The Alfred Wallis Factor: Conflict in Post-War St. Ives Art by David Wilkinson
Lutterworth Press, 2019
This is a rather peculiar book, well-written and carefully researched, but ultimately unrewarding for the way in which it focuses on the petty squabbles between artists of varying quality, ambition and success, rather than the art which the Cornish town of St. Ives may have inspired. Indeed, the art is barely mentioned unless it is part of the disputes and arguments detailed here. While many of the names are familiar on both a national and international level, some aspects of the behaviour described will do little to enhance any reputations. Of course it is a given that groups of artists are often obsessed with internal arguments, extra-marital liaisons and extreme fallings-out. What is perhaps surprising is the fact that such antics seem to have involved almost all the artists working in or around St. Ives in the immediate post-war period.
Cutting across the fine details, which are meticulously recounted, two main issues dominate the narrative. The first concerns the influx of artists to the insular community of St. Ives following the outbreak of war in 1939, while the second is the perennial conflict between traditional and modernist art, or in this case between the representational and the abstract. This is a story of artists involved with a particular place at a particular time, who at first attract but then repel one another.
From the late nineteenth century, the working community of St. Ives could be neatly divided into two, albeit unequal, parts. By far the largest group consisted of those who made their living from the sea. The town was a busy fishing port, and many households were totally dependent on the fishermen’s success. The other group, which grew larger as the twentieth century progressed, contained the artists who occupied the studios close to the harbour and the nearby clifftops, or in the surrounding villages. Coastal artistic communities are by no means an unusual cultural feature, either in this country or around mainland Europe. Artists who share common values have often sought out one another’s company and exchanged mutual support, especially if their art has been perceived by contemporaries as challenging in some way. As the dependence on the sea declined in St. Ives, the warehouses and net-lofts became empty, providing perfect spaces in which artists could establish studios. Artists who were drawn towards marine environments and the Cornish landscape found St. Ives an ideal location, and from the late nineteenth century the artistic community grew and became an established force in the town.
The St. Ives Art Club was founded in 1889, and by the 1920s had become the accepted vehicle through which local artists exhibited and therefore sold their work. However, as the book makes clear, there were already tensions within the society even before the influx of new members brought about by World War II. The art club had been established to encourage primarily local artists, and in 1927 a new proposal was made to form the St. Ives Society of Artists, an organisation much wider in scope. Although based in the town, many of the new members were in fact well-known Royal Academicians, attracted by the plan to organise regular touring exhibitions around the country — twenty-five such shows were opened between 1931 and 1947. The lethal mix of what might be called ‘establishment’ RA figures of some note and young ambitious artists in touch with European developments was almost guaranteed to be explosive. Add to this the sudden influx of artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and Naum Gabo, and despite the welcoming efforts of the widely-respected secretary Robert Borlase Smart, who believed that there was room for everyone in the society, the result was division and rancour. It is this situation that the book describes in graphic detail.
The title of the book highlights Alfred Wallis, and this presents something of a problem, as he had nothing whatsoever to do with the St. Ives Society and the Penwith Society (which splintered from it in 1948), or with the disputes which lie at the heart of the book. This referencing of Wallis confronts us with a particular myth which, when questioned, bring us directly to wider, more philosophical issues, about what art is, who artists are, and how artistic judgements are made. These questions never have easy answers in the case of any artist, but Wallis’s career —if it could even be called that— is one of the most problematic, typical of the self-taught artist trope.
The myth starts with Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood holidaying in St. Ives in 1928, walking by Wallis’s cottage and seeing his paintings stacked against the wall. They struck up a friendship with the old man, arranged to buy some of his work, and then Nicholson in particular maintained the connection and continued to purchase works by Wallis, who usually sent them to him wrapped in newspaper. Tragically, the prodigiously gifted Wood threw himself under a train at Salisbury station in August 1930, and it was left to Nicholson, his then-wife Winifred, and their friend Jim Ede to continue encouraging Wallis with gifts of paint and small amounts of money for parcels of paintings. However attractive the story —and Nicholson in particular encouraged belief in its veracity— there are other versions. Although there is no definitive evidence, there are substantive claims that Cedric Morris, a close friend of Kit Wood’s, knew about Wallis and had perhaps told Wood to seek him out, as the two friends shared a common interest in what was then termed ‘primitive’ art. Matthew Gale in his excellent 1998 biography of Wallis has this to say on the matter: “It has often been said that Wallis was ‘discovered’ by them (Wood & Nicholson) in August 1928. This is a contentious term in that it implies that he was in some way unaware that he was making art.”
The myth of Wallis ends with the painter unable to look after himself sufficiently and ending his days in the Madron workhouse in nearby Penzance, where he died in August 1942. An unresolved criticism of Nicholson in particular involves the sums paid to Wallis for his work. Wallis himself was uninterested in selling his work, but lived in abject poverty, depending upon gifts of painting materials and even of food to keep himself alive. Sven Berlin in the first biography of Wallis (still the definitive work, although not entirely factually accurate) quotes a letter from Nicholson to Wallis from February 1929 in which he thanks the artist for a parcel of nine paintings which the artist has sent him. Wilkinson quotes the same letter as indicative of the financial value that the young Nicholson put upon the work of the elderly pauper. This is what he paid for nine paintings at that time:
s. d. One at 3 0 Two at 2 0 Six at 1 0 13 0 Post 1 6 14 6
The implication is that Wallis was exploited and left in dire poverty, when his life could have been more comfortable if realistic prices had been paid for his work. Wilkinson recounts the events after Wallis’s death: the reopening of old wounds by Sven Berlin’s book, and the furore around Wallis’s burial and headstone, with which (Berlin claims) Hepworth refused to be involved. It was left to Bernard Leach to provide the poignant memorial in Porthmeor Cemetery, where it remains as a fitting tribute to an uncompromising artist who had no idea of his worth within the artistic community in which lived, but whose influence was still apparently relevant in the years after his death.
The final irony, which this book sadly fails to acknowledge, concerns that influence. Wallis painted for himself, in ways that he had developed alone and untaught, and he showed no interest whatsoever in the work of other artists. That his name should be used as a kind of iconic shorthand for the St. Ives artistic community is not only ironic in itself, but also expressive of a deeper confusion in which his art is used by others to support their own artistic prejudices and beliefs. Nicholson once admitted with regard to Wallis, “One finds only the influences one is looking for and I was certainly looking for that one.”
This is perhaps a fitting comment regarding Wallis and the post-war disputes which engulfed the St. Ives artists. They were a diverse group of talents who determinedly pushed their own boundaries, but could never rise above interpersonal conflicts in their artistic collaborations. It is a shame that this book concentrates on their arguments rather than the art that they created, for that was so much better.--Paul Flux