Page 1

B| 1

Alfred Wallis Ships and Boats

Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

2| 3


Introduction: 5 Alfred Wallis at Kettle’s Yard Elizabeth Fisher and Andrew Nairne Real and true:


the innocence and experience of Alfred Wallis Michael Bird Alfred Wallis 23 Ben Nicholson Alfred Wallis 30 H.S. (Jim) Ede Works in the Kettle’s Yard collection Biography

Left: Installation view, Alfred Wallis: Ships and Boats at Kettle’s Yard, March - May 2012

32 102

4| 5

Letter from Alfred Wallis to Ede, 6 April 1935

Alfred Wallis at Kettle’s Yard Along with Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, Jim Ede was an early and ardent supporter of Wallis. Wallis became a key figure in Ede’s collection and his paintings represent one of the guiding principles of Ede’s artistic vision: the fusing of direct experience, art and daily life. Ede never met Wallis. He was introduced to Wallis’ work by his good friend Ben Nicholson, who had ‘discovered’ Wallis in St Ives in the summer of 1928 and returned to London that October with Wallis’ paintings under his arm. In March 1929 the 7&5 Society exhibition at Arthur Tooth & Sons (organised by Nicholson and Wood) included two works by Wallis; by April 1929, Ede had purchased his first paintings from Wallis. From 1929 to 38, Ede corresponded regularly with Wallis. Although Ede’s letters have been lost, there are more than 40 letters from Wallis to Ede in the Kettle’s Yard archives. They reveal occasional glimpses of Wallis’ own convictions and understanding of painting: “What I do mosley is what use to Be out of my own memery what we may never see again as Thing are altered all together...I do not go out any where to Draw” “I do not to put collers what Do not Belong i Think i spoils the pictures Their have Been a lot of paintins spoiled By putin collers where they do not Blong.” “I thought it not nessery to paint it all around so i never Don it.” Wallis would send Ede a bundle of paintings, tied together with string, for Ede to look through and select those he wanted to buy. Ede would then send back to Wallis the paintings he didn’t want, along with payment for those he kept. In the course of those nine years, Ede bought over 120 paintings from the retired mariner, creating what is now the largest public collection of Wallis’ work anywhere. He included almost 40 of these in the permanent displays he created in the House. At the same time, other significant collections were created by some of the artists who knew Wallis, including Winifred Nicholson, Adrian Stokes and Margaret Mellis.

Despite this new patronage, Ede would have been aware that Wallis lived in relative poverty, and it seems at least once he raised his concern that Wallis was not keeping enough of the money he sent for himself. In a letter dated January 1935, Wallis writes “Sir I received your letter I do not think I have mad a merstak I saw a little boy on the paper looking well fed and he has a large family to keep I thought if he had the worth given it would be all help I ham poor my self a penchener of old age the paintins do com in to by clothin or anything in that way needful. Its not the first time i have helpt such causes I think it augut to be put that way mor than it is.” It would not have gone unnoticed by Ede that Wallis lived a cloistered and frugal life, in which the daily rhythms of painting and religion provided structure and solace. He may even have taken inspiration from Wallis. Wallis painted every day except Sunday and read the bible every day. In many ways, his simple life provided an example of art lived through daily practice and direct experience. Amongst the stories of Jim’s friendships and the provenance of various objects in his collection, there are numerous anecdotes about both Ede’s generosity and the austerity of his lifestyle. These stories underpin what Ede sought to create at Kettle’s Yard: a way of life which was as meditative and attentive as a monk’s, with a clearly moral and spiritual dimension. In his paintings Wallis also depicted man’s fragile relationship with nature. Life at sea, with its hardships, danger and mysticism, offers a powerful metaphor for a sense of man’s place in the world. As Michael Bird writes, they bring the wild coastal waters to landlocked Cambridge. Nature has an important presence at Kettle’s Yard. From the Rose of Jericho, the fossils or the Bronze Age axehead to the fresh flowers, the lemon, and constant play of natural light, fragments of the natural world appear as persistent reminders of something older and greater than us, and the relationships between all things. “Wallis is never local” Ede wrote in A Way of Life. Ede developed this theme in his lecture “The Bishop’s Question”: to be local meant to lack “that informing quality that comes out of an inner sensibility.” He declared “The things which grow alive are always the things which come out of the inside...and it is from here that art must spring.” Today, Kettle’s Yard holds 100 works by Wallis. In the 1960s, Ede sold a number of works to raise funds for the extension of Kettle’s Yard; several paintings were also included in a major gift of over twenty works of art from Ede to the University of Essex, intended to ‘seed’ a new collection of twentieth century art at the fledgling university. This publication now coincides with a touring exhibition 6| 7

