CAMBRIDGE, England — When Dutch painters such as Willem van de Velde painted their triumphal ships at sea in the 17th century, we remember many of these craft above all for their swaggering magnificence. They self-preen. They dominate the scene. 

These vessels are not likely heading for a fall in treacherous circumstances; there seems to be no immediate prospect of a watery grave.

It is quite the contrary with many of the boats depicted by the Cornish painter Alfred Wallis (1855–1942), currently on view in Alfred Wallis Rediscovered at Kettle’s Yard. His works were first spotted in 1928 through an open doorway in a back street — its actual name was Back Road West — in the Cornish coastal town of St. Ives, by Ben Nicholson, as he was aimlessly wandering from here to there with his friend and fellow artist Christopher Wood. 

Wallis’s seagoing vessels are at the mercy of the waves. They pitch, roil, and wallow. They topsy-turve. They toss, swerve about, and plunge, more than enough to bring a gulp to the throat. Many of them look pitifully small against the massiveness of the sea. Often, they seem prepared to rear up and ride the sky. The artist throws perspective up in the air as well. His childlike signature clings to some outer edge, lucky to be on board at all, and not cast into the depths.

Alfred Wallis, “Shipwreck 1 – The Wreck of the Alba” (1938-40), 265 x 335 mm, oil on card (Courtesy Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge)

The encounter between Wallis and the younger Nicholson and Wood was peculiar as it was serendipitous — a union of Cool Urban Sophisti-Cats and a salty septuagenarian yokel. Wallis generally painted on cardboard, seated at the kitchen table. Some of the paintings were nailed to his door. Yes, they were crude in their way — the forms couldn’t have been simpler, the palette more reductive. They were also utterly exhilarating in their willful lack of professionalism or polish. They had the extraordinary bite of things really seen and felt on the pulses — or so the poet and critic Herbert Read opined a few years later.

In part due to this chance meeting of artists, Wallis became a bit of a local fad. He was promptly pigeonholed as a proto-Modernist for his austere use of color (ramshackle symphonies in grays, whites, blacks, bruised blues, and dull greens), his co-opting of humdrum materials acquired from goodness knows where, his use of marine paint, and his cutting of the cardboard to make the image grow into its shape. In short, he both tore up the rule book and pointed a way forward for British painting.

How odd! Wallis always regarded himself as a complete amateur at the daubing game — there were many real marine painters in St. Ives at the time, ready to look down their noses at him. He never even went to see their work. He was happy to remain seated at his own modest kitchen table, painting from memory, doing his best to evoke scenes of yesteryear. He had a long and well-stuffed memory of the fragility of boats in all their varied shapes. 

Page from Castle Book, Alfred Wallis, Sketchbooks, 1941-2 (Lent anonymously. All rights reserved)

Times past belonged to the realms of the sacred. Wallis had first gone to sea at the age of nine. He fished locally, on smallish vessels called Cornish luggers, and far away, too, in much bigger crafts. He got as far as Newfoundland, in Canada. It is immediately apparent from the paintings that the sea was terrible, dangerous, cold, pitiless. His boats seldom sit quietly in parallel with the water’s gentle and untroubled horizontal skim. Such a scene would have been a lie; it would have been denying the truth of the life he had lived as a fisherman. 

Later, he left the water and became a dealer in marine salvage, on land. He started painting at 70, as a way to fill the gap in his life created by the death of his wife, to flee from the loneliness. He seldom left the house. After the practicalities of living got a bit too much for him, an art critic called Adrian Stokes found him accommodations in the local workhouse and regularly supplied him with art materials so he could go on doing the absolutely necessary. He died at the age of 87. 

Wallis had two books in his life, and he read them with discipline and attention. One was a black-jacketed Bible and the other, also black, was a Life of Jesus. That was more than enough for any pious ex-fisherman. Giant fish are often seen nosing around or beneath small boats in Wallis’s paintings. Something to do with Jonah? Or, perhaps, an embodiment of the soul of man? Wallis himself was short and testy, small enough to fit into any hungry, accommodating whale many times over …

Page from Grey Sketchbook, Alfred Wallis, Sketchbooks, 1941-2 (Lent anonymously. All rights reserved)

Nicholson’s excitement about Wallis was shared by a man called Jim Ede, a curator at the Tate in the 1930s (before the Tate really believed in modern art), who, in later life, bought three cottages in Cambridge, restored them, and created a marvelous living museum he called Kettle’s Yard. The creation and curation of his home and its collections was Ede’s greatest triumph. 

Thanks to Nicholson, he also got to know about Wallis, and entered into a regular correspondence with him — though they never met in person. Wallis would send batches of paintings north to London, sometimes 30 or 40 at a time, wrapped in brown paper and all trussed up in a maze of string. Ede bought the ones he liked for a song and returned the rest. This went on for years. The consequence is that Kettle’s Yard has the largest collection of Wallis’s paintings in the world. Many more are on view in the current exhibition than ever before because there is such a large reserve collection to draw on. 

This is not necessarily the best of ideas — some of these paintings prove that Wallis could also paint dully and conventionally. It’s always a bit of a pity to spot an artist’s weaknesses. On the other hand, this can be good, in its way. It means that we could even be artists, too, if we arrive with the necessary luck, talent, and willpower. Sea boots anyone?

Alfred Wallis, “Two ships and steamer sailing past a port – Falmouth and St. Anthony lighthouse” (c. 1931), 263 x 409 mm, oil on card (Courtesy Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge)

Alfred Wallis Rediscovered continues at Kettle’s Yard (University of Cambridge, Castle Street, Cambridge, England) through January, 24, 2021. The exhibition is curated by Jenny Powell and Eliza Spindel.

The museum is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please visit its website for more information.

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