Alfred Wallis, artist and chandler of St Ives

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Examples of Alfred Wallis’s work. Click on each one
for a larger image

Like most other areas of human activity, the art establishment tends to favour its own – so no matter how bohemian they may be, most artists are cultured and educated, and quite often rather posh. But every now and again the art establishment finds an artist whose work it finds so interesting and charming that the usual rules no longer apply. Beryl Cook was one of these – and Alfred Wallis was another.

Wallis seems to have had many roles – he was first a basket-maker, then a hand on merchant seaman, then a deep-sea fisherman, and then ran a business as marine stores dealer in St Ives, buying scrap iron, sails, rope and other items until his business closed in 1912. He then went to work for a local antiques dealer, an experience that may provided some understanding of the world of objets d’art.

He seems to have begun painting in earnest after his wife died. Short of money as he was, he painted on whatever objects came to hand and his subjects were often seascapes painted from memories going back to the era before the steamships took over from sail.

Life changed for him in 1928 when a group of artists led by Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson set up the well known artists’ colony in the little town, for their arrival led to Wallis’s discovery by the art world.

Recognition doesn’t seem to have brought riches, for he eventually died in the workhouse in Penzance, but  Wallises are now highly collectible, and the artist behind them has become a legend. I gather that examples of his work have even been minaturised and made into fridge magnets…

Read all about Alfred Wallis and see the galleries of his work at

Wallis meets Ben Nicholson in 1928,
photographed by Christopher Wood