A. Wallis

A.Wallis

10, Cherry Garden, Madron, Penzance, Cornwall

Name

Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

A. Wallis

Head

M

28

General Labourer

Devonport, Devon

Susan Wallis

Wife

M

45

?

Beer, Devon

Albert Ward

Son

U

15

Baker

Colyton, Devon

Emily Ward

Daur

U

14

General Servant

Exmouth, Devon

Jessie Ward

Daur

U

12

Scholar

Exmouth, Devon

Jacob Ward

Son

U

8

Scholar

Madron, Cornwall

No doubt about it. He is almost a foreigner. They are all foreigners except for the boy. Their speech is strange. As for him, he answers to her. And yet she has been here for a while, has the tongue with which to lash them when they give her the look, when they suggest that their marriage is strange. The girls are growing taller, like their father; they have already passed their stepfather. He moves through the house like a spare child, his mind fixed intently on his business. Which is the Bible, as it should be, as it should be for all folk, as it should be, too for his brother Charles, who uses the bottle. Quietly, thinking of the trips across the Atlantic, the swells, the breakers, the wind drowning the curses, he is erasing his past life, a poor and forlorn affair. And his father gone, too: the saviour of Sebastopol, the proud soldier. He is dressed up; she has dressed him up; it is the day of devotion. The memory of his mother recedes like the tide. Soon he will obliterate it. And for the moment, suddenly, he is happy. Their marriage is bright, like the light of the lighthouse. It pleases him that he can provide for her; that he will be able to provide for her when the fortune arrives from Australia. As it will. From his uncle. He looks round the tiny room. There is not a single trace of godlessness. In his head, the thoughts shift slowly by like triangular sails.

We have here the painter Alfred Wallis, whose work was discovered by the St. Ives group of artists, originally by Ben Nicholson, between the world wars, although Wallis was not to begin painting full-time until 1925, forty-four years after this moment in 1881. He had, however, tried his hand at painting earlier than this, although to the amusement rather than admiration of his wife. Wallis was born at 5 Pond Lane, Devonport - now part of Plymouth, Devon - on the 9th August 1855. In later life, he claimed to have been one of thirteen children. In fact, he is only provably one of three children born to Charles and Jane Wallis (n?e Ellis). Both had come to Plymouth from the tip of Cornwall, where both of them had been born, and where Wallis had returned by the 1881 census. He had a younger brother, another Charles - and one sister, Mary Jane, who probably died as an infant. Alfred's mother Jane died in 1866, when Alfred was nearly eleven. He foxed his earliest biographer by claiming no recollection of his mother; this, too, seems unlikely. His mother's family probably originated in the Scilly Isles. At this stage of his life, Alfred Wallis himself remains swathed in the mists of his own history, some of it later befuddled still further.

Wallis's proud claim was that he was born on the day that Sevastopol fell, at the end of the Crimean war - ?Born on The day of The fall of Serveserpool Rushan War?, as he was to write it down. He would determinedly tell anyone that his father (a labourer who graduated from street paving to becoming a mason) had served there. Leaving aside the unlikelihood of a soldier being sent so late to the wars after conceiving a child at the start of 1855, the fact is that Sevastopol did not surrender until Wallis was a month old; and it was his father who registered his birth. It seems likely that he conflated pride in his father with the story of celebrations following the news of victory arriving in Britain. Seamen are celebrated for their spinning of yarns; Wallis loved the sea above all else; he seems to have spun himself into a cocoon of half-truths.

Wallis was, as someone said of him, ?too small to fall over?. He was not much taller than four and a half feet. His wife Susan was also half-pint-size. Her first husband Jacob Ward had been a colossal and contrasting six feet, five inches. Susan looked ?like a jug hanging on a dresser?, said the gossip. Ward - who was a gardener's labourer from Southleigh, in East Devon - had died in 1872. Susan Ward - also born on the east coast of Devon, and originally Susan Agland - had had at least eight with her first husband, and was pregnant with another, a new Jacob, when her husband died. Wallis claimed that she had had seventeen children with Agland, but the evidence rules this out. They had been in Cornwall for a decade or more; Alfred Wallis had also moved with his father to Penzance, and was working at that time as an apprentice basket-weaver.

