St Ives

The seafarer

In 1945, WS Graham wrote to Sven Berlin about Alfred Wallis’s paintings: ‘It’s like the work of the angel in the man and both not knowing each other very well.’ In the following year, Graham would write his poem ‘The Voyages of Alfred Wallis’, which begins with the lines:

Worldhauled, he’s grounded on God’s great bank,
Keelheaved to Heaven, waved into boatfilled arms,
Falls his homecoming leaving that old sea testament,
Watching the restless land sail rigged alongside
Townful of shallows, gulls on the sailing roofs.

Only Graham could begin a poem with ‘worldhauled’, an invention, a conflation, heavy and labourious. In it we also see ‘wordhauled’: the idea that language is also heavy, difficult to fathom. Hard to know what Wallis might have made of it (the poem was written four years after his death); he was a man of simple words. He had no formal education. The only book he had read was the Bible (hence ‘God’s great bank, / Keelheaved to Heaven … leaving that old sea testament’). He had no training as an artist. Painting was something he took up ‘for company’ when his wife died. Everyone knows the famous story of how Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood came upon Wallis and his paintings by accident, as they walked past his open door on Back Road West during a drawing holiday in St Ives in 1928; subsequently, how Wallis’s strange naïve pictures of boats askew, his spatially-challenged seascapes altered the course of British modernist painting. Hard to know what Wallis would have thought of his fame, the fact that his paintings have travelled farther than even a seasoned mariner could imagine, or that his rough works – mostly house paint on cardboard or wood – command five figures in auction houses (Wallis died in the poorhouse at Madron).

Graham’s poem predates the kind of fame Wallis was to achieve, although Berlin was already at work on the first serious monograph. Graham explained to Berlin in another letter that Wallis represented ‘a symbol of that energy which manifests itself in all kinds of places, so often when it is shouted for and encouraged by all the gear and disguise of “rolling eye” etc. – not appearing – and at times appearing, as in Wallis, seemingly “in spite of”.’ A typically Graham-like sentence, full of energy, stops and starts, a snaking trail of (il)logic. Kind of like Wallis’s landscapes, which are never accurate maps of a place, but are born out of ‘what used to be … what you will never see any more’ to use Wallis’s description. A life lived on the sea, already in the past when Wallis started painting, reconstructed from memory. That’s why nothing is to scale in Wallis’s paintings; apart from the fact he lacked the formal training of perspective, the huge waves ready to engulf the boat are exactly how they looked to the young mariner; the tiny houses hugging the harbor already in the distance as the schooner pushes out to sea.

Back to Graham. He had been reading the great Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer when he wrote his tribute to Wallis. The strong compound constructions of words come partly from this:

Sitting day-long
at an oar’s end clenched against clinging sorrow,
breast-drought I have borne, and bitternesses too.
I have coursed my keel through care-halls without end
over furled foam, I forward in the bows
through the narrowing night, numb, watching
for the cliffs we beat along.

Graham would have been deeply affected by those lines, a poet who spent his entire life next to the sea, and who understood Wallis’s great respect for its power to both lull and destroy. Graham ends his Wallis poem like this:

Falls into home his prayerspray. He’s there to lie
Seagreat and small, contrary and rare as sand.
Oils overcome and keep his inward voyage.
An Ararat shore, loud limpet stuck to its terror,
Drags home the bible keel from a returning sea
And four black shouting steerers stationed on movement
Call out arrival over the landgreat houseboat.
The ship of land with birds on seven trees
Calls out farewell like Melville talking down on
Nightfall’s devoted barque and the parable whale.
What shipcry falls? The holy families of foam
Fall into wilderness and ‘over the jasper sea’.
The gulls wade into silence. What deep seasaint
Whispered this keel out of its element?

‘Over the jasper sea’ is one of the most beautiful images in Graham. Wallis would have known it well. It comes from a hymn:

Hark tis the voice of angels
Born in a song to me
Over the fields of glory
Over the jasper sea.

Alfred Wallis: Ships and Boats is at Kettle’s Yard until 8th July

I will be running a writing workshop looking at the influence of Wallis on poets such as Graham, Merwin, Clemo and Christopher Reid on Sunday 10th June

Dark Blue Square


St Ives remains with me even now I’ve returned to the urban hub of Stockwell – the hard beauty of the landscape matched by the clarity of the artists who depicted it. So with the landscape still very present, I was saddened to read of the passing on Sunday of Breon O’Casey, one of the last of the generation of St Ives artists apprenticed to Hepworth at Trewyn. It is of particular interest to me that O’Casey came from a literary background – his father was the playwright Sean O’Casey, a contemporary of Yeats. It is perhaps too easy then to say that his paintings have the feeling of small moments arrested in time: birds captured mid-flight, landscapes reduced to the elemental (a field in spring, a group of circles resembling a cairn or pagan stones, a constellation suspended in a night time sky). There is the exuberance of the French painters he loved, Braque and Matisse, but in the restrained and earthy palette of the Penwith School.

It was only a few months ago that I went to a show of his work at Somerset House. I didn’t actually know it was on; I’d just come from the Courtauld where there was a show of Cezanne’s sketches for The Card Players (an interesting transition, as it happens). It was a bleak winter day, flat grey and featureless; the sort of day you get in London in January and February, when one day blends into the next and seems to go on forever, and you are just waiting for a small sign of spring. And O’Casey cheered me, with his simple birds and flat squares of pure colour – the sort of painting that looks simple enough (well, maybe to those who can’t paint) but which is pared down and spare and studied, like a poem by Charles Simic. Difficult to accomplish without being twee or shallow. But O’Casey’s work is resonant, meaningful.

Take for example this painting, one of his many stylised depictions of birds, the title of which is Dark Blue Square. In that title there is a statement about proportion, measurement; I think of the way the sky is viewed from the ground, slivered between buildings or trees. It is a portion of sky, like the painter’s own patch. But then it appears in the bottom left of the picture, not at the top as we’d expect, so maybe our bird is swooping over a lake or reservoir. There is a paler shade of blue just touching its body – a shadow, a memory of light. The two brown columns that hold it are like tree trunks, or legs. A simple juxtaposition of shapes and colours, the colours simplified to brown, white, blue. But it’s the blue O’Casey wants us to focus on, bright and vital against the dark brown, the bird just passing through.

It’s like the last soldiers of the Great War, all those artists of that generation passing. They brought us modernism, which might feel like old hat now, but they were pioneers then (with Hepworth cracking the whip). And the work still feels valid and exciting.