Wilfred Stanley Wallis
1891 - 1957
In studying the history of art one is struck by the fact that from time to time an artist appears who, despite the fact that he does not have a large body of work to his credit, or great contemporary recognition, acquires a reputation which increases as time passes and as trends become more defined. Such an artist was Wilfred Stanley Wallis.
W.S. Wallis was born in Christchurch and received his education at the Christchurch Boys' High School. After graduating with a degree in Medicine from the University of Otago in 1914 he went overseas in 1915 as a medical officer, serving in Egypt and later in England. He came back to New Zealand as chief medical officer of the Hospital Transport, Maunganui and was subsequently appointed Superintendent of the then King George Hospital, Rotorua.(1)
After a period in private practice, Wallis returned to work in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital during World War II, treating wounded returned servicemen. For his services to medicine he was awarded an O.B.E. in 1948.
Road Scene, Rotorua
tempura on board, 380 x 410 mm.
(private collection, New Plymouth)
Wallis had been interested in art for many years prior to his actually beginning to paint: but the onset of diabetes around 1938 forced him to modify many of his recreational activities and to seek a more compatible outlet for his searching mind. According to Mrs K.L. Fraser(2) he was first introduced to painting when visiting a sick medical colleague, whom he found painting in watercolours. Wallis was invited to try his hand, and from this inauspicious beginning he embarked on what was first a hobby but soon to become a consuming passion.
His early works were landscapes drawn mainly from subject matter in the Rotorua district. In due course he met with several artists in the district, and they gave him some assistance. One was N.S. Mountain, a Forestry Department Officer who, it is believed, had received some professional training. Mountain was deeply interested in colour and often spoke of 'keying up' the colour. This approach would have appealed to Wallis and until Mountain went overseas on active service it proved a fruitful relationship.
Another artist friend of more importance was J.C. (Cam) Duncan (1881-1942), a fellow doctor and a reasonably competent painter who, in 1934, won the Bledisloe Medal with a landscape, The Mamaku Valley.
Duncan was urbane, well read, and quite knowledgeable on art matters. He possessed a library of art books, subscribed to art magazines and was, comparatively speaking, an artistic oasis in the district. He knew most of the important figures in the Auckland art world of those pre-war years: A.J.C. Fisher, John Weeks, the Toles, Ida Eise, A.R.D. Fairburn and others, and introduced Wallis to this world. As a mentor Cam Duncan was not able to provide Wallis with the theoretical approach to artistic problems that he intuitively knew he wanted: but he encouraged Wallis in the practical sense. Despite the fact that their respective artistic aims were widely divergent, Duncan was generous-spirited enough to concede that his 'pupil' would outstrip him in artistic achievements, and their friendship lasted until Duncan's death in 1942.
oil on board,
(collection of M.N. Day, Wellington)
For Wallis the early war years were fruitful in one respect, in that he had the enthusiasm and energy to push ahead with his work: but in another respect he was quite isolated in Rotorua and keenly felt the need for intellectual stimulation and practical guidance. Visits were made to Auckland especially to see Weeks and to view exhibitions of the Auckland Society of Arts: but in those years the journey to Auckland from Rotorua was more difficult than it is today, so Wallis was largely thrown back on his own resources.
I met Wallis at the home of Lady Wavertree and F.M.B. Fisher at Ngongotaha in the summer of 1945-46, when Wallis was the Medical Superintendent of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for wounded returned servicemen. Soon after that meeting Wallis organised a studio at the hospital, which we shared, and painting began in earnest, nearly every evening and over weekends.
One of the problems Wallis had to attempt to overcome was a lack of formal art training and he was aware of the limitations imposed on him by his inability to draw adequately: this hindered his efforts considerably. Over the period of our working relationship (1946-1954) I often drew the forms Wallis wanted; and this allowed him to concentrate on colour and tone.
At the beginning of this period Wallis was absorbed with several landscape forms: but the most fascinating was the Waimungu Basin - in those days looking much as it was immediately after the Tarawera eruption of 1886. Of interest to both of us was the way the land mass arose across the lake behind the crater, the jagged rim of Tarawera dominating the landscape like a brooding giant. This motif formed the basis for many subsequent studies and compositions.
Still Life with Red Chair
oil on board,
(collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)
From time to time artist friends visited Wallis. On one occasion A.J.C. Fisher and Jack Crippen spent a period in Rotorua and with Wallis visited Waimungu, where Fisher made a rather sensitive drawing of the area, seeing it in terms of rhythms alternating with solid forms.
Weeks visited a number of times and he was always a welcome guest. From him, Wallis was introduced into mathematical constructions, including the Golden Section, which Weeks had used as compositional aids from time to time. Weeks wrote letters explaining points about composition and colour that had been eluding him and assisted him in resolving some of the problems which, in general, we tackled jointly.
Wallis possessed a small library of art books and one, the Phaidon Press edition of Cezanne, was most important to us. In those days of the late 'forties a little was known in New Zealand about Cezanne, and Cubism, and many of the problems encountered were solved by discussion in relation to the Cezanne reproductions. Cezannesque methods were applied to the Waimungu landscape: and superimposed on this was the construction of the Golden Section employed as a linear grid to tie the composition together.
