Skip to main content
University of Cambridge

Open: Tuesday–Sunday, 11am–5pm

Please note we are closed on Bank Holiday Mondays

Book Tickets

Open: Tuesday–Sunday, 11am–5pm

Please note we are closed on Bank Holiday Mondays

Stories

Alfred Wallis and Christopher Wood: A Meeting on Canvas

Find out more about this unique painting which is the work of Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis.

We are delighted to be able to display this unique painting which brings to life a key meeting in modern British art history. It is the work of two artists who feature prominently within the Kettle’s Yard collection, Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis.

Christopher Wood (1901-1930) was born in Liverpool and studied drawing at the Académie Julian in Paris in the early 1920s. He was close to fellow artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson, with whom he exhibited at the Seven and Five Society in London. Jim Ede described Wood as painting, ‘without hesitation or embarrassment, straight from the heart’. It was during a 1928 trip to Cornwall with Ben and Winifred that Wood first met Wallis. Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) had worked as a fisherman and scrap-metal merchant in St. Ives before turning to painting later in life. He was self-taught as an artist, and both Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson were impressed by the steep perspective and energy of his paintings. As Jim Ede later described, the power of Wallis’s work lay in ‘the sea-feeling, the ship-feeling […] the open sea and the shelter of harbour’ [1].

Areas highlighted in red found to be the work of Alfred Wallis. © Hamilton Kerr Institute, Cambridge

Boats at Quayside is signed by Alfred Wallis on the reverse of the canvas and was previously owned by the patron and gallerist Lucy Wertheim. Wertheim had visited Wallis in the summer of 1930 and purchased several of his works, including Boats at Quayside.

In her autobiography Wertheim describes how she found Wallis, ‘painting away with what appeared to be boat paint on odd bits of canvas, old photographs and scraps of cardboard’, noting that he, ‘had a special predilection for the ends and sides of Quaker Oats boxes!’[2] Wallis was known for his resourcefulness in acquiring materials with which to work, and Wertheim later suggested that the parts of the painting that were less characteristic of Wallis were perhaps by Christopher Wood, whose canvas Wallis may have re-used. Thanks to recent technical analysis undertaken at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Cambridge, and research by Rupert Featherstone published in the Burlington Magazine, we now know this to be the case.

Wallis’s contribution occupies the lower part of the canvas: the sea, boats and structures of the harbour. An X-radiograph and infra-red images revealed that this was painted over an earlier composition, perhaps unfinished. The visible parts of this earlier composition include the quayside and figures, the walls of the buildings and the pink-blue sky. While allowing these elements to remain, Wallis chose to reinforce the windows, doors and roofs of the buildings with greyish-white – adding an ‘infill’ building to the left of the Café Tabac and two large seagulls on the far left that echo the two women in black by Wood.

The palette and brushwork of the earlier composition closely compares to that in other paintings by Christopher Wood from the period, and Rupert Featherstone was able to identify Wood as the artist of the earlier work through close research into Wood’s whereabouts in 1929-30. The buildings in the painting were found to be an exact match to those on Avenue du Dr. Pierre Nicolas in Concarneau, Brittany, directly adjacent to the quai Peneroff, from where Wood had painted his La Ville-Close, Concarneau, Brittany, 1929-30 (in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Wood was in Brittany until September 1929, and in St. Ives in March 1930, where it is assumed that Wood gave Wallis the canvas.

Wood cited Wallis’s influence on his work, referring to him as ‘not a bad master’ in a letter to Winifred Nicholson from 1928 [3]. With Boats at Quayside, Featherstone suggests we see Wallis ‘marking his student’s efforts’ [4]. This painting is a unique document of a dialogue between artists, who both found sustenance in the other’s vision and friendship, during a period when broader critical support for modern art in England was lacking.

 

 

[1] Jim Ede, ‘Two Painters in Cornwall: Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) and Christopher Wood (1901-1930)’, World Review, March 1945 pp. 45-51.

[2] Lucy Carrington Wertheim, Adventure in Art (London: Nichololson and Watson, 1947) p. 84.

[3] Letter from Christopher Wood to Winifred Nicholson, 31 October 1928. Tate Archive TGA 8618/1/42.

[4] Rupert Featherstone, ‘Alfred Wallis and Christopher Wood: a meeting on canvas’, The Burlington Magazine, no. 165, September 2023, pp. 946-951.

See this work in the Kettle’s Yard house from 13 February to 9 June 2024.