It can be said that the life of Alfred Wallis was one of bittersweet success. Amidst the growing competitive stream of emerging and pioneering post-modern artists that were arriving in St Ives during the early 20th Century, there resided Wallis, a humble 73-year-old widower who in 1928 was using painting as a way to pass the time. A former fisherman, labourer and man of odd jobs, Wallis had never been a rich man, but he was a persistent one, doing whatever he could and trying whatever he might to help keep a roof over his head. Sadly, his artistic discovery wouldn’t improve his fortune, but the legacy and his story is one that has certainly stood the test of time.
Now, Wallis’ story is being told in raw truth through a new, illustrative book created by 22-year-old illustrator Molly Russon, who looks to capture the darkness of Wallis’ life as well as the impressive memory left by his charming works.
A distinctively unique style, the term ‘naïve’ can be traced back to the origins around Wallis’ discovery, when professional and established artists Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson found themselves captivated by the rag and bone man’s characterful depictions of fishing life in St Ives. Inspired by this self-taught artist, who painted to combat the loneliness he felt following the death of his wife Susan in 1922, Nicholson and Wood soon formed a close friendship with Wallis, which saw him swiftly enter into a league of artists that would go on to transform St Ives’ reputation from industrial fishing and mining town into one of an artistic provenance that still resonates strongly today.
“From the moment I thought about writing this book, I knew I wanted it to be erring on the dark side,” explains Molly, “I didn’t want to shy away from the hardships Wallis encountered and to just tell the story of a fisherman who took up painting and was discovered by some other artists. I thought that would be wrong and wouldn’t allow people to have a deeper understanding of his work.”
Based in London, Molly has been travelling to Cornwall to visit family for as long as she can remember. Having first discovered Wallis’ work through her mother, also an artist, she found herself drawn to the childish naivety of his style and the evident passion that had gone into each piece. Immediately, there was a connection, which continued to follow Molly into later life,
“Wallis helped me choose my university,” she says, “I remember watching a documentary Miriam Margoyles did about him and how when she was at Cambridge University she managed to borrow one of his paintings through a scheme and have it in her student dorm room. Sadly, they don’t let you take paintings into your student digs anymore, but I had applied to Cambridge School of Art and decided that it was the place for me if I could have access to Wallis’ works.”
With a permanent exhibition of Wallis’ work on display, Molly soon found herself immersed in Wallis’ world. In many senses, Molly’s attraction to Wallis’ life stemmed from sadness, here she found herself discovering the life of a man who had watched much of what he had known and loved slip away through the changing times and the tragedies that befell his personal life. Suddenly, the paintings of small boats on the back of cardboard boxes and old paper held a completely different meaning.
“All he had [in his later life] were the memories of, as he said, ‘What used to be’, he felt that he had to get them out there somehow, or his way of life, his experiences and his beloved ships, would be forgotten. That fear of being lost to time is why he used to stand outside his house in St Ives with his paintings and would tell anyone who would listen about what all the different boats in his paintings were, and how they worked. These paintings had to come out of him, they were almost more of an act of conversation.”
“I initially thought that this idea to make a book about Wallis would be one of those projects that would sit in my head for at least 20 years.”
By the end of her second year at university, Molly was given the brief to create a book and suddenly found herself with the opportunity to the tell the story of the artist she had kept so close to her for so long. Encouraged by its success and the joy she found in creating it, she revisited it during her final year, tweaking parts and refining the details. After finishing her degree and advised by her tutors to submit the book for publishing, Molly found herself becoming a published illustrator and author of The Life of Alfred Wallis, which is now set for release this April via Unicorn Publishing. A book which not only showcases the incredible talent Molly displays as an illustrator, but also a book that captures the life and soul of this understated Cornish artist.
“I started the initial process with lots and lots of research,” Molly describes. “Probably too much, because now if anyone gets me started on Wallis I can just go on for hours.
“One of the challenges I felt I faced when writing this, was the tone of the book. Marrying my want to make a fully illustrated ‘picture book’ with a story that has dark themes and is quite sad, whilst also making it a pleasurable read that gets across what I wanted, was quite tricky. However, I hope that I’ve managed to create something that tells all of Wallis’ story and makes it accessible and enjoyable to children and adults.”
For Molly it was the context behind Wallis’ work that helped her to channel her creative processes into understanding the man behind the art allowing her to not only create captivating illustrations but also beautiful wording,
“I decided to make Wallis the narrator after I’d read some of his letters to Jim Ede, his friend. He had such a distinctive way of writing. He was only semi-literate, so his Cornish accent really comes through in his writing because he is writing almost as if he was speaking. I felt I had to incorporate that because it was so full of character.”