of works by Alfred Wallis from Kettle’s Yard which will travel to the University of Essex before heading across the Eastern region to the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth and The City Gallery, Peterborough. It is the first time in over 40 years that many of these works have left Kettle’s Yard. This book highlights the best works in the Kettle’s Yard collection, including many that are not normally on display. It reflects the range of Wallis’ subjects as well as the extraordinary diversity of compositional and painterly effects that he created from his basic palette and materials. It draws together new and archival materials in order to explore Wallis’ importance in terms of the context of Kettle’s Yard and the other artists in Ede’s collection. To this end, Michael Bird’s insightful new essay conjures the mood of the 1930s, the ideas and attitudes that coloured the ‘discovery’ and significance of Wallis for Ede and his circle with brilliant clarity. We have reproduced in full Ben Nicholson’s seminal introduction to Alfred Wallis, which was commissioned by the magazine Horizon in 1943 just a year after Wallis’ death. Nicholson’s words provide a contemporary response, and a vivid personal memory of Wallis the person. But the words of Jim Ede and Alfred Wallis are at the heart of this book. These are drawn from letters and other unpublished sources, including a short text written by Ede in 1962, for the first solo exhibition of Wallis’ work at the Piccadilly Gallery in London. Ede was a passionate champion of Wallis and helped to organise the 1962 exhibition. But he was one of a relatively small group of supporters. A note scribbled on the back of a letter in the archives reveals his frustration at the critical response to the 1962 exhibition: “The critics’ judgment of Alfred Wallis was sadly ineffective and beside the point with their talk of six year old children and the Douanier Rousseau; the former lacking in discipline or experience to instruct them and the latter being not naive but a highly conscious artist and one of the great geniuses of all time. Alfred Wallis was experienced in the ways of ships and the sea, and had an immense discipline and instinct for selection and happened to express these things in terms of paint...It is unfortunate that the realm of painting is still subject in its critics (who are not themselves painters) to that lack of humility which thinks that the eye sees all there is to see. In other matters – medicine, science, Greek scholarship – the need for expert knowledge is recognised. George Moore knew this and when asked what he thought of Sargent replied ‘an artist is made by other

8| 9

artists and I have never heard an artist say a good word for Sargent.’ I have never yet met an artist who has not been stimulated by the paintings of Alfred Wallis.” By the late 60s, appreciation of Wallis’ work began to gain momentum. In his introduction to the 1968 Arts Council touring exhibition of Alfred Wallis, Sir Alan Bowness wrote: “One final point, about Wallis’ place in English painting. He was not an isolated and eccentric figure, but someone who was every bit as necessary to English painters as the Douanier Rousseau was necessary to Picasso and his friends. When art reaches an over-sophisticated stage, someone who can paint out of his experience with an unsullied and intense personal vision becomes of inestimable value. The way in which he used the very simple means at his disposal – yacht paint and odd, irregular scraps of cardboard and wood – is an object lesson to any painter. Wallis shows such an easy natural mastery of colour and forms that one can only look with delight and astonishment. It must be enough to make the “real” artists (which Wallis always said he was not) despair.” We are very grateful to Michael Bird for his thoughtful contribution, and to the Tate Trustees for their kind permission to reproduce Ben Nicholson’s words. Brian Stevens of the St Ives Museum generously helped us with information and dates for the photographs of St Ives, which were given to Jim Ede by Kate Nicholson and are published here for the first time. We were ably assisted in the research for this publication by Mark Searle. This beautiful publication was designed by Paul Allitt. As part of the University of Cambridge, we pursue and promote new research through our exhibitions and publications. We welcome scholars from across the UK and internationally. Through our visual arts, music and public programmes, we reach over 70,000 people a year. None of this would be possible without the vital support of our funders. Our sincere thanks are due to Arts Council England, the Higher Education Funding Council, The Heritage Lottery Fund, The Friends of Kettle’s Yard and Cambridge City Council. Elizabeth Fisher, Curator Andrew Nairne, Director

