For me, the work of Alfred Wallis is a joy to behold. Call it naive art, label it as you would like, but there is something so innocent, so melancholy about it as to be called Art with a capital 'A'. That purity comes from the fact that he was never compromised by money: in fact all his life he never had any and struggled to sell his work. Despite this, he believed in his work and the ingenious ways he improvised when he could not afford materials by painting on cardboard ripped from packing boxes gives his work even more power. The melancholy comes from not just the fact that so great an artist was ignored in his lifetime but by the fact that what he painted from a lifetime of seafare was what was passing into history: the world of sail was being usurped by steamships.
All things must pass, I guess, but thank heavens it was so magical an artist as Wallis who captured this time and this place (Cornwall). Childlike his images are but they have all the complexities of childhood, and more.
Little is known about his life of until he settled in St. Ives, Cornwall at the age of 35. He had been a deep-sea fisherman until he retired at the age of 57. When his wife died in 1922, he took up painting, and when asked why later by Jim Ede, he responded with the famous line: "keep himself company".
Barely six years after Wallis started painting,
Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood established an artist colony in St. Ives. They discovered his work and embrached him into their social circle. While grateful, Wallis was changed not one iota by the so-called great minds of modern British art: he continued to paint as he always had.
Attached to this circle of friends was Jim Ede and he it was who promoted his work in London. But these friends and this attention brought him no financial reward. Little of his work sold. He lived in poverty until he died in the Madron Workhouse in Penzance in 1942.
The best place to see his work is Tate St Ives. Also Jim Ede's old home at Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 0AQ.
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