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This article has been kindly adapted for Art UK by Midlands Art Papers. Midlands Art Papers is a collaborative online journal, working between the University of Birmingham and 11 partner institutions to research and explore the world-class works of art and design in public collections across the Midlands. You can follow the project on Twitter: @MAP_UoB

When the retired Cornish fisherman Alfred Wallis (1855–1942) took up painting at the age of 67, he could hardly have been prepared for the level of artistic fame he would achieve. Painted on discarded wood and cardboard, Wallis's simplistic, childlike images of the sea became fashionable amongst members of the art elite of the 1930s, owned by everyone from the artist Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) to Jim Ede, director of the Tate gallery. This popularity has meant that today Wallis's paintings can be seen in galleries across the country, where they are heralded as the work of an innate artistic talent who took the twentieth-century art world by storm.

St Ives

St Ives c.1928

Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)

Tate

But why did Wallis's paintings become so popular within the art world of the 1930s? And how do his works relate to the artistic ideas of this time?

Wallis was born in Plymouth, Devon on 8th August 1855. Little is known about his early years, and records of his life begin in 1876 when he found work as a sailor and married the widow Susan Ward (who was 23 years his senior). Having taken on responsibility for Susan's five children, Wallis's work as a sailor appears to have come to an end in 1879. At this point Wallis registered as a labourer, moving to the Cornish town of St Ives in 1885. Over the next thirty years, Wallis worked a number of jobs, opening a marine store, selling ice creams, and working for a local antiques dealer.

Three-Masted Ship near Lighthouse

Three-Masted Ship near Lighthouse c.1928–1930

Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)

Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge

It was not until Susan's death in 1922 that Wallis took up painting, later explaining he did this 'for company' now that he was living alone. While painting may seem an unusual hobby for a man like Wallis, this is not as surprising as it initially appears. The town of St Ives was already a major art colony by the end of the nineteenth century, home to artists such as Algernon Talmage (1871–1939) and Albert Julius Olsson (1864–1942). It is likely that Wallis was inspired by these figures to begin his artistic pursuits, interpreting their paintings of land and seascapes through his own unique style.

St Ives harbour: White sailing ship

St Ives harbour: White sailing ship (recto) c.1934–1938

Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)

The Pier Arts Centre

Wallis may have started painting in 1922 but his status as a bonafide artist was only established in 1928, when he was 'discovered' by the artists Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) and Christopher Wood (1901–1930). Holidaying in St Ives in August of 1928, Nicholson and Wood came across Wallis when they 'passed an open door' and 'saw some paintings of ships and houses... nailed up all over the wall.' Charmed by the seemingly 'naive' style and appearance of Wallis's works Nicholson and Wood bought a number of his paintings, which Nicholson later (inaccurately) claimed were 'the first he [Wallis] made'.

St Ives Harbour, Cornwall

St Ives Harbour, Cornwall mid-20th C

Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)

National Maritime Museum

On their return to London, Nicholson and Wood shared their discovery with their friends and colleagues. They encouraged others to purchase Wallis's paintings, and even included his works in an exhibition of the influential Seven and Five Society (a modern art group which ran between 1919 and 1935). Artists such as Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), Patrick Heron (1920–1999) and Henry Moore (1898–1986) all purchased paintings by Wallis as a result of this promotion and praised his unusual style and unique approach.

A Brig, Close to Shore

A Brig, Close to Shore 1930–1942

Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)

Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

Wallis's painting A Brig Close to Shore (Wolverhampton Art Gallery) demonstrates this unique style. Depicting a small ship coming in to land, it features the flattened and uneven shapes found throughout Wallis's paintings, which re-imagined complex images into simplified designs. In addition to this, the brig is depicted through the limited tonal palette Wallis was famed for, using just five colours of paint – brown, dark brown, cream, blue and green – across the entire work. This is in keeping with the 'naive' style associated with Wallis's paintings, which, due to Wallis's lack of training, lacked the compositional techniques usually associated with landscape works.

It is therefore interesting to note the similarities between Wallis's paintings and the art produced by his greatest supporters. The 1920s and 1930s were dominated by a move towards abstraction in painting and sculpture, as artists became concerned with presenting the essence of an object, rather than a direct representation of its appearance.

Dancing Sailors, Brittany, France

Dancing Sailors, Brittany, France 1930

Christopher Wood (1901–1930)

Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Seen in paintings by Wood (Dancing Sailors, Brittany, France, Newark Museum and Art Gallery, 1930) and Nicholson (1930, Porthmeor Beach, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, 1930) this move to abstraction used the same flattening of shapes and simplification of colours seen in Wallis's art.

1930 (Porthmeor Beach)

1930 (Porthmeor Beach) 1930

Ben Nicholson (1894–1982)

Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

This suggests a connection between Nicholson's and Wood's patronage of Wallis and their artistic practice at the time. Here we see a possible explanation for Wallis's rise to fame.

It would appear that Wallis's supporters recognised the similarities between his work and their new experiments with abstraction. Writing towards the end of 1928, Wood commented that he felt there was 'more and more influence de Wallis' in his own work while Heron suggested that Wallis's colour scheme, in particular, his use of 'dirty white' 'dark green' and 'pale grey', could also be seen in works by Nicholson.

Such similarities help to explain why the artists were so captivated by Wallis when they first saw his paintings and perhaps why they were drawn to his cottage rather than the multiple artistic studios in St Ives. With his evident ability but lack of formal training, Wallis must have seemed a remarkable embodiment of the simple and abstract style these artists were attempting to establish. Ownership of Wallis's paintings may therefore have offered both justification and inspiration for this new artistic movement, explaining why so many artists bought copies of Wallis's art.

Boat on the Sea

Boat on the Sea 1937

Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)

Southampton City Art Gallery

While we can never say for certain what inspired artists to collect Wallis's art, the similarities between his paintings and the increasingly abstract work of his supporters certainly suggests a connection between artistic practice and patronage. This helps to explain why Wallis was able to achieve such considerable artistic success through his paintings and provides an explanation for his continued popularity today.

Two Black Boats Sailing up Dark Grey Waves

Two Black Boats Sailing up Dark Grey Waves

Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)

Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Despite his humble beginnings as a Cornish fisherman, Wallis's paintings form a valuable part of the story of British art. His rise to artistic fame sheds new insight on artistic interests and concerns during the interwar era and allows us to better understand the intentions of the modern British artists who purchased his works.

Rebecca Savage, University of Birmingham

You can find a selection of Alfred Wallis prints to buy on the Art UK shop