Ancient mariner

VISUAL ARTS Alfred Wallis Kapil Jariwala Gallery, London
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The Independent Culture
The story of Alfred Wallis has become one of the legends of 20th- century British art. It begins one afternoon in August 1928 when Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood first glimpsed the flee-bitten old fisherman through the open door of No 3 Back Road West in St Ives, "looking like Cezanne", as Wood described him, surrounded by his paintings of boats and houses on scraps of card and paper.

By the time they made this now famous discovery, Wallis was 73: a reclusive and cantankerous old man who had begun painting, the story goes, after his wife's death in 1922 (although a convincing case can be made for a later start, probably 1925). The exact date doesn't matter as there is no discernible development in his work, but by the time Wood and Nicholson came across him in 1928 he had been at it a few years and had withdrawn completely from the world, with painting and the Bible his only friends.

Inevitably, the Wallis legend colours the way that we see his work: the untrained naif who died penniless with his work on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It provides a context that is difficult to ignore, but the most remarkable characteristic of his paintings is still their uncluttered immediacy - a direct expression of an old man's memories of the sea. His was a world of wind-jammers, barks and schooners - real ships remembered from the days when he set off, aged nine, as a cabin boy.

Occasionally, Wallis turned his hand to the streets of St Ives, but, as he said to Ben Nicholson: "Houses, houses, I don't like houses - give me a ship and you can take all the houses in the world." None the less, he had a way with them: drawing the town's topsy-turvy terraces to a childlike formula of a central door, windows either side and a chimney at each end. They are childlike, and charming for it, yet they also have other qualities that are harder to pin down.

Wallis's primitivism is undeniably a large part of his work's appeal, but if naivety was all these pictures had going for them, they wouldn't be so enduringly interesting. He painted with boat paints and house paints on anything he could get his hands on - scraps of card torn from boxes, the backs of envelopes, table-tops and trays - but his haphazard materials were always used in a deliberate and pleasing way.

Wallis is one of those artists whose work makes best sense in numbers. When seen together, each oddly shaped picture is revealed as less random than it first seemed: the odd shapes, as Nicholson put it, "the key to the movement in the painting"; the unpainted backgrounds cleverly used as an extra colour. For all his naivety, an exhibition of Wallis's work demonstrates that he had a sophisticated touch.

There are 50 or so paintings in the current show: mostly boats, but also a few childhood memories of Saltash Bridge and little houses set in fields studded with flowers in dots of red and white; all reminders of the reasons that Wood and Nicholson were so captivated 70 years ago. It is a delightful exhibition, one of the most refreshing and inspiring that I have seen this year.

To 30 March. For details call 0171-437 2172

Richard Ingleby

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