British Constructivism and would later become - like Wallace himself - a figurehead of the St. Ives School. Wallace's work is now seen as amongst the most important products of that school, though it is a poignant footnote to this story that he never appreciated nor materially benefited from his celebration.
Nonetheless, in retrospect, Wallace can be seen to have challenged the distinctions between high and low art which were both undercut and reinforced by the modernist period. Living and painting in the midst of what was becoming a coterie of feted artists, he refused to interact closely with them or to engage with their accounts of his work. He never adopted the techniques or materials of a professional artist, creating paintings on every surface but canvas, and continuing to work with weatherproof boat paints rather than artists' pigments up until the end of his life.
Wallis found fame during the first flushes of Outsider Art, a new phenomenon within the art world codified after the Second World War by Jean Dubuffet through the concept of Art Brut. In Wallis the St. Ives group found an oracle of untaught genius. Whether this adoption of his personality and work was admirable or a form of cultural appropriation, Wallis provided much of the framework for our modern understanding of the Outsider Artist, predicating the narratives which surround artists such as Bryan Pearce.
Whatever the terms of their engagement with his work, there is no doubting Wallis's deep and genuine influence on the artists who discovered him, Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood. According to Sven Berlin, the influence on Nicholson was especially profound, and "is most markedly seen in the Cornish landscapes."