Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson

Compton Verney

26 March – 5 June 2011

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A chance encounter with the untrained fisherman-painter Alfred Wallis in 1928 was to shape not only the work of Ben Nicholson, but that of a whole school of 20th-century British artists.

Alfred Wallis, Schooner Approaching Harbour, c 1930, at Compton Verney

To those trained in the formal methods of representation, Wallis's naïve style and instinctive techniques were a revelation. It is this influence, and the professional appropriation of these methods, that forms the focus of this exhibition. While Nicholson offered Wallis a platform and an audience for his works, Wallis's stormy seas and images of the everyday encouraged Nicholson to rethink the founding principles of his art.Rooted in the landscapes of his St Ives home, Wallis's art is a vivid celebration of his surroundings, providing company and consolation after the death of his wife. Unfettered by convention, the practical Wallis recycled everyday objects " old cardboard boxes, envelopes " as canvases, using the grain of the material and its architecture to shape his painting. This dialogue and tension between subject, canvas and form was to prove a key concern for Modernist artists, and was consciously explored by Nicholson in his work of the 1930s and 40s.

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Painted on a tin tray, Wallis's Schooner Approaching Harbour perfectly exemplifies the artist's opportunistic choice of materials. The curved corners of the tray are echoed in the lines of the painting, conveying a gentle animation to the harbour scene. Balancing childlike directness (Wallis's perspective here is characteristically flat) with a sense of energy and immediacy, the work is one of Wallis's finest.Displaying an increasing fascination with texture, Nicholson's works of the 1930s moved gradually toward the abstract, culminating in his uncompromising White Reliefs of 1934. The shift is already evident in his Auberge de la Sole Dieppoise, painted in the summer of 1932 during a visit with Barbara Hepworth to Georges Braque in Dieppe. The flattened perspective is deliberately emphasised in the writing on the window, through which Hepworth's head dimly appears. Forms are oddly evanescent, placing the emphasis on the rough physicality of the paint itself.Related storiesComprehensive website devoted to Alfred Wallis including research information, biography and analysisShort video about the St Ives School of painting.Review of a 2008 exhibition of Nicholson's work at Abbot Hall, Kendal.List, with links, of all the galleries with a Nicholson painting.

Venue information

Opening times

19 Mar – 11 Dec
Tue – Sun, Bank Holiday Mon, 11am – 5pm (last entry 4.30pm and park closes at 6pm)

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