Seemingly, Wallis was unwittingly plagued by an often-lonely life. Wallis was known to believe himself to be a man hard done by. Stories of cheated fortunes and denied inheritances circulated his life and there were often family fallouts and scandalous drama, perhaps the most notorious being his own marriage to 41-year-old Susan Ward, whom he wed at age 20 and became stepfather to her five children. Sadly two of Wallis’ own infant children with Susan died. He was never a particularly successful businessmen, but he was an avid animal lover and was known to irritate his neighbours with his rather noisy pet donkey, Freddy, as well as his pet duck.
Money was a sore subject of Wallis’ life, even after Susan’s death in 1922, things came to a head with the family when Alfred discovered the money he believed Susan to have stashed away for him, non-existent. After nearly 50 years of amicable marriage, Wallis’ memory of Susan seemed to sour, and a subsequent fallout came about the family.
In his art, Wallis evidently found solace and self-assurance, both from his loneliness and from a world he believed to be disappearing. Raw in their creation and innocent in style, it may be easy for a viewer to imagine Wallis as naïve himself, but Wallis’ persistence to make work of his circumstances were ever present, down to his neatly combed moustache and well-kept clothes. So, it’s no surprise that when Wallis started noticing the buzz about St Ives’ newly acquired reputation as a spot for artists, it would be a boat he thought worth jumping on.
Shortly after their meeting, Nicholson and Wood introduced Wallis to Jim Ede, an assistant at London’s Tate Gallery, who promoted his work in the city, however few paintings were sold and Wallis continued to live in poverty. As he grew older, Wallis became increasingly paranoid, to the point of sleeping in the downstairs part of his house for fear that the devil resided in the upstairs. Both he and Susan had been firm believers of the bible and Wallis himself was an avid supporter of the Salvation Army. So much so, when the St Ives lifeboat sank in 1938, Wallis saved three weeks’ worth of pension and donated the money to the sole survivor of the crew. At the time, he was living off two small loaves of bread a week.
Today, Wallis’ work can be found in museums and galleries across the country with many of his originals sell for thousands of pounds to eager collectors through private sales and auctions. It seems a stark contrast from the life of the man himself, who spent his final days in Madron Workhouse in Penzance, something he had feared greatly in his old age. It begs to wonder at that time, where his once enamoured friends had gone to in his time of need during the last stages of his life.
Through his art, memories of Wallis’ time as a deep-sea fisherman seem to gather a deeper, more profound meaning that juxtaposes their charmingly gentle style when placed into the context of his life. In his discovery, there is success, but it was sadly an achievement Wallis never managed to reap the rewards of. For Molly, there is a sense of Van Gogh-esque about him, a man who has led a roller coaster life of tragedy and triumph, and whilst experiencing some reverence as a creative, has long passed to see the result his artworks have had on modern culture today.
“I really do wish I could have met him,” describes Molly, “he seemed like such a character. If I could, I probably would just let him talk to me about his boats and his life. I’d have to ask for a painting and I would have to tell him what St Ives is like in the future, and the price of a fisherman’s cottage nowadays; he’d probably have a hard time taking that one in! However, the thing I’d most want to do, would be to take him to see his painting in the Tate Britain, sat right next to a Turner.
“Wallis’ legacy as an artist in St Ives is so deep. You can see it when you walk down the street and every other gallery will have someone painting in the style of Wallis. Some have real works of his for sale, others have cushions, postcards and tea towels. He’s also in the history of British Modern art, and his distinctive style had a huge influence on his fellow artistic members of St Ives.
“He painted those pictures so his Cornwall, his way of life, his memories, wouldn’t be forgotten, and they aren’t. I feel that he is something of a British Van Gogh.”
Wallis died on the 29th August 1942, aged 87 at Madron Workhouse, he was buried at Barnoon Cemetery in St Ives, his grave designed and crafted with tiles by Bernard Leach, which can still be viewed today. A true Cornish artist, Alfred Wallis lived and worked by the land and sea, sought to make the most of his struggles and relished in painting for what it was in its most raw form, an opportunity to connect with people and with a time he cherished. For Molly, she believes it’s artists like Wallis that help keep St Ives’ history alive,
“His work brings new people to the place, aspiring artists hoping to soak up whatever is in the water there that keeps everyone so creative. He’s a messenger of what used to be and what St Ives used to be and through his work we can always remember St Ives’ heritage.”
The Life of Alfred Wallis by Molly Russon is available as a hardback, priced at £10. A fresh, unique take on the life of this rag and bone man turned artist brings together the voice, spirit and soul of Wallis alongside Molly’s stunning illustrative works that capture the style and essence of Wallis’ iconic themes.
Discover more of Molly’s work at www.mollyrusson.com
The Life of Alfred Wallis by Molly Russon, available as hardback across various online retail sites and in selected bookshops.
Published by Unicorn Publishing.