Alfred Wallis started painting at the age of seventy. He recalled memories of his seagoing days to paint the ships and ﬁshing boats he had seen and worked aboard. He painted the harbour towns and coasts he knew from both land and sea and the areas of west Cornwall he was familiar with. I became familiar with the north and south coasts of the west Cornwall peninsula in the 1970s during the seven years I spent ﬁshing those waters. As a native Cornishman I came to see that the towns and coastline I knew so well were the very places that Alfred Wallis had featured in his paintings. Wallis’s paintings are rich in geographical and nautical knowledge. They also contain historical information, often recording actual events. On researching archive material and period photographs I was able to trace the sources of the imagery in his work. I discovered his signature on a crew list of a sailing ship on which he made a voyage to Newfoundland in 1876. There is little fantasy in Wallis’s paintings; they describe his experience. In a letter to Edwin Mullins, Ben Nicholson wrote: “He did not consider his paintings as paintings so much as ACTUAL EVENTS”.1 The painting’s title gives us little clue as to its subject, and identifying the geographical location is not straightforward. Edwin Mullins illustrated ‘Ships and Lighthouse, Houses’ in his book Alfred Wallis Cornish Primitive Painter published in 1967 and the opposite page features a painting of the coast and sea of Mount’s Bay, which includes St Michael’s Mount. Certainly Wallis knew the waters of Mount’s Bay. He and his wife Susan lived in Penzance, and during his seagoing days in sailing ships and his time as a ﬁsherman with the Newlyn and Mousehole ﬂeets it was his homeport. This painting is made with just three colours; black, white and yellow and, as with many of his works, Wallis utilises the colour of the board to great effect. In the lower part of the painting three vessels, a sailing ship and two steamships make their way towards a harbour with a lighthouse, perhaps Penzance. Above, on the shore, a terraced row of cottages have such presence they almost look out at us. Could this be the town of Marazion with the sloping feature on the right St Michael’s Mount, which has cottages at the bottom and castle buildings at the top. Mullins wrote that “Wallis was essentially a literal painter. The sea he painted white or grey because water has no colour of its own; similarly, rocks in his paintings are all brown, grass is all green” With that in mind, we see that Wallis has not only used white paint for the sea, but also for ‘the Mount’, but that the paint is rendered in different ways. Given the literal nature of his work, this is unlikely to have been accidental. I suggest that this painting could represent Wallis’s recollection of seeing or passing the Mount after a snowfall? This is, of course, only an interpretation, and there are many sides to Wallis’s work and he often surprises us. His paintings reveal that he had an extraordinary visual memory and one feels that, through his paintings, he is trying to inform us; we sense that he needs to convey his experience like an old seaman recounting his voyages. Wallis’s paintings have an undoubted presence. They are full of energy and life and we delight in the enthusiastic application of the paint. ‘Ships and Lighthouse, Houses ‘ has all of these qualities.
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