Susan had been a lacemaker; now she was left with five children, all the others having failed to survive infancy. Her eldest, George, a waiter at Penzance Hotel, had struck up a acquaintance with Wallis; Wallis also seems likely to have been a lodger with the Wards after the death of his own father. The two were roughly the same age (the records successively reverse the order of their ages, but Alfred is thought to have been three years older). At the age of twenty, Alfred Wallis married Susan Ward; both were fiercely temperate and firm believers in the exactitude of the Bible. However, Susan was also pregnant with their first child. She was not seventeen years older than her second husband, as the census implies. She was twenty-two years older. She gained a new child and a lover; he regained a mother. Susan Wallis was to have two children with Wallis, a boy and a girl; neither survived.

This extraordinary marriage was to last almost half-a-century. Wallis, who had worked briefly on fishing trips across the Atlantic to Newfoundland, and later on coastal boats in the thriving pilchard and mackerel trade, now settled into a new life as a marine rag-and-bone man in St. Ives (his brother Charles had a similar trade in Penzance). As a ?dealer in marine stores?, he was constantly on the look-out for rags and scrap, and he quickly acquired the nickname ?Old Iron?. It became a reasonably lucrative business on the quay, with his name rather wonkily painted across the makeshift wooden door. Wallis was picky about the material he salvaged, and straight with his payments. ?If he said ?tuppence', he meant tuppence? - this was the kind of compliment he needed, not least because, as a Devonian, he was liable to be regarded as being about as local as a Martian. And he came to St. Ives when the fishing was good, and the port at the peak of its success. He was to have a run-in with the law over some illegal scavenging from a wreck, but this would have been part of the territory, as would the theft of scrap from his own yard by boys who would then sell it back to him. He later supplemented his income by making pink ice-cream, and seems to have been one of the first to hawk it round the port. And he is also known to have helped with furniture removals.

Alfred Wallis in about 1890

Wallis was a self-absorbed man, with great self-belief. He fancied himself a good looker, was fastidious, dressed with care. He certainly believed himself hard done by: he had a spectacular falling-out with his brother, who had married in Penzance, but only after the birth of a child. This will have offended Wallis's sense of decency. He also believed that he had been denied a share in a fortune left by an Australian uncle, and nursed the grievance against his brother, whom he believed had tried to snaffle Wallis's portion. In the event, it went to someone else. Nor was Wallis above making his point in extravagant style. Next door's rooster was not only objectionably loud, but also keen on attacking Wallis's own bird. He got word to Susan's son George (then back in Okehampton), and had a fighting cock sent down. The professional rooster silenced its new rival for good on the first morning. Wallis himself, however, was an irritant to his neighbours because of the night-time noise his donkey, Freddy, made. When Freddy died, Wallis walked a hundred miles back to Devon to buy a Dartmoor pony, which he named Fairyfoot, and which he tamed with skill (Wallis loved animals. He also had a tame duck. And he also played a wheezing musical instrument, a melodeon, with pleasure and energy).

?

But the curiosity of Wallis's fame is the energy with which he began to paint after his wife Susan died in 1922, at which point he promptly fell out with his step-son, Albert, the baker. (George, his original friend, had died in a horrific threshing accident in 1896.) He had expected Susan to have stashed away some ?45 in cash for him; it wasn't there when he hunted for it; he nursed another grievance thereafter, although it's most likely that she had quietly been passing money to her son in any case. Since he came to refer to her, after forty-six years of amicable marriage, as having been ?a black-hearted bitch?, he may have realised this, too.

Wallis is described as a ?primitive? painter, or as ?naive?; and there were those in the St. Ives community who were jealously astonished when he attracted attention. Wallis painted on any and every surface, including his table, his walls, and pots, as well as the left-over cardboard he got from the local grocer, Quaker Oats boxes especially. Dishes of food sent by his relatives returned covered in images (which were washed, with difficulty, away). What Wallis was doing was refreshing his memory of better days. He painted what he saw in a brilliantly literal way. He had painted real boats with household or ship's paint; nothing else, therefore, would do for the boats, fish, seas, bridges, cliffs that he began to turn out. ?What I do mosley,? he wrote, ?is what us To Bee out of my own memery what we may never see again as Thing are altered all To gether Ther is nothin what Ever do not look like what it was sence I Can Rember?. And he didn't want the paint ?used by artists? - his wasreal , theirs was ?muck?.