Two days before he died Wallis wrote to me: ' . . . when I was at the Mount I did an abstract of Waimungu. I took it up for Johnny [i.e. Weeks] to see. I was very impressed to find out how much he was intrigued by it.'(3) Similarly, we spent time at Hinemoa's Steps on the Kaituna River, attempting to resolve the swirling body of water, the overhanging bush and he cliff formations in some sort of proto-Cubist manner.
Still-life featured as an important part of Wallis' themes; and in the studio there was at least one still-life in place at any time. These, too, were treated increasingly in a Cubist manner. The multiplicity of views of an object fascinated Wallis because it gave him the opportunity to ring the changes' on an infinite variety of greys. Colour was of prime importance to Wallis and he understood the fact that each colour had distinct tonal value.
Abstract Composition Deerived from
oil on board, 495 x 597 mm.
(on loan to the
Auckland City Art Gallery)
To lessen the areas of error it was decided to use a triad of colours: red (light red, sometimes Indian red), blue (generally Prussian), yellow (yellow ochre, sometimes Naples yellow). Those (plus black and white) formed the limited palette which had the effect of unifying the composition. When used in landscape painting this palette gave the motif a strength which was found appropriate. When a suitable subject was found heads were painted rather than portraits. Again, much the same methods were followed. Wallis was impressed with Weeks' idea of 'orchestrating' the colours - that is, carefully relating adjacent colours and tones so that a subtle inter-relationship of colours covered the picture plane.
Wallis was influenced to a large extent by the teaching then current at the Elam School of Art when Fisher was principal. Wallis regarded Fisher as a sound draughtsman, which he undoubtedly was: but could see the restrictions inherent in his methods. Weeks' approach was more akin to Wallis' thinking - especially in composition, colour and tone. A blending of the skills of Fisher and Weeks, Wallis felt, would have been a marvellous gift. Increasingly, he felt the need to relate the areas of colour and tone to the whole picture plane, an approach not unlike that of Cezanne. This could best be achieved by using neutral subject matter. In Wallis' case it was still-life, because it could be re-arranged, the colour and shapes of objects altered, and the lighting disregarded, without causing the problems associated with portrait painting, for example.
Over the years 1946-49 the Elam methods were questioned increasingly by Wallis. To a large extent this was due to the influence of John Weeks. On a number of occasions we travelled to Auckland to see Weeks and discuss problems that had arisen in the course of our experiments. Discussions with Weeks in his studio took place only after generous libations of beer had been offered (and consumed). It was at such times that Weeks loosened up and was at his most informative, drawing on work lying around the studio to illustrate points he wished to make.
Not surprisingly, Wallis was interested in abstract painting and this was arrived at by several means. In the first instance, it was a gradual abstraction of 'still-life', concentrating on the forms and the negative areas; and secondly, through studies of natural objects - for instance, fungus growing on wood, or perhaps a decomposing vegetable. With these as basic motifs the abstraction could proceed.
From about 1955 Wallis moved a step further in this field. In a letter to me a few days before he died he wrote he had painted' . . . some few things. . . in advance of anything before - . . .an abstract chest x-ray has got something I think with the tonal problem I think satisfying. . .(4)
By temperament Wallis was a quiet, introspective man: yet he was always the centre of social groups. His ability to listen was one of his great assets, and many lesser artists turned to him for advice and encouragement. He was a working member of the Auckland Society of Arts from 1942 and was a regular exhibitor at their exhibitions from that date until he died.(5) He exhibited, also, with other art societies, including the Rotorua Society of Arts, which he helped establish in 1946.
Colour Arrangement with Mandolin
oil on board, 406 x 460 mm.
(collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)
The place of Wallis in the developing pattern of New Zealand art is both unique and important. His friendships with Weeks and those of his circle placed Wallis in a position of some strength because he was not only an avid listener and observer but also a most persuasive critic. At a time when Cubism and non-objective art forms were most imperfectly understood in this country, Wallis anticipated what was to be a major pre-occupation of some New Zealand artists in the late 'fifties and the decade of the 'sixties. In my opinion, Wallis was one of the significant figures in the visual arts in the late 1940s and up to the mid-1950s. This was primarily because of his ability to indicate a trend which was to come to New Zealand painting. In many respects he was more perceptive than Weeks, whose vision of the future was limited by his being so engrossed in his own work. Wallis was not thus restricted: for while he painted and reflected on his work continually/he did not produce work so much for public recognition as for his own inner satisfaction.
The irony is that so little of his work remains and so few works are in public collections. Hence, little is readily available to support his claim: but for those who knew him, little doubt remains that New Zealand art today would not be as diverse and inventive as it is without the perceptive mind and sensitive eye of one of our least-known painters.
Weeks said of Wallis: 'Possibly his lack of knowledge was in his favour, as he developed his own technique.'(6) - a judgement which is undeniable. I believe, however, that his prime concern lay beyond that. It involved a questioning of the fundamentals of composition and colour, and the imposition of an order on his art, which must place Wallis as one of the underrated progenitors of abstract art in New Zealand.
1. The Rotorua Post 21 November 1957 Obituary
2. Mrs K.L. Fraser daughter of W.S. Wallis
3. Letter: Wallis to Day 14 December 1955
4. Letter: Wallis to Day 18 September 1957
5. Information provided by Auckland Society of Arts
6. The Rotorua Post 14 November 1957