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This week, Andrew Nairne, Director of Kettle's Yard, reflects on Alfred Wallis' work, the artist's legacy and why Hastings seems an appropriate location for a display of Wallis' seascapes. 

What is it I admire so much about Alfred Wallis’ paintings? Is it that they were made without the benefit of art school training by an impoverished scrap merchant who started painting ‘for company’ after his wife died? Is it because his paintings played an extraordinary role at a critical moment in the development of modern British art? Of course how can one not be fascinated by the story of Alfred Wallis; ‘discovered‘ in St.Ives by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in the summer of 1928. Yet as Nicholson noted in an essay after Wallis’s death in 1942: ‘the real story about Wallis is written in his work..’. What I admire most is what Nicholson and Wood also recognised: an authenticity, an expressive reality that continues to be profound. As Jim Ede, the creator of Kettle’s Yard, astutely wrote: ‘Wallis is never local’.

The other day I found a scrap book I made as a student thirty years ago. I was visiting Cornwall for the first time. There, on the second page, was a postcard of Alfred Wallis’ Brigantine sailing past green fields, in the Kettle’s Yard collection. Now I am responsible for looking after this beautiful painting with its white sails set against the luminous green of the land. It is currently on display in the Kettle’s Yard house.

We were delighted when it was suggested a room at the Jerwood might be devoted to Wallis‘ paintings. A group of works from Cambridge would be hung alongside the Jerwood’s own Wallis: Two Boats, c.1930. I came down to Hastings for the opening in January. There was a raging storm that night. From just outside the gallery of Wallis paintings, I looked out through the floor to ceiling window at fishing boats pulled up on the beach and the dark, raging sea beyond. Wallis would have loved it! His paintings of boats are a kind of imaginative recall of his days at sea in the late 19th Century. Nicholson recounts that he described his works not as paintings but events or experiences.

Of the selection currently at the Jerwood, I am especially fond of two paintings that show a boat struggling with a grey, rolling sea at 45 degrees. As is often the case, Wallis has left the skies untouched by paint, so we see the cardboard or rough board he had scavenged. His interest is the sea in all its power and mystery. In a talk I gave at Kettle’s Yard I joked that Wallis had exaggerated the angle of the sea, but how powerful this was. One of my group turned to me and said: ‘no, that is exactly what it is like’.

In Focus: Alfred Wallis runs until Wednesday 23 April and can be seen in room 6 at the gallery. 


Images (from top to bottom): Andrew Nairne, Director of Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge © Philippa Gedge; Alfred Wallis, Two Boats, c.1930, Jerwood Collection; Alfred Wallis, Steamboat with two sailors, lighthouse and rocks (date unknown) Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge. 

11 April, 2014
Written by Andrew Nairne