Left: Pilchard luggers sailing to fish in St Ives Bay, between October - December c.1900.

Alfred Wallis by H.S. (Jim) Ede Excerpts from an introduction to the exhibition catalogue for the first solo exhibition of Alfred Wallis’ work in London at Piccadilly Gallery in Cork St, 1962

Alfred Wallis has been called THE Primitive of the twentieth century and I know no other so essentially a Primitive in the sense associated with the great Cave painters. Wallis is naïve without being sophisticated for he never considered himself to be a real painter, and he was never clever or repetitive or derivative, never self-conscious but always intensely himself conveying in paint his experience of living. He wrote of his pictures ‘The most you get is what used to be, all I do is out of my memory. I do not go out anywhere to draw … it is what I have seen before … I paint things what used to be, and there is only one or two what has them, and I does no harm to anyone.’ So long as ships sail the seas the vision of Alfred Wallis will convey that sailing. At the age of nine he went to sea and later worked with the St. Ives fishing fleet which often fished in the North Sea. Long after, he became a marine rag and bone merchant in St. Ives and it was not until he was more than seventy that he started to paint, at the suggestion of his neighbour the grocer who gave him cardboard boxes on which to work. Perhaps (Mount’s Bay with four lighthouses (p.42)) is his first painting, which he brought happily to show the grocer, saying ‘I’ve got them all in’ and he has; St Michael’s Mount, Marazion, Penzance, Newlyn, Mousehole and all. It is remarkable that Wallis should have painted so exquisitely, made such stylish designs, arrived at so quick an adjustment of colour and balance of form, and remained entirely unconscious of having done anything more than get them all in. Sir Herbert Read wrote of him (Cahiers d’Art, 1938) as being more naïve than

30| 31

Rousseau, but this would have achieved nothing in itself had there not been added his intense innocent perception. Sometimes he would paint a big fish beneath a ship... “for each boat has a soul, a beautiful soul shaped like a fish, so they fish I’ve painted aren’t fish at all, you wouldn’t be any good without a soul, would’ee?” The Bible and painting were his closest companions, he said that all a man required to know was written in the Bible, and in 1935 he wrote “I am a Biblekeeper it is Red 3 hundered and sixty times a year by me and that is everyons Duity”. Christopher Wood wrote of him “I am more and more influenced by Alfred Wallis – not a bad master though; he and Picasso both mix their colours on box lids!”

Four-masted sailing ship and lighthouse. Oil on wood, 200 x 690 mm This painting hangs over the doorway to the kitchen at Kettle’s Yard.

