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Windjammers and steamers: Alfred Wallis’ delightful art

by | Jul 5, 2021 | Maritime Art, Culture and History

The paintings of Cornish artist Alfred Wallis (1855–1942) are often called “naïve art”. Tate, the venerable British art institution, defines the term as art that “is simple, unaffected and unsophisticated — usually specifically refers to art made by artists who have had no formal training in an art school or academy”. Whilst the label is technically correct when applied to Wallis, it is woefully inadequate to describe his art. It does not do justice to the man.

True, Wallis never attended art school. A fisherman for most of his working life, he only started painting when he was 70 years old (click here to learn more about his life and art). His artwork also has a child-like simplicity which one finds in so-called “naive art”. However, the mind that brought it forth was not unsophisticated.

Wallis’ paintings congealed from his experiences as a mariner and fisherman and from his love for the Cornish seaside town of St. Ives, where he lived for 52 years until his death in 1942. Collectively, his works represent a vision of the maritime world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — a world of windjammers and steamships that had faded away.

Wallis did not care about perspective or artistic technique. He painted naturally, with vigour and an instinctive sense of composition and visual rhythm. Interestingly, he did not do so on canvas since he could not afford it. He painted with oil (including ship’s oil paint) on paper, board or whatever usable material was at hand. The result, as the following examples show, is art without affectation but with plenty of charm.

For more about Wallis’ life and art, download Alfred Wallis: Ships and Boats, a 9-page monograph. Click here

St Ives, c. 1928
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Courtesy of Tate
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

Voyage to Labrador, ? c. 1935–1936
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Courtesy of Tate
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

‘The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach’, ? c. 1932
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Courtesy of Tate
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

Two-Masted Ship, c. 1928
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Courtesy of Tate UK
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

P.Z. 11, c. 1928
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Courtesy of Tate
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

Boats at Rest in Mount’s Bay, date unknown
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Courtesy of Tate
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

Schooner under the Moon, ? c. 1935–1936
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Courtesy of Tate
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

Wreck of the Alba, c. 1938–1939
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Courtesy of Tate
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

The Blue Ship, ? c. 1934
Alfred Wallis (1855–1942)
Courtesy of Tate
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence

NOTE: The Tate website has more details about the paintings featured in this article plus some interesting backstories. Click here.

~ Barista Uno

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