University Art Collection

Alfred Wallis (England, 1855-1942)

Alfred Wallis was a British fisherman and artist known for his depictions of the Cornish landscape adopting seafaring folk imagery and a distinctive style, which at the time was recognised as ‘naive’ but powerfully sincere as the subject matter of his paintings emerged from first-hand experience of life at sea. Wallis was born in Devonport, near Plymouth, and before becoming a seaman, he apprenticed as a basket maker. However, the sea was part of his life since early years, having first sailed as a cabin boy on a ship as young as 9 years old. At the age of 21, after moving to Penzance, he meets Susan Ward, a widowed mother and 23 years his senior, and becomes stepfather to her five children. The two children he had with Susan did not survive infancy. He would become a mariner and sailed on schooners across the North Atlantic between Penzance and Newfoundland. In 1885, Wallis and his family move to St Ives and runs marine stores selling recovered supplies and equipment.

Wallis was a devout Christian and joined the Salvation Army protestant church in 1906. His commitment to his faith led him to have a disciplined and austere lifestyle, in which he refused to work on Sundays. Following his wife’s death in 1922, Wallis took painting in 1925 as a means of companionship. In 1928, artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood stumble upon Wallis’ work whilst holidaying in St Ives and become early campaigners of his work, introducing him to Jim Ede, who would buy over 120 paintings over the course of 9 years. Since the 1960s, his artwork has been credited as a source of inspiration for diverse English painters, and as such a key figure in the development of modern art in Britain. 

Image: Alfred Wallis, Ships in Harbour, undated, oil on board. Donated by Jim Ede. University of Essex Art Collection.