I’ve loved Alfred Wallis’s paintings for a long time, having encountered them only in books and postcards. Now, on Sunday January 11, 2015, I had the good fortune to see a number of them in real life, as part of Jim and Helen Ede’s collection, at Kettle’s Yard House, Cambridge. The compelling immediacy, directness and force of the paintings astonished me, and started me musing about the reasons for this appeal.
Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) was a fisherman from the age of nine, turned painter at nearly seventy. Born in Devonport, Wallis later moved to Penzance and St Ives. He only started painting after his wife died, at the suggestion of his neighbour, a grocer who gave him cardboard from his shop to paint on. Painting was his company, he said.
He was ‘discovered’ by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood who arranged for his work to be included in London exhibitions and to become known in the art world. Wallis’s career took off, with some critics considering him to be the most original and inspiring British naive painter of the twentieth century. Wallis himself remained the person he’d always been, and kept living the simple life he had always lived by the sea. His work speaks of the sea and the boats, the lighthouses, the marine life he knew and remembered.
Jim Ede, quoted in ‘Kettle’s Yard and Its Artists’ (Kettle’s Yard Publications), noted that about Wallis:
“Though he is always drawing the same ships, the same houses, the same water, each of his paintings is a new experience… He does not set about to enclose his vision, his thought, into some preconceived scheme of colour or design… with Wallis design comes, with its subtly variant lines and spaces, not with experience of drawing or painting, but from closeness, almost identification with the thing he is drawing.”
Similarly, Ben Nicholson wrote that, to Wallis,
“paintings were never paintings, but actual events” —
and this it seems is what Wallis himself was attempting to do. He had a directness of approach; he eschewed perspective, and an object’s scale was often based on its relative importance to him in the painting – some of his fish, for instance, are larger than the fishing boats; some birds bigger than the tree branches on which they perch. Houses slide perilously down slopes, ready to fall into each other, and the waves appear the way he might have seen them as a teenager when on board ship to Newfoundland. Wallis’s perspective is emotional, is experiential, certainly not a draughtsman’s perspective.
A viewer’s dip into the moment as experienced by the painter… a resonance with the thing depicted—which is ‘other’ because we are different, and, at the same time, ‘familiar’ because we are human, sharing the same world, the same reality—a willingness to share the painter’s focus of attention, through which selected objects (fish, birds, houses) are foregrounded and magnified… Are we not getting closer to the experience of haiku? Isn’t this a link to the interplay between Wallis’s style of painting and haiku? Instead of paint as the medium, in haiku, language expresses the experience. Without embellishment, linguistic trickery, and without, or only minimal punctuation, haiku in its brevity sets the stage for an experience by the reader resonating with the moment the writer captures.
Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge has the largest collection of Wallis’s paintings, thanks to Jim and Helen Ede, who over a period of ten years bought Wallis’s work. They donated their collection, together with their wonderful house, to Cambridge University.
You best explore all the works by Alfred Wallis at Kettle’s Yard, in the context of the collections in the house the Ede’s put lovingly together. Alternatively, if you are not able to visit, you can take a look at his work online
Well worth a real or virtual visit. Or both, as I am now doing.