Five Ships – Mount’s Bay (c.1928) depicts five Cornish luggers (small sailing ships) sailing into Mount’s Bay. Ships at sea were principal subjects for the English painter, fisherman and scrap merchant Alfred Wallis who painted from memory, regarding his paintings as an expression of his experiences.
Why did he paint ships?
Ships and seascapes were what Alfred Wallis knew best. He spent much of his working life at sea and then as a scrapyard merchant living on the coast. He never went outside to paint from life, but instead painted from his memory, recalling the boats and ships he had seen and sailed on. The artist Ben Nicholson remembers him declaring ‘Houses – houses – I don’t like houses – give me a ship and you take all the houses in the world!’
His paintings have a strong nostalgic quality. Wallis often painted the ships he knew from his youth, the types of sailing ships that were being replaced by large steamboats. He wrote regular letters to Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle’s Yard, repeating often that he painted ‘what used to be’.
Despite being painted from memory, the ships in this painting show a large degree of technical accuracy. In the painting Five Ships – Mount’s Bay five Cornish luggers (small sailing ships) are shown sailing into Mount’s Bay. Mount’s Bay is a place for shelter in stormy weather. The ships here are shown with only a small amount of sail unfolded, suggesting strong winds and a possible storm. Wallis’s knowledge of the ships is also demonstrated in the attention to detail of the rigging.
The painting does, however, play with perspective, showing us a more personalised view than accurate one. Wallis includes two lighthouses, which would not in reality be visible together in this way. He often included lighthouses in his artwork, which emphasise the fraught and fragile relationship between humans, boats and the sea.
In this film clip, family members and neighbours share their memories of Alfred Wallis.
Alfred Wallis: Artist and Mariner. 1973. Mason Bruce Associates. Copyright BFI National Archive
How did he paint it?
As far as we know Alfred Wallis never painted from life, but instead painted scenes from his memory. The artist Ben Nicholson wrote that when Wallis discussed his works, he would do so ‘speaking of them not as paintings but as events or experiences.’
Most of his pictures are painted on old boards, cardboard or packaging cases. Ben Nicholson described Wallis’s method of painting:
‘He would cut out the top and bottom of an old cardboard box, and sometimes the four sides, into irregular shapes, using each shape as the key to the movement in a painting, and using the colour and texture of the board as the key to its colour and texture. When the painting was completed, what remained of the original board, a brown, a grey, a white or a green board, sometimes in the sky, sometimes in the sea, or perhaps in a field or a lighthouse, would be as deeply experienced as the remainder of the painting.’
His house was filled with his paintings, as one neighbour remembered:
‘He used to have a passion for painting mackerel luggers, used to make a freeze of them all the way round his wainscoting [… ] Used to paint on the cups as well – nothing was safe from where paint could go.’
Wallis often used ships paints in his paintings. He had strong views on what colours should be used in painting and worked with a limited palette. In one letter he wrote to Jim Ede:
‘I do not put collers [sic. colours] what Do not Belong I Think I spoils the pictures Their have Been a lot of paintins spoiled By putin collers where they do not Blong.’
Wallis often gave the most prominence to what he thought was most important in his paintings, rather than what was closest or largest in reality. Sailing ships are often shown as larger than steam boats, and fish would sometimes dwarf everything else in the painting. In Five Ships the ships dominate the image and are as tall as the lighthouses and St Michael’s Mount.
How much did he charge for his paintings?
Despite being championed by many key artists and critics of the time, Alfred Wallis didn’t make a great deal of money from his paintings. Jim Ede describes receiving paintings in the post:
‘I think it was in 1926 I first began to get paintings by Alfred Wallis. They would come by post, perhaps 60 at a time, and the price fixed at 1/-. 2/-, 3/-, according to size.’
1/- equals one shilling, which is equivalent to a few pounds today. Jim would choose how many he wanted and send back the rest.
