Primitive painter, born in Devon in August 1855, moved soon to St Ives in Cornwall, where he lived and died. Worked as a fisherman for most of his life, then owned the marine stores on the harbour at St Ives. He took up painting as an old man of 70 after the death of his wife in 1925, in his own words "for company".

For three years he worked alone making pictures of ships, lighthouses and the sea with materials he found around him; marine paint, backs of washing powder packets, flotsam, etc. In 1928 he was discovered by Ben NICHOLSON and Christopher WOOD as they strolled by his house on a Sunday afternoon. They immediately realised the importance of this untrained talent, who had no knowledge or interest in the history of art. Throughout the thirties he was incorporated in exhibitions in London, where Nicholson acted as agent.

But it was really after his death, in poverty and in the work house at Madron,  that he was accepted by the art world at large. Alethea GARSTIN was the kind friend who took paints and paper to him when he was incarcerated in the work house.  Now his work is held in many public collections, primarily the Tate Gallery, St Ives, and Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. Though utterly primitive and childlike in style, there is a certain sophistication to his work. His ships are delineated with the utmost attention to detail, and his seas are bursting with the energy that is so hard to capture in paint.

Herbert Read (Art Now, 1933) called him 'An old man who still has the eyes of a child'. Adrian STOKES explained: 'He has been a fisherman all his life, accustomed to conceive the sea in relation to what lies beneath it, sand or rock and the living forms of fish. The surface of his sea, seen best on grey days, is the showing also of what lies under it.' (Colour and Form, 1937, p64)



works and access

Access: Tate Gallery; Kettle's Yard, Cambridge; Cornwall County Council



Tate Gallery St Ives; Kettle's Yard, Cambridge; Heal's Mansard Gallery, St Ives 1951, January - February

1987: Looking West, Paintings inspired by Cornwall, NAG and RCA (touring)

1989: A Century of Art in Cornwall 1889-1989, Truro

1992: RWE, Bristol: Artists from Cornwall (4 selected)




misc further info



Personal bibliography:

Gale, Matthew (1998) Alfred Wallis St Ives Artists series: Tate Gallery Publ;                                                                                   

Harrison, Charles (1987) The Modern, the Primitive and the Picturesque: Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson Exh Cat, Edinburgh: Scottish Arts Council

Mellis, Margaret (1992) 'Alfred Wallis' Essay in Artists from Cornwall RWE exhibition cat

Mullins, Edwin (1967) Alfred Wallis: Cornish Primitive Painter London: MacDonald. 15 coloured plates and 68 black & white plates listed with their contemporaneous owners

Whybrow, Marion (1999) The Innocent Eye, Primitive and naïve painters in Cornwall Bristol: Sansom; 

Berlin, Sven (1992) Alfred Wallis: Primitive, Bristol: Redcliffe Press (Update of 1949 edition)

General context:

M Bird (2008) St Ives Artists/Place & Time

Great Atlantic Publications & Clark Art Ltd (2008) the golden age of cornish art : (1) Coming into Harbour

Holmes An Artistic Tradition

Hoyle, H (Dec 2010 Women Artists in Cornwall Review of BBC4 documentary 'Art of Cornwall'

Hoyle, H (Oct 2013 Women Artists in Cornwall 'Margaret Mellis and St Ives Modernism'

J LeGrice (2008) The First Eleven: St Ives Artists

Newton et al Painting at the Edge (Illus)

RWE (1992) Artists from Cornwall, Bristol (selected)

Tate (1985) St Ives 1939-64: 25 Years of Painting, Sculpture & Pottery, biog notes p144-5 with photo