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Exhibition: Alfred Wallis Rediscovered at Kettle's Yard

An artist whose fishing boat scenes so entranced Jim Ede, the creator of Kettle’s Yard, that he collected more than 120 of his paintings is set to have an exhibition in the gallery this month, writes Alex Spencer.

Alfred Wallis Rediscovered will be an exhibition of paintings and drawings by the self-taught British artist and mariner, Alfred Wallis (1855-1942). The exhibition will include more than 60 rarely shown paintings and drawings from the Kettle’s Yard reserve collection and three important sketchbooks which were made in the last year of the artist’s life and have not been exhibited for more than 50 years.

The exhibition celebrates Wallis’ practice as an artist from around 1925, when he is thought to have started painting, to his death in the Madron Institute in 1942.

Alfred Wallis, Brigantine sailing past green fields (42536621)
Alfred Wallis, Brigantine sailing past green fields (42536621)

A spokesperson for Kettle’s Yard said: “Alfred Wallis’ expressive drawings and paintings capture the immediacy of his direct experiences of the sea. Wallis lived in Cornwall throughout his life, working on deep sea fishing boats and then as a marine scrap merchant. He turned to painting when he was in his 70s and with no formal training, and used this creative outlet as a means to escape the isolation and loneliness that he felt following the passing of his wife.

“In his final year of his life, Wallis lived in a workhouse and here, with materials gifted to him by artist Ben Nicholson and art critic Adrian Stokes, he continued to recall and sketch his memories of the sea, shore and Cornish landscape.

“Wallis worked mostly from memory, playing with proportions and perspective and painting on scraps of board with a reduced colour palette. He wanted to capture a direct experience of life through his paintings – the ferocity of the sea and its motion, or the oppressive power of towering woodland trees. While some works feature recurring signature motifs, such as ships at harbour, others portray real-life events. The Wreck of the Alba (c.1938-40) depicts the running aground of a 3,700-ton Panamanian steamer, which Wallis witnessed.

Alfred Wallis,Two ships and steamer sailing past a port – Falmouth and St. Anthony lighthouse (42536618)
Alfred Wallis,Two ships and steamer sailing past a port – Falmouth and St. Anthony lighthouse (42536618)

“In addition to the paintings, the exhibition will include a number of lively letters sent from Alfred Wallis to Jim Ede, the creator of Kettle’s Yard and one of Wallis’ principal patrons. Ede regularly bought work by Wallis and was instrumental in cementing his reputation after his death.

“Though they never met, the two men corresponded regularly between 1929 and 1938, building a close epistolary friendship, and during those years Ede amassed over 120 paintings. As a result, Kettle’s Yard has the most substantial institutional holding of work by Wallis anywhere in the world. Ede said of Wallis in 1945: ‘Wallis was an innocent painter, with a living rather than an intellectual experience, a power of direct perception [...] Each painting was to him a re-living, a re-presenting, achieved unconsciously in regard to the act of painting, but vividly conscious in its factual awareness.’”

Alfred Wallis, Ship with seven men, net and gull (42536624)
Alfred Wallis, Ship with seven men, net and gull (42536624)

As well as the gallery exhibition, visitors will also be able to explore the many Wallis paintings on permanent display in the Kettle’s Yard house.

Wallis was ‘discovered’ in 1928 by artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood. Wood said of his work: “I’m more and more influenced by Alfred Wallis – not a bad master though; he and Picasso both mix their colours on box lids!”

The exhibition will particularly explore Wallis’ style and choice of subject as he approached death, by examining three sketchbooks made in the last year of his life when he was institutionalised due to illness in the Madron Institute, a workhouse in St Ives. The sketchbooks will be displayed in vitrines but also digitised in order to enable visitors to view all of the pages through film.

n Alfred Wallis Rediscovered will be at Kettle’s Yard from October 24 until January 3, 2021.
For details about booking timed tickets, visit kettlesyard.co.uk.

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