“In picture after picture Wallis conveys the varied movement of a ship – the sea being all about it, lighthouses at an angle, land looming darkly overhead, salt and spray and the feather lightness of a ship, as compared with the vast weight of sea in which it moves.” Excerpt from “Two Painters in Cornwall” by H.S. (Jim) Ede, first published in World Review, 1945

Brigantine sailing past green fields Oil on card, 418 x 488 mm 32| 33

Brigantine with figurehead. Oil and pencil on card, 206 x 260 mm 34| 35

Schooner in full sail near a lighthouse, 1925-28. Oil on card, 240 x 510 mm Barque with man at the wheel on a stormy sea, 1936-38. Oil on card, 170 x 372 mm

“Though he is always drawing the same ships, the same houses, the same water, each of his pictures is a new experience, and this is natural in one so direct. His mood, the thing which made him want to paint, to tell himself as it were some past memory, dictates the composition. He does not set about to enclose his vision, his thought, into some preconceived scheme of colour or design. It is the immediate welling up of his vision, rich in actual experience. It is experience which enables us to do things rightly, and the use of experience which gives colour to our action. So with Wallis design comes, with its subtly variant lines and spaces, not through experience in the art of drawing or painting, but from closeness, almost identification with the thing he is drawing.” H.S. (Jim) Ede, from “Two Painters in Cornwall”, 1945

Overleaf: Boat building played a big part in the economy of St Ives harbour from the mid-18th to early 20th centuries. This photograph, c.1880-85, shows a newly built schooner hull on the shore, ready to be floated off on the next high spring tide. On the far side of the harbour are the traditional Cornish fishing luggers that Wallis would have sailed in. Photographer unknown. 98| 99

The Old Victry – HMS Victory. Oil and pencil on card, 160 x 225 mm

100| 101


born Devonport, near Plymouth, 8th August 1855 to

Charles and Jane Wallis.


Wallis’s mother, Jane, dies.


Wallis is listed in a census as an ‘apprentice basket maker’ and

living with father.


Wallis begins renting a room in Penzance in the family home of his

friend George Ward. On 2nd April Wallis marries Susan Ward, the widowed mother of George and twenty-three years his senior. The marriage certificate describes Wallis as a ‘sailor’ and a ‘mariner, merchant service’. On 26th April, within a month of his wedding, Wallis leaves Cornwall as a sailor on the ship Pride of the West, which sailed to Newfoundland via Cadiz. Wallis makes the return journey on the Belle Adventure, leaving Newfoundland on 7th August and arriving in Devon on 9th December that year. Between 1877 – 1885, Wallis works largely as a labourer. 1885

Wallis and his family move from Penzance to St Ives.


Wallis is running a marine stores in St Ives selling recovered supplies

and equipment. The store is connected to a similar store in Penzance where Wallis’ brother Charles worked. 1894

Wallis is arrested and fined £10 for trading illegally salvaged brass

from a local shipwreck. 1904

Wallis enrolls in the Salvation Army.


The marine stores close, as the fishing trade in St Ives diminishes.

Susan Wallis is now seventy-eight. 1922

Susan Wallis dies on 7th June.


Wallis is forced to sell his house at 3 Back Road West because of a

lack of income, but continues to live there for a small rent. (Wallis believed that his step children had robbed him of £45 worth of gold and silver, causing his 102| 103

financial difficulties).


Wallis is thought to have started painting around 1925. He wrote that

he painted ‘for company’. 1928

London-based artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood ‘discover’

Wallis while on holiday in St Ives. They spot his paintings through an open door when they take a different route on their way back from the beach. On their return, Nicholson writes to his friend Jim Ede and includes a photograph of one of Wallis’s paintings. Nicholson begins promoting Wallis’s work in London. Ede, Nicholson and Wood also begin collecting works. 1929

Wood and Nicholson include a painting by Wallis in an exhibition

of the 7 & 5 Society, a group composed of avant garde artists in London. 1930

Wood dies in a tragic accident at Salisbury station, aged 29.

