Progression of Art
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.
Oil paint, graphite and crayon on cardboard - Tate Collections, London
Crucifixion or Allegory with Three Figures and Two Dogs
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.
Oil on card - Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
Land, Fish and Motor Vessel
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.
Oil on card - Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
Boat with Fishermen Letting out Nets - PZ 11, the Flying Scud
In this evocative, undated work, a fishing boat with lowered mast and mainsail lets out a sheet of net into the water. Seven men are at work on board, surrounded by water which seems to rise up to the edge of the hull to the right of the vessel. The color scheme is grey and black, with the brown-shaded sky is the color of the card on which the work is painted.
Given the use of a visible painting surface and prominent signature, this work provides an evocative insight into Wallis's creative process. Having never bought a canvas - simply because they were too expensive - he would paint on any surface he could find around his house, including walls, pieces of wood, jars, covers of books, and, as in this case, scraps of card. While he was not the first artist to utilize such materials, the fact that he never primed or covered his surfaces allowed their natural textures and tones to show through on occasion, becoming integrated stylistic features of the work - somewhat in the style of Cubist collage or Kurt Schwitters's "Merz" objects and bricolage. For Wallis, however, such formal gestures were not consciously invested in an idea of "anti-art". It was simply that creating his paintings to get his memories recorded was more important than producing a refined work - though the very fact that he remained so true to this impulse even after being lauded by members of the modernist art world is itself remarkable.
This painting also alludes to a change in Wallis's biographical circumstances during the middle phase of his life. After many years as a deep-sea mariner, Wallis gave up his long voyages for work on local fishing boats. Here he has depicted the work involved in sustaining his life in St. Ives - as such, these works have a basis in more recent memory than those filled with ice floes and looming cliffs.
Oil on card - Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
Voyage to Labrador
A large brown ship, set apart from its surroundings by a thick black outline, occupies the center of Voyage to Labrador. The vessel floats on an ocean rendered in shades of browns and grays. White rocks are set against a black background. The formal interest of the piece lies partly in the distinction between the smooth, seamless surface of the boat-hull and the painterly textures and roughly blended colors of the water and cliffs.
This work is an important example of the paintings Wallis created to record his memories of life at sea. Having worked on boats since the age of nine, he undertook many transatlantic journeys. This work, as its name suggests, is based on his many voyages from England to Labrador, in the Newfoundland province of Canada. These trips were completed during a period of Wallis's life when he was newly married, suddenly finding himself responsible for five stepchildren. As such, he needed the funds earned from these long deep-sea trips. Sven Berlin describes work on these Newfoundland ships as "particularly arduous. Sometimes in rough weather they were blown as far out of their course as South America, taking thirteen weeks to get home."
The foreboding tone of this work - the icy white rocks, and deep, gloomy water - may indicate the sense of isolation and trepidation which such voyages instilled in Wallis and his fellow mariners. At the same time, the sharply outlined boat seems to cut a course through this murky landscape with a certain intrepid vigor. The work is thus imbued with a subtle Romantic energy, alluding unconsciously to the sublime spirit of much nineteenth-century landscape painting.
Oil on plywood - Tate collections, London
Wreck of the Alba
This late-1930s painting is a rare example of a work by Wallis not created solely from personal memory or imaginative reconstruction. Here we see a depiction a real event, the wreck of the SS Alba, a steamer ship bound for Italy that crashed off the coast of St. Ives on January 31st, 1938. A white, wave-filled sea dominates Wallis's frame, while in the foreground the Alba has run aground on a cusp of land, half submerged in surf. To the right is a lighthouse, perhaps included by Wallis for topical interest, since one explanation of the tragedy was that the local Godrevy Lighthouse had shone less brightly since its conversion to an unmanned light-source.
As a resident of St. Ives at the time of the disaster, it is possible that Wallis witnessed the wreck of the Alba firsthand. He was perhaps even part of the local rescue team, that saved all but five of the ship's crew after the lifeboat that had initially rescued them was itself overturned in the stormy sea. Wallis produced several paintings of the event, suggesting its significance both to his own life and that of his town.
The Tate's catalog entry on the piece suggests further symbolic resonances, noting that "Wallis's profound religiosity can be read in the epic struggle between man and nature." The notes also suggest that "omens of an encroaching national crisis are [...] hinted at in the word 'ALBIAN', etched on to the side of the embattled craft. A play on the name of the ship, it also directly evokes Albion, a name commonly used for Britain." While the work can thus be read as an allegory for the coming war, "[t]here is a sense too in which the painting speaks of Wallis's own mental turmoil in the late 1930s. The overwhelming force of the sea in Wreck of the Alba might [...] signify Wallis's own sense of becoming subsumed by the seemingly threatening world around him."
Oil paint on wood - Tate Collections, London
A large black ship with billowing dark gray steam is the focal point of Alfred Wallis's Death Ship. Five sailors, dressed in black suits and hats, are visible on the ship as it travels through an icy white ocean.
Aptly titled, this work is an important example of the kind of paintings Wallis made near the end of his life. Sven Berlin identifies these as his "death paintings." They reflect a time of deep sadness for the artist. Experiencing degenerating eyesight and significant mental deterioration, Wallis was creating these works in the throes of isolation. The exact time at which Wallis painted these final works is not confirmed. They were either made while Wallis was living in the Madron poorhouse or shortly before his institutionalization there, a fate he had long feared. The gloomy tone of the work, replete with black ship and darkly-clad figures, is emphasized by the deep brown tone of the card on which the painting is created.
Works like Death Ship give the lie to the idea that, as a "naïve" artist, Wallis was not capable of generating a powerful and complex degree of symbolism through his work. The ship, as well as being an amalgam of those Wallis had encountered during his life at sea and around the shorelines of St. Ives, is a portent of death and desolation, an allegorical rather than literal representation of his work's themes.
Oil on card - Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, England