Saltash Bridge, or more correctly the Royal Albert Bridge, spans the river just two miles north of Alfred Wallis’s childhood home. The bridge was completed in 1859 and it took the Great Western Railway from Devon and the rest of Britain into Cornwall. It reached Penzance in 1876 and St Ives in 1878. The arrival of the railway brought huge social and economic change. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the bridge was an extraordinary engineering achievement and it is a spectacular sight to this day. The structure clearly left a lasting impression on Alfred Wallis who started to paint at the age of seventy. Over sixty years later he was able to tap his childhood memory, and he depicted the bridge and its environs many times.
Wallis was born in 1855 in North Corner, Devonport, on the banks of the River Tamar. The streets of North Corner run downhill to the quay and jetty where this busy stretch of the Tamar flows past Royal Naval Dockyards and North Corner to the sea and large naval vessels regularly passed by. A great variety of ships called at the quay; ferries, pleasure ships, river steamers and merchant ships carrying passengers and goods, sights that must have left a lasting impression on the young Alfred Wallis. The sheltered stretch of water below the bridge is known as the Hamoaze, and in this painting Wallis remembers sail and steamships anchored there. The upper part of the bridge has two sections, not three as Wallis has shown, and it is supported my two main piers. However, given the time between these childhood memories and the time he started to paint, this is understandable.
In his book Alfred Wallis: Primitive (published 1949) Sven Berlin wrote that Wallis went to sea at the age of nine, crossing the Bay of Biscay in a schooner. We have no documentary evidence to substantiate this, but it was not unusual for boys to go to sea at an early age, and clearly in North Corner, there would have been the opportunity to join one of the many merchant ships sailing on the Tamar. Alfred Wallis went on to become a seaman aboard sailing ships. Through his experiences at sea and during his lifetime Wallis witnessed the zenith and decline of sailing ships. Although the wind was free, sailing ships are wholly dependent on the weather. In time, steamships proved faster and more dependable, and sail was eventually replaced by steam. Perhaps something of Wallis’s awareness of the significance of this is reflected in the painting.
This painting is made with very limited colours; black, white and green. Painted on Wallis’s favourite material, cardboard, which he sometimes obtained from local shops, he utilises the colour of the board very effectively. In 2006 I was introduced to Bill Wallis, the grandson of Alfred Wallis’s brother Charles, who remembered seeing his Great Uncle Alfred in Fore Street scurrying along with a bundle of cardboard under his arm. Bill Wallis visited Alfred Wallis in the period before the second World War and remembered him as a bright, lively old man, if somewhat lonely, who enjoyed having a companion to talk to. They discussed life in St Ives and Wallis would recount his experiences at sea.
We are very grateful to Robert Jones, author of Alfred Wallis Artist and Mariner, 2018 (Third Edition), for preparing this catalogue entry.