Alfred Wallis was a Cornish fisherman and artist.

Alfred Wallis was a Cornish fisherman and artist.

Alfred Wallis was a Cornish fisherman and artist. Alfred Wallis was born in Devonport on 18 August 1855. He is thought to have gone to sea as a fisherman from the age of nine.

Details of Wallis' early life are not certain. He is certainly documented as a seaman on a fishing expedition to Newfoundland, and continued as a seaman until he was 35. He then became a dealer in marine supplies, and it was only at the age of 70, and after the death of his wife, that he took up painting "for company".

In 1887, he with his wife Susan and her six children from a previous marriage moved from Devonport, near Plymouth, to St. Ives. He set up a shop selling marine wares and salvaged goods in St Ives

It was only on retirement from the sea, around 1925, that Wallis began to paint seriously. Having little money, he used torn-up old boxes as canvasses, ship’s or yacht’s paints and crayons.

Ben Nicholson "discovered" Alfred Wallis. In August 1928, he was walking with Christopher Wood in St. Ives. ‘On the way back from Porthmeor Beach,’ he wrote, ‘we passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall, with particularly large nails through the smallest ones. We knocked on the door and inside found Wallis, and the paintings we got from him then were the first he made.’

Alfred Wallis is now recognized as one of the most original British artists of the 20th century. After he met Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, his pictures of boats and harbours, produced on odd-shaped boards with the use of ordinary ship's paint, were an inspiration to artists seeking a new approach. The directness of his "primitive" vision and the object-like quality of his paintings were highly influential in the development of British Modernism.

Through Nicholson and Wood, Wallis was introduced to Jim Ede who promoted his work in London. Despite this, Wallis sold few of his paintings and continued to live in poverty. Ben Nicholson donated Wallis' painting ‘Cornish Port’ to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1940.

In 1941, unable to look after himself, he was moved into the Madron Institute, the district workhouse. He died on 29 August 1942 in the Madron Workhouse in Penzance.

He is buried in Barnoon cemetery, overlooking St. Ives' Porthmeor beach and the Tate St Ives gallery. An elaborate gravestone, depicting a tiny mariner at the foot of a huge lighthouse – a popular symbol in Wallis' paintings – was made from tiles by the potter Bernard Leach and now covers Wallis' tomb.

Examples of Wallis' paintings can be seen at Kettle's Yard (Jim Ede's home) and at the Tate St Ives.

Alfred Wallis biography

Tate Collection of works of Alfred Wallis


Return to Cornwall Famous People