Wallis's curious work was admired by three local shopkeepers - grocer, antique dealer and watchmaker (he admired the clocks immensely, and had a gold watch wound there each week). They would have seen in his work an antidote to the industrious daubers who were re-inventing St. Ives; and probably he started painting simply because he was surrounded by painters. Wallis was emphatic about colour: ?I do not put Collers what do not Belong I Think it spoils The pictures Their have Been a lot of paintins spoiled By putin Collers where They do not Blong.? He generally stuck to browns, blacks, greens, and whites and greys when concocting his seas. Perhaps a smidgen of pink. The character of his paintings is also created by his habit of working, not on an easel, but on his table-top, moving round it. It's as if he is looking from above as well as from the side. He ignored perspective, scale. He sometimes ?improved? the the card or other surface, by cutting it into a new shape. The colour of his paper was worked into the design of the whole. And there was a religious dimension, too, as one might expect from a painter who devoted Sunday to his Bible, and carefully covered up all the paintings with newspapers on that day. When Ben Nicholson stumbled across him in 1928, he was astonished by what he saw. It was an art uncluttered by theory, completely true to itself. And he persisted with his painting, daily, for the remaining seventeen years of his life. Some work he gave away; some he sold for trifling amounts, but enough to keep him away from his dread - a pauper's grave. His work began to appear in exhibitions in faraway London. Herbert Read wrote about him, and Jim Ede, an assistant at the Tate Gallery, corresponded with him.

As Alfred Wallis grew older, he became increasingly deaf, and suspicious to the point of paranoia. When Susan died, he moved his bed downstairs, to a room with figurines, pictures of his father and Susan, and a stuffed magpie in a glass case. He rarely went upstairs again. He began to believe that the devil was pursuing him (and of course, a tiny man - ?like a gnome in a blue jersey? - was bound to be hounded by children. On one occasion, aged 84, he got off the train to Penzance at Marazion, and walked the ten miles home, rather than suffer their jeers). A car knocked him down at about the same time in his life: he believed it to be the Mayor's car. The incident obsessed him. He believed in the Salvation Army, as had Susan; he considered the cinema to be evil; he thought the wireless and the chimney were conduits for the Devil. The darker Susan who haunted him, and whom he called Douty Mighty, even told him not to paint. Gradually, he lapsed into a state of squalor, and his visitors had to be prepared for a host of fleas. He lived an ascetic life - two tuppeny-ha'penny loaves lasted him a week. When the St. Ives lifeboat sank in 1938, killing all but one of the crew, Wallis saved three weeks' worth of pension and gave the money to the fund.

By June 1941, he was unable to look after himself any longer. He was almost eighty-six, and was obliged to spend his last fourteen months in Madron's workhouse, where his hair grew long and white, and where he continued to paint and to draw. He died on August 29th 1942; his grave is covered with tiles made by Bernard Leach, who was at the Salvation Army funeral, as were Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. The grave looks over the Atlantic. On the tiles, Leach created an image of a lighthouse, lashed by waves while a little man with a stick defiantly walks up its steps. The inscription reads ?Alfred Wallis - Artist and Mariner?.

Sources:

Alfred Wallis, by Matthew Gale, Tate Gallery, 1998

Alfred Wallis, Cornish Primitive, by Edwin Mullins, Macdonald & Co, 1967

Alfred Wallis, Cornish Primitive, by Edwin Mullins, Pavilion Books, 1994

Alfred Wallis, by Sven Berlin, Poetry London, 1949

Alfred Wallis: Arts Council catalogue, introduction by Alan Bowness, Tate Gallery 1968

Alfred Wallis, Paintings From St. Ives, introduction by George Melly,

Kettle's Yard/ Redstone Press, 1990

Alfred Wallis: Fact And Fiction, by Peter Barnes, St. Ives Study Archive Centre, 1997

Alfred Wallis, Artist and Mariner, by Robert Jones, Halsgrove, 2001

Notes:

Of Alfred Wallis's step-children, only Jacob survived him; Jacob died in 1949. Barnes's pamphlet explodes many of the myths which grew up around Wallis, and is the only book to have a clear grasp of his family history.

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