The Life and Works of Alfred Wallace

Posted by: David 26-11-2014

Like so many of the artists we have been looking at recently, Alfred Wallace lived a varied and hectic life filled with turmoil and tragedy. His path crossed with those of other influential people in the art world, including Ben Nicholson. Once he started painting, he quickly became known for his naïve works, although his fame brought him little fortune. But, like with so many other influential painters of the 20th century, St Ives played a huge role in his life and art.

What is naïve art?

The term naïve art was coined to describe a simplistic, often childlike, style of painting, in which subjects are usually depicted in a very straightforward manner. Many naïve artists had no formal training, hence their painting style, although their paintings are still valued and important for the bare, uncompromising way they show their subject matter. Wallace in particular was a strong example of naïve art, using a limited palette of coloured ship paints on spare scraps of wood or paper to create his pieces.

Early life – fishing and scrap

Wallace started life as a fisherman, and claimed that he went to sea as young as nine, involved in deep sea fishing. Sometimes he sailed as far as Newfoundland. He was born in Devonport and moved to St Ives in 1890, setting himself up as a marine scrap merchant, selling items such as rope, paint, and old nails. He retired from this in 1912 and only took up painting a decade later, following the death of his wife, Susan Ward.

Artistic career

A social outsider, Wallace took up painting after Ward’s death for company. Wary of human contact, painting gave him the chance to recall happier times and enjoy himself without the perils of social interaction.

Wallace’s work rarely depicted people, focussing instead on ships and shipwrecks. He usually painted from memory, especially ships that he remembered from his time at sea, and from imagination. He also painted many images of the landscape of St Ives. He was discovered in 1928 by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, who were also working in the naïve (or Primitive) style, and were further inspired by Wallace’s paintings.

Unaware of the concept of linear perspective, Wallace used size to determine the main subject of the painting. So regardless of how it appeared in relation to the other elements of the painting, the principle subject was always the biggest. Wallace regarded his paintings as recounts of his events or experiences, rather than anything artistic.

Despite the popularity of his artwork, Wallace was living in Madron Workhouse when he died in 1942. He is remembered not just for the distinctiveness of his paintings, but also because of his place in the transformation and evolution of British art during the early and mid 20th century.

The Tate St Ives currently has 12 of his artworks, and exhibitions of his pieces are often held across the county.


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