'He enjoyed talking about his paintings, speaking of them not as paintings but as events or experiences'
Ben Nicholson (Alfred Wallis, Horizon, Vol. VII, No. 37, 1943).
Alfred Wallis wrote to Jim Ede, his great collector and the founder of Kettle’s Yard, 'What I do mosley is what use To Bee out of my own memory what we may never see again'. Two steamers and lighthouses and estuary depicts Plymouth Sound, an area that Wallis must have known well, with its two lighthouses featured prominently on the breakwater, and like so many of Wallis’s paintings can be read as a remembrance of a previous time when he sailed those waters.
Alfred Wallis, who was born in Devonport, near Plymouth in 1855 and went to sea aged 9, is known to have crossed the Atlantic twice before working in schooners which plied their trade around the south west of England and also fishing in mackerel luggers working out of Penzance. After he retired from the sea, he settled in St Ives where he was a dealer in marine stores and an innovator – he was the first person to make and sell ice cream in St Ives – and made enough money to purchase his own house. He is generally thought to have taken up painting for company after his wife died in 1922. Self-taught, and using what materials came to hand, household or ships paint, card, old calendars, train time tables, bellows, jars and tables, he had a compulsion to paint: as one St Ives man put it, 'he used to paint on everything … nothing was safe from where paint could go' (George Farrell, quoted by Robert Jones ‘Sources of Imagery’, in Alfred Wallis: Artist & Mariner, Japan, 2007, p. 133).
Alfred Wallis’s creativity had a significant impact on many artists, most noticeably Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood who met him by chance in August 1928. Nicholson described how Wallis brought his works to life: 'he would cut out the top and bottom of an old cardboard box, and sometimes the fours sides, into irregular shapes, using each shape as the key to the movement in a painting, and using the colour and texture of the board as key to its colour and texture. When the painting was completed, what remained of the original board, a brown, a grey, a white or a green board, sometimes in the sky, sometimes in the sea, or perhaps in a field or lighthouse, would be as deeply experienced as the remainder of the painting' (Alfred Wallis, Horizon, Vol. VII, No. 37, 1943). For Nicholson, Wallis was an important artist and he tended to mention him in the same breath as say Miró or Mondrian. Nicholson in turn gave Wallis materials, purchased and promoted his works, which Wallis had hardly sold before, and that must have meant the world to him. Shortly after they met, and after Nicholson had returned to London, Wallis wrote to Jim Ede that he was sat in working on 'orders'. And it was largely through Nicholson and his friends’ efforts that Wallis’s work reached an audience outside St Ives: Adrian Stokes wrote about Wallis in Colour and Form (London, Faber and Faber, 1937), the critic Herbert Read illustrated his work in an article on contemporary British art for Cahiers d’Art (no. 1-2, 1938) and Jim Ede formed his large collection of Wallis’s work.
Two steamers and lighthouses and estuary bears many of the finest characteristics of Wallis’s art: the restrained use of colour, 'He used very few colours, and one associates with him some lovely dark browns, shiny blacks, fierce greys, strange whites and a particularly pungent Cornish green' (Ben Nicholson op. cit. ), the use of a simple piece of card, and the movement of the two steamers juxtaposed to the moored light vessel marking a reef. Note the way he has nimbly left the house free of paint, and the three fish, dolphins perhaps, arching their backs through the surf - a playfulness echoed in the black blotches of paint marking the headlands. As Nicholson wrote to his friend Margaret Gardiner, the founder of The Pier Centre, Stromness, 'Wallis’s point – one of them – is his feeling for the total form of his idea. And he was one of the first in our time to realise this – ink stink tively' (see J. Nicholson, Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920-1931, London, 2013, for a more detailed discussion).
We are very grateful to Jovan Nicholson for preparing this catalogue entry.