Wallis produced a large number of artworks and painted everyday. He often gave work away, resulting in many works now being lost. Emily Woolcock, one of his step grandchildren, remembers visiting him as a child:
‘And every time, practically, I went in he used to say: ‘Here you are, carry this home.’ I used to carry them home and mother used to say to me: ‘Well, don’t for heaven’s sake, Emily, bring any more of them in. Throw them in the dustbin.’ I’ve had scores of them. I’ve only got one today.’
Some of his artist friends worried about whether he had enough money. In one letter to Jim Ede, Wallis seems to be responding to Jim’s concern that he gives too much of his money away:
‘Sir I received your letter I do not think I have mad a merstek I saw a little boy on the paper looking well fed and he has a large family to keep I thought if he had the worth given it would be all help I ham poor myself a pechener of old age the paintins do com in to by clothin or anything else in that way needful. Its not the first time I have helpt such causes and I think it augut to be put that way mor than it is.’ (sic)
Despite the success of his artwork with his contemporaries, when Wallis was taken ill he spent the last few months of his life in Madron Poor House. Ben Nicholson ensured that he was well looked after and his friends worked together to ensure that he would have a suitable burial and grave.
‘We explored the possibilities of having him removed from there and looked after, but under wartime conditions the difficulties proved too great. He was well cared for by the master and matron of the Institute, who were intelligent and extremely kind, and it was not long before he was telling the nurses to mind what company they kept, or before the inmates, nurses, matron, master and even the cooks were admirers of the ships he drew and painted, and he was working up to within a fortnight of his death.’
Alfred Wallis was born on 8 August 1855 in Devonport, near Plymouth. His parents were both Cornish, but lived in Devon where his father worked. His mother died when he was 10 and at some point after this his family returned to Cornwall. Wallis spent much of his life at sea, travelling as far as Newfoundland, a Canadian island off the east coast of North America. Wallis then become a scrap-yard merchant in St Ives. He never had any training as an artist and only took up painting in his 70s, to keep himself company after the death of his wife.
Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, two friends and artists involved in the modern art scene in London, met Wallis on a trip to St Ives in 1928. They were inspired by his artwork and shared it with many of their friends in London, including Jim Ede, the creator of Kettle’s Yard. Alfred Wallis died in 1942.
Why is it special?
Alfred Wallis’s paintings are often perceived as childlike, yet they had a great influence on other artists at the time, including many artists who were friends of Jim Ede. Below are some comments from Alfred Wallis’s contemporaries about the impact his artwork had on their own work.
Christopher Wood: ‘I am more and more influenced by Alfred Wallis – not a bad master though; he and Picasso both mix their colour on box lids.’
Barbara Hepworth: ‘He certainly didn’t know how much we all learned and took off him.’
Ben Nicholson wrote to Jim Ede on the day that Wallis died:
‘I don’t think a good Wallis is representational, it is simply REAL?’
Ben Nicholson may in fact have regretted introducing Jim Ede to Alfred Wallis’s work, after Jim commented: ‘you can’t expect me to pay much attention to pictures by Ben Nicholson or Winifred Nicholson when you send me this by Wallis.’
In these paintings below from the Kettle’s Yard collection Wallis’s influence on Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood is clear.
Do you see how Wood paints on a piece of board and Nicholson on card, with scuffed and uneven edges? In both the underlying colour of the material shows through. The boats are painted with accuracy and attention to detail, while in Nicholson’s the houses are jumbled together, distorting the perspective.
Both artists have also adopted Alfred Wallis’s limited range of colours. Wood particularly picked up on Wallis’s interest in lighthouses. Le Phare, the title of his painting, and written across the newspaper in the foreground, is French for lighthouse. This draws attention to the lack of lighthouse in the painting, highlighting the fragile relationship between people, boats and the sea that is explored in many of Wallis’s paintings.
Alfred Wallis is not just popular with artists: when the Art Fund asked the public to vote for their favourite British masterpieces in 2013, Five Ships – Mount’s Bay made it into the top ten. Alfred Wallis’s artworks continue to evoke a feeling of being by the sea, combined with a nostalgic sense of a seafaring life of a former era.