Boats before a great bridge (Royal Albert Bridge?), 1935-37 (circa)
Alfred Wallis took up painting in his early seventies, to fend off loneliness after the death of his wife Susan (1922). Having undergone no formal artistic training, his approach was altogether unconventional: he painted on all sorts of materials – here, an uneven piece of watercolour board; elsewhere cardboard sheets, jars, bellows and only very occasionally canvas – and favoured household and ship paints over more traditional oil-based colours.
Wallis never painted from life, preferring to work from memory in his St Ives cottage. His usual subjects were seascapes and scenes of life at sea inspired by his experiences as a merchant sailor and fisherman. Occasionally he painted the Cornish landscape and more rarely rather obscure religious or allegorical subjects, as in the case of Three Figures and Two Dogs of 1932-34 (in the Kettle’s Yard reserve collection).
For Boats under Saltash Bridge Wallis drew upon memories going back to his early years. The Royal Albert Bridge was built in 1859 to create a rail link between the towns of Saltash and Devonport, on the south coast of Cornwall. Having grown up in Devonport, Wallis knew it as a child, and he would almost certainly have seen it again as a sailor. The painting is skilfully constructed around the play between the represented view and the unusual trapezoidal shape of the support, with the unmistakable profile of the bridge dominating the sea and the ships below. The disregard of traditional concepts of colour and perspective emphasise Wallis’s very personal vision, based upon a sort of ‘topography of memory’, in which the reality of the place is distorted in accordance with the artist’s recollection of it.
It was the freshness of Wallis’s perception that made Jim Ede to take an interest in his work. As he wrote to his friend Ben Nicholson at the time: “You can’t expect me to take paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson seriously when you show me these by Alfred Wallis.”
Like most paintings by Wallis, Boats under Saltash Bridge is undated. Matthew Gale, the first scholar to attempt a historical study of the painter’s work, has suggested 1935-37 as a likely date.
Painting [AW 25]
Oil on card
367 x 392 mm
About the artist
Wallis was born in Devon. He was a fisherman and later a scrap-metal merchant in St. Ives. After the death of his wife in 1922, he turned to painting as a way of fending off loneliness. He was admired by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, who came across his work when visiting St. Ives in 1928 and included it in the Seven & Five Society's exhibition of 1929. He died in Madron Poorhouse.