The Art of Alfred Wallis, Naïve St Ives Genius
On the 18th of August 1855, fisherman and artist Alfred Wallis was born in Devonport, Devon, England. The son of Penzance parents, Alfred was an apprentice to a basketmaker before becoming a mariner in the merchant service by the early 1870s. He sailed on schooners across the North Atlantic between Penzance and Newfoundland. He married Mary who was 20 years his senior. Following the death of his two infant children, then his wife, he had a modest business as a marine scrap dealer. The foundations of the St Ives artistic community are thought to have been laid in 1928, when Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood discovered the work of the retired, half-illiterate ex-mariner who took up painting “for company” after the death of his wife. Nicholson called his paintings ‘events’, powerful vistas that told a story. Produced on improvised materials, they were remnants of Wallis’ memories of the old days of sailing, which had since been replaced by steamships.
In postwar Britain, together with the advancement of the idea of personalism in art and that of the creative individual as part of a small, autonomous (regional) community promoted by Read, Savage, Baker and Eliot, special importance was given to aspects of the unformed, naïve or primitive as in the untrained art of artists such as Alfred Wallis and Mary Jewels. There was a natural freshness about Wallis’s depictions that appealed to the modernist artists visiting the area between the two world wars. Painted on rough improvised surfaces, often cardboard packaging, his work managed to capture a specific experience without loading the picture with superfluous details, as was common practice in traditional landscapes. The fisherman had developed his own unique method of abstracting reality and though his style appeared child-like, his subjects offered a serious, unmediated interpretation of life. Charles Harrison believed that Wallis’s work greatly contributed to avant-garde theories which advocated “that real creativity was somehow direct and innate, that the imagination was fettered by training, that a painting was more importantly a thing in itself than a representation of something else, that strength of expression and vitality of working were more important than accuracy of description and technical skill, that the child, the primitive and the modern artist were somehow joined.” (Charles Harrison, The Modern, The Primitive and The Picturesque, Scottish Arts Council, 1987).
Wallis’ ‘honest vision’ was inspirational for the modernists who were dealing predominantly with spiritual tendencies in their art. William Vaughan argued that British landscape in the twentieth century could be characterised by its “sense of privacy, even secrecy. Spurred on by the assertions of psychology – that modern substitute for the spiritual – the countryside became internalised, mysterious and symbolic” and “the psychological landscape also affected the valuation of the primitive.” (William Vaughan, “The British Landscape Tradition,” in Towards a New Landscape (London: Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 1993). The work of painters such as Wallis, Jewels and the potter Leach local to West Penwith was re-evaluated in the view of contemporary cultural conditions which developed in Britain and Europe after the war, a time “characterised by themes of patriotism, nationalism, xenophobia, insularity”, as well as “by that peculiar fascinated angst” present in the existential expressionism of Sutherland and Bacon. Charles Harrison wrote that, in these circumstances, “an unadulterated Modernist culture could only continue in rustication. As the site of an exiled (or holidaying) community St Ives was perhaps specially qualified, at least in terms of the themes of Modernist culture itself. Valuation of ‘simplicity’ of life as a critique of over-sophistication, and of ‘innocence’ in representation as a counter to meretriciousness, celebration of the ‘authenticity’ of the ‘primitive’ or the ‘naïve’, and of the ‘integrity’ of the handcrafted and the factitious; these and other features of the refined ideology of the modem movement could plausibly be developed in West Penwith.” (Harrison, “The Place of St Ives”)
In his work, Wallis remained utterly unambitious about monetary gain, professional success, stylistic developments or psychological substance yet his painting influenced a formed modernist such as Nicholson for both its compositional freshness and simplicity and its expressive depth. Moreover, through Wallis, Nicholson discovered a new interest in the theme of ‘man in nature’. In his memoir of St Ives, David Lewis recounted visiting Hepworth, Nicholson’s partner, with Lanyon and their ensuing discussion on “how in non-figurative painting and carving the artist is no longer in a subject-object relationship with nature but can be the object, and assume directly the natural agencies of wind and surface.” (St Ives 1939-64. Twenty Five Years of Painting). There was a crucial difference between the way Lanyon and Nicholson related to Wallis’ work. Whereas Lanyon saw Wallis as a fellow Cornishman and his painting as an act of emotional communion with the nature of his homeland, Nicholson saw him as an avant-garde painter -“he spoke of him with the same reverence that he reserved for Mondrian and Miró”. (Peter Davies, St Ives Revisited – Innovators and Followers).