Nightfall on the last day of January 1938. A heavy Atlantic swell rolls in from the northwest. The steamship Alba, carrying coal to Mussolini’s factories in Italy and a crew from Budapest, Italy and Yugoslavia, crashes into the Three Brothers Rocks off Porthmeor beach. It has mistaken the lights of houses for the lights of St Ives’ harbour.
The maroon rockets go off with a bang and a flash, summoning the lifeboat crew and alerting the town. It’s a wild night but everyone runs to help launch the craft, hauling it into the sea by ropes.
A dreadful sight meets the watchers on the shore: the steamer is on the rocks. People race back for blankets or to drive cars onto the sand to shine headlights at the stricken Alba.
The lifeboat, the Caroline Parsons, comes round the stern of the wreck and takes all the crew on board. But to the horror of the onlookers, a wave the size of a ship hits its broadside, tossing it onto the rocks.
Locals wade up to their necks in water to rescue 29 men. All the lifeboatmen survive but despite their efforts and those of the townsfolk, five of the Alba’s crew are lost. Three are washed up on the beach the next morning, two are never seen again.
The Caroline Parsons is smashed to pieces on the rocks.
A few weeks later, the eulogy for George Kovaks, one of the Alba’s crew and a Hungarian Jew age 26, speaks of the sympathy linking man to man, no matter to what race or creed he belongs.
Today, as I walk to Tate St Ives, Porthmeor beach is bathed in a soft January light. The sea is “gloose”, Cornish for grey-green, and unusually calm for the time of year. It’s low tide, and the wreck of the Alba is visible.
84 years later, on what is now one of the most popular surfing spots in the country, a hazy graphite smudge, millions of tiny grains of coal, still stains the sand.
Perched on the edge of the Atlantic, St Ives has always looked outward, welcoming visitors. In the early 1920s, it became a creative hub for artists from around the world attracted by its dramatic landscapes and ever-changing light.
One of the unlikely stars was Alfred Wallis, a Cornish fisherman and, late in life, a painter. Wallis witnessed the disaster of 1938 when he was 82 years old, and it had a profound effect on him. Happening only yards from his house, the event took hold of his imagination: Wallis painted it again and again, a dozen times or more.
Today, his Wreck of the Alba is placed near the window in Tate St Ives, overlooking the spot in the sea where the tragedy occurred. Painted on a long rectangular piece of rough board, which some say came from the wreck itself, the image depicts an ochre-white sea that fills the picture. There’s not a trace of sky. In the centre is the black shