Alfred Wallis and William Barnes: Two Naive Artists and Their Environments
At first sight there would seem to be little that these two West Country artists have in common. One was a highly educated philologist, fluent in more than forty languages, who pioneered the systematic study of language while writing thoughtful poetry in a Dorset dialect; the other was a barely literate working man who lived the latter part of his life in desperate poverty, taking up painting only after the death of his wife -when he was already sixty-seven— and had no artistic training. However, a brief comparison of their lives and work suggests that they share a commonality which not only illuminates their own work, but also reveals more general characteristics of naive art, both visual and literary.
Environment has always played a significant role in the lives of artists. They often become associated with particular places, either through their chosen subject matter or the circumstances which surround their individual works. The list could be endless, but think, for example, of Vermeer's interiors, Van Gogh and Arles, Wordsworth and the Lake District (or Banksy and Bristol...) Alfred Wallis's early life was spent at sea, on the last great sailing ships which fished the Atlantic. It was to images of boats, the sea, and the Cornish landscape that his imagination turned when he began painting in 1922.
Wallis's life has been the subject of several fine biographies, though Sven Berlin's early work is still definitive. In so many ways the man was completely unremarkable, that is, until the period after the death of his wife. His early life was spent at sea, but then he gave up sea-faring and for many years ran Wallis's Marine Store in St. Ives. His marriage to Susan was unusual because she was considerably older than him; when they married in 1876 he was just twenty and she was forty-three, with children from a previous marriage. Before they married, Alfred was friendly with her eldest son George and had lodged at the house for some time.
Susan Wallis died on 7th June 1922, and Wallis began to paint to overcome his loneliness. He survived for another twenty years, ending his life in the Madron Institution, a workhouse. During those twenty years, despite intense poverty and increasing physical isolation and loneliness, he continued to paint evocative scenes which have since found their way into many of the most important museum collections of twentieth century art. Whilst the story of his life may seem important to understanding his work, tempting us to see the emotional turmoil of his final years reflected in the painted surfaces (as Van Gogh's last works are often analysed), we should ultimately focus on the works themselves, not on the artist's personal tragedies.
The world that Wallis portrayed was a very narrow one: life at sea and the sea's moods, boats returning to harbour, fish, and the cottages he knew around the St. Ives area. This was not only the world that he personally inhabited; it was where his artistic spirit found its inspiration, where his quasi-religious self could mix with a physical reality and, unhampered by scholarly training, express itself. In fact, if one looks at what art historians now label 'naïve art,' this seems to be one of its driving forces. Any work of art is a response to particular circumstances, and when place itself becomes the subject matter, the viewer naturally searches for meaning within visual recognition. However, when the artist consciously rejects accurate representation, as Wallis did, and replaces it with a visual reality that is largely constructed in his own mind, we enter a realm where a familiar environment is visible, but yet contains elements unique to the artist himself.
There are many works which demonstrate this point, but I have chosen a beautifully delicate picture— Land, Fish and Motor Vessel (1932-37)— to illustrate how Wallis constructed images of his remembered world. Painted, like most of Wallis's work, on the remnants of a cardboard box, it shows a small motor boat in a silvery white sea, set against a darkening background. To the left of the ship, within the boundaries of the seascape, are the outlines of two fish—the same colour as the sea, but almost as big as the little boat. The effect is haunting and unsettling: our eyes are drawn first to the vulnerable boat adrift in an inhospitable environment, then to the large fish, and as we look, we search for meaning.
Most writers on Wallis's work make reference to his fundamental faith, common enough within the Cornish Methodist community, and it is easy to see this faith represented in paintings like this one. However, one can never be certain of such interpretations; we often bring to such images what we wish to see, and the untrained artist capturing deeply felt religious truth is a durable cliché in art history. Leaving aside such interpretations (though not dismissing them completely), there is something more to add, and this relates to how Wallis links together the physical world of our senses -what we see, hear and smell- with what some may claim to be spiritual but which I prefer to call the spirit of place.
In this picture, the boat and the fish are both constituent parts of the same world that Wallis remembered. Neither is necessarily good or evil: it is enough that they are, that they exist together, forming a kind of partnership. It is this sense of location and commonality that gives Wallis's work its power and helps us to make sense of the world in which he found himself. Over and over again he paints the same subjects: fishing boats, the harbour, the coast. Although recognisable, the scenes are rarely representational; perspective is shortened and flattened, and as in ancient Egyptian art the size of an object often signifies its importance. It is as if, when portraying these physical objects, Wallis is able to represent a world in which he can lose for a time his own reality of loneliness and loss, while maintaining his sense of place and belonging.
William Barnes is quite a different type of artist altogether. He was born in 1801 in Bagber (a small village near Sturminster Newton in Dorset), the son of a far from wealthy farmer. He attended the local grammar school and, after working for a short time in a local solicitor's office, he moved to Dorchester in 1817. There he met Julia Miles, whom he was eventually to marry in 1827. From the early 1820s he devoted himself to four distinct—but obviously connected—careers: schoolmaster, poet, philologist and clergyman.
As a schoolmaster, he opened his first school in Mere, on the Somerset/Dorset/Wiltshire border, and later returned to Dorchester, where for a short time Thomas Hardy was one of his pupils. It was as a schoolmaster that he was most fondly remembered; such was his local reputation. He successfully ran a school in South Street with his wife, and it was only after her death in 1852 that the school went into decline, finally closing in 1858. As a poet, his first volume (Poetical Pieces) was a small pamphlet comprising ten poems, published in 1820. He followed this with three volumes of poetry written in the Dorset dialect of the Blackmore Vale: Poems in the Dorset Dialect (1844), Hwomely Rhymes (1859), and Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect (1863). It is upon these that his continuing reputation rests, and they will be the subject of further consideration here.
As a philologist, his life's work was The Philological Grammar, first published in 1854. It is a truly remarkable work, containing linguistic examples gathered from more than sixty languages (Barnes was familiar with as many as sixty-five languages, and proficient in at least forty, a great testament to his scholarly intellect; yet he lived most of his life in Dorset, and travelled little).
On the theological side, after many years of study Barnes was awarded his Doctor of Divinity from Cambridge University in 1850. After the death of his wife and the closure of his school, he ended his working life as the vicar of the tiny parish of Winterborne Came, a few miles from Dorchester. He died, respected and something of a local celebrity, in 1886. His bronze statue now stands outside St. Peter's Church near the County Museum in Dorchester, erected with the help of a public subscription in 1888.
Despite Barnes's considerable abilities as an educator, academic and caring clergyman, his poetical works are now his main claim to fame. Written in a Dorset dialect which even at the time was something of an anachronism, they form a body of work that presents the modern reader with a dilemma. The first difficulty to consider is, should his work be read as good poetry, or as an unusual linguistic experiment: a kind of mid-Victorian academic indulgence? The second, and more important, question is whether the dialect format of the poetry is of any particular significance. That is, if transcribed into standard English do the poems still work as effectively-does the dialect itself add to the work? Finally, there is the thorny issue of audience. Some biographers of Barnes claim that he wrote in dialect to connect with an audience who were familiar with the linguistic resonances and could not be reached in any other way, while others suggest that he wrote in an effort to preserve what he perceived as an endangered idiom.
In William Levy's book on Barnes and his poetry, published in 1960, there is a fascinating comparison of one of Barnes's original dialect poems with the version that later appeared in the 1868 volume Poems of Rural Life in Common English -a collection published in response to his publisher's request for work that would appeal to a wider audience through the use of 'common' English rather than the Dorset dialect. The whole poem is worth reading in its entirety, but for reasons of space I will simply show the first verse:
A-ridèn slow, at lofty height, Onriding slow, at lofty height, Wer clouds a-blown along the sky, Were clouds in drift along the sky, O' purple-blue, an' pink, an' white, Of purple-blue, and pink and white, In pack and pile, up-reachèn high, In pack and pile, upreaching high, A-shifèn oft as they did goo For ever changing as they flew Their sheäpes vrom new ageän to new. Their shapes from new again to new.
Levy remarks how 'commonplace' is the Common English version, while the dialect has what he calls a 'quiet profundity.' And when the poetry is read in the two versions the beauty and naturalness of the dialect shines out, while the standard English sounds dull and ordinary. It is evident here, and throughout all his poetry, that the dialect enabled Barnes to express himself more clearly. The dialect itself became a vehicle for his own evocation of human experience.
Barnes's use of the country dialect of his childhood should not be confused with any kind of artificial romanticism. In his poetry he does not paint a picture of rural bliss, in which happy farmers go about their business of honest toil. This is a pragmatic and also a tragic world: small children are buried in desolate country churchyards, Barnes's own beloved wife is mourned, and life experiences —good and bad— are related. My favourite poem describes how Barnes as a child is befriended by an older boy, who takes him for a ride in a wheelbarrow and then deliberately tips him headfirst into a muddy ditch: it is the age-old experience of bullying, of beginning to understand that things are not always what they seem.
Similarly, Alfred Wallis did not paint romanticised scenes of fishing boats returning full of fish. His subjects were mostly old sailing ships pitted against an unyielding sea: a hard existence, but one which had a kind of balance. The sea and the fishermen, as portrayed by Wallis, do not form an idyllic tableau. In this world each element has its place, and life can be either benign or harsh, depending on circumstances beyond human control.
There remains the question of how to connect these two apparently different artists: the illiterate painter who only began to paint in his mid-sixties, with little knowledge of the art history of which he was to become a part; and the highly educated country parson who deliberately wrote his poetry in a dialect unfamiliar to most of his contemporaries, but which, in his skilful hands, was freighted with the deepest emotional content. Both left behind a legacy of work that remains thoughtful and relevant. Both were able to communicate powerfully through a deep understanding of the narrow world that they chose as their subject matter. By focussing so intently, they were able to develop an honest and truthful response to the worlds that they knew. Although their backgrounds could hardly have been more different, they both contributed significantly to the canon of English art in its widest sense, celebrating the ways of life and daily experiences of the ordinary man in their rural communities. The forcefulness and consummate skill of their work testifies to their genius.
The final word rests with an unnamed Dorset shoemaker who sent Barnes the following letter towards the end of the poet's life. As a memorial to an artist it is as heartfelt as any I have ever come across; and although addressed specifically to Barnes, the final lines could equally be directed at Wallis. "My ancestors were Dorset people, and I love the book; it brings back the familiar words of the loved ones that are gone, and I love you - for the godlike goodness, kindness and affection of your kind and loving heart peeps out at every verse. I have tried for years to see you and hear you read, and I hope I shall yet; but if not, I hope I shall see you when earthly distinctions are passed; but may you long live to write, and may you long live to read, and may the earth be always blessed with such lights, and may they always be loved and honoured, and when earthly praise shall cease, may the music of a thousand voices bid you welcome and say "Well done." --Paul Flux