Nicholson’s contact with Wallis becomes increasingly infrequent but Ede continues to correspond with Wallis and regularly purchases works by post. 1936

Ede and his wife Helen move to Tangier, and Ede’s collecting of

Wallis’ works slows. 1937

In March Wallis is badly shaken after being hit by a car, possibly

belonging to the Mayor of Digey. This incident marks the start of Wallis’ mental and physical decline, and Wallis becomes increasingly isolated and short of money. 1941

Wallis can no longer afford his rent and moves to the Madron

Workhouse. Wallis is visited by a number of artists and admirers, including Margaret Mellis and Adrian Stokes, Bernard Leach and Ben Nicholson. Wallis continues to paint, using materials brought by visitors. 1942

Wallis dies in the workhouse on 29th August. His funeral is attended

by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo among others. The artists raise enough money to give Wallis a Salvation Army burial at Porthmeor Cemetery, and Bernard Leach creates a tiled gravestone for him.

Alfred Wallis

Image credits

Supporting Kettle’s Yard

ISBN 978 1 904561 40 8

Photographs courtesy Public Catalogue Foundation, except pp.. 2, 12, 17, 21, 26, 28; Paul Allitt p. 48; Peter Mennim, pp.. 8, 22, 100 and inside front cover; photographer unknown

Kettle’s Yard relies on the generosity of supporters to care for the collection and historic buildings, and enable us to deliver a full programme of activities, from exhibitions, education activities and music to publications and research. All gifts, large and small, help to safeguard the collection for future generations, and enable others to enjoy Kettle’s Yard now and in the future.

© Kettle’s Yard, and the authors, 2012 “Alfred Wallis” by Ben Nicholson is reproduced by kind permission of the Tate Trustees Published by Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge Edited by Elizabeth Fisher and Andrew Nairne Designed by Paul Allitt Printed by C3 Imaging, Colchester In an edition of 2500 copies

All images are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission. All rights reserved.

There are a variety of ways in which you can help support Kettle’s Yard and also benefit as a UK or US taxpayer. For more information please visit

Alfred Wallis: Ships and Boats 7 April - 8 July 2012 Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge 14 January - 16 February 2013 Art Exchange, University of Essex

Inside front cover: Alfred Wallis reproduced by kind permission of the Tate Trustees

29 March - 9 September 2013 Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth

Right: Letter from Alfred Wallis to Ede, 30 July 1938

20 September - 17 November 2013 The City Gallery Vivacity Arts, Peterborough Curated by Elizabeth Fisher and Andrew Nairne With thanks to Mark Searle, Guy Haywood and Brian Stevens, Hon. Curator, The St. Ives Museum

Kettle’s Yard Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 0AQ United Kingdom +44(0)1223 748100 Director: Andrew Nairne Chair: Anne Lonsdale

104| a

Cover: Sailing ship and orchard (see p.87)

Kettle’s yard receives Regular funding from: Arts Council England Cambridge City Council The Higher Education Funding Council The Friends of Kettle’s Yard and other individual donors

ALFRED WALLIS: Ships and Boats

the complete publication has: 104 pages, 210mm x 200mm 70 colour, 4 B&W illustrations further information can be found on our website:

Alfred Wallis Ships and Boats Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) is one of the most original and inspiring British artists of the 20th Century. Promoted by the artist Ben Nicholson amongst others, Wallis’s paintings influenced the development of British art between the wars. The directness of Wallis’ vision reflected a lifetime of living by and from the sea. His paintings are of what he knew, remembered and imagined. Yet they are also timeless stories about survival and the nature of our relationship with the world. As Jim Ede commented “Wallis is never local.” With over 70 illustrations, excerpts from letters and texts by Michael Bird, Ben Nicholson and Jim Ede, this book takes a fresh look at this extraordinary artist and his relationship to Kettle’s Yard. It includes some of Wallis’s best works, from ambitious paintings such as Saltash to what Wallis knew and loved best: ships and boats. Kettle’s Yard was created by Jim Ede in 1957. A unique house with a remarkable collection of twentieth century art, it includes the largest public collection of works by Alfred Wallis.

b| PB

Alfred Wallis: ships and boats  

With over 70 illustrations, excerpts from letters and texts by Michael Bird, BenNicholson and Jim Ede, this book takes a fresh look at this...

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you