Alfred Wallis 1855 – 1942. The Hold House St. Ives circa 1932.



Staying with the sea side theme a little longer I have chosen a painting by Alfred Wallis, the painting is called  The Hold House, Port Mear, Island Point, Mear Beach, St. Ives. The work of Wallis can be categorised as Naive. We see the main image is the Hold House, the cottages by the shore seem to be on a hill, the fishing boat is tipped up as though by a high wave, many waves head for the shore and the island of green is the peninsular, as though Wallis sees the scene from a hill top, yet we understand it completely.

Alfred Wallis was born in Devon where his father had found work, his parents were Cornish, following the death of his mother his father moved the family back to Penzance, Cornwall. Wallis began his painting career aged seventy, he said he was lonely after the death of his wife and his paintings kept him company. He had many stored memories of sailing ships which were being replaced by steam powered vessels, the sea was in his blood, I imagine a physically strong man with skin tanned by the sea and wind. He married Susan Ward when he was twenty, his wife was twice his age, he became step-father to her five children. Having spent his life living by and working on the sea he must have remembered many trips on deep-sea schooners fishing between Penzance and Newfoundland when serving in the Merchant Navy, he had a number of jobs, as a boy he made baskets, he joined the merchant navy in the 1870s, he changed to fishing locally and did labouring work until he became an assistant to an antique dealer where he learnt about objets d’art.

Wallis had  no money to buy art materials, he often used cardboard from packing cases on which to paint and paints purchased from ship’s candlers. For this painting he used the reverse of a board printed to advertise an exhibition held by the St. Ives Society of Arts at the Porthmeor Gallery. His palette was restricted to a few colours described as ‘shiny blacks, fierce greys, strange whites, rich dark browns and the pungeant Cornish green.’

Wallis said he was expressing his experiences as he painted, for him they had embodied meaning, he knew the geography of St. Ives and the beach with its surf waves, they would have been high and powerful in the storms that hit that coast. He had never had an art lesson and when some years later famous artists went to live in St. Ives such as Ben Nicholson, who dicovered his work,  Wallis’s style did not change, more the other way round,  his work inspired the artists who had set up an artist’s colony in St. Ives, he carried on painting as before. Barbara Hepworth bought this painting before donating  it  to a gallery, it is now in the Tate. He destroyed much of his work, a great pity but the remainder is now more valuable, he was not concerned with perspective, he lifts his scenes up like a map, scale was not important either, images that were his main focus were painted larger. His work has been called deeply mystical, I am not sure it is for me but there is a sense of an emotional attachment to the area, he has a good sense of design, especially seen in sea views filled with many multi – sailed vessels. (images not licenced to be reproduced, but well worth finding online.)

Wallis wrote his work was ‘something that has grown out of the Cornish seas and earth which will endure.’ His lack of education did nothing to suppress his emotional attachment to his surroundings, sadly he died in poverty in Madron Workhouse, Penzance, believing that his neighbours were jealous of his non – existent wealth and the fact that he knew famous artists. Galleries in America, Australia, New Zealand and Britain own his work and countless private collectors.
Many fakes are also on the market.

Bernard Leach, the famous potter, created a gravestone to commerate his life which portrays Wallis as a tiny mariner at the foot of a huge lighthouse, much in the style  of Wallis himself. His last home where he  lived from 1890 at 3 Back Road West St. Ives has been restored, many paintings by  him have been copied onto its walls, the house is available to rent as a holiday home, I wonder what he would make of that!

Image from wikipedia.





4 thoughts on “Alfred Wallis 1855 – 1942. The Hold House St. Ives circa 1932.

  1. Thanks for this great picture, Norma!

    Somehow it throws me back to a much earlier part of my personal history, I get a physical feeling looking into the painting that I can’t put into words, but it feels very young and distant. I was born in 1938, and 1932 wasn’t so far distant then. I do have (or seem to have) some felt sense of my very early childhood, corroborated by my mother (but nonetheless of uncertain provenance).

    The scene, very simple, looks alive but unusually still. There are no signs – apart from the buildings and the scrubbed-looking plane surfaces around them – of human activity. But it isn’t empty, just unoccupied. No vehicles.

    The naive perspectives add to my regressed feeling. Unlike you, Norma, I have no sense of the cottages being tilted or on a hill, nor of the ship broaching a wave. To me they are level. The steps in Hold House look steep and I can imagine the childish fun of climbing them – quite an adventure, irresistible!

    It’s a pity the reproduction is small, I would like to see the original.

    1. Hi Peter,
      I’m delighted that this painting has stirred up memories of the past for you, it is like magic when a vague feeling of recognition is conjured up. I rather envy the fact that you can recall some of your childhood. I know how much revision goes on, but the whole process of memory fascinates me, what we remember and what we forget.
      I am sorry that the image is small, there are larger versions but not on wikipedia, I know that these blogs appear on Google so I am concerned not to infringe any rules – for some reason the tools to enlarge are not on my WordPress page anymore. I will ask Barry for advice when I see him.
      I look forward to seeing you at the station on Saturday.

  2. Hi Norma & Peter

    I’ve found a slightly larger version on Wikipedia. I hope this helps.

    Paintings that lack perspective don’t tend to resonate with me for some reason. I’m not sure why. That’s not to say I don’t find them communicative but they don’t generally affect me aesthetically/viscerally.

    Looking forward to seeing you both as well at the weekend.

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