Alfred Wallis is one of the most influential artists to come out of Cornwall in the last two-hundred years, although he lived most of his life never contemplating such an outcome to a long life.
Wallis was born on the 8th of August 1855 in the naval town of Devonport, Devon, although his parents were Cornish with his father Charles, a paving stone repairer from Penzance, and his mother Jane either from Penzance or the Scilly Isles. Soon after Jane’s death in 1866, Charles Wallis moved back to Penzance with his other son Charles, leaving Alfred to fend for himself.
According to Sven Berlin’s biography of Wallis, Alfred Wallis had joined the British Merchant Navy at the age of nine, spending the next twenty years or so as an ordinary seaman, most of them aboard the great trading schooners that plied the North Atlantic, taking coal and Italian wine to Canada, returning with salt cod caught off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, which eventually ended-up in Greece, Spain and Italy.
Wallis left the Merchant Navy in the late 1880s, taking up that job with Mr Denley in Penzance, and then St Ives. Wallis was also the first person to introduce and sell ice cream in St Ives, and a man who today is hailed a hero by the seagull population of the town.
But it was the death of his beloved wife Susan in 1922, and at the age of eighty, that he started to paint, as Susan’s death had suddenly unlocked a torrent of artistic emotion and ability that encapsulated both his hard and colourful life at sea, the dreadful, almost unbearable grief over his wife’s death, and a longing for lost times, friends and places.
And although Wallis’s paintings do at first appear “child like” as one critic has described them, they are so much more, especially in their instinctive feel for their subject, and the use of colour — which is indeed child like in its innocence and freedom from academic intrusion. And in this Wallis and Woolf are joined at the hip.
Wallis did enjoy a short period of recognition once he was ‘discovered’ by painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher (Kit) Wood on a trip to St Ives in 1928, with Wood, by his own admission, becoming greatly influenced by Wallis.
Sadly, Wallis did not capture the imagination of the public and died, poverty stricken, in the Madron Workhouse, near Penzance, in 1942.
The Tate Gallery, St Ives, holds a large collection of Wallis’s splendid, and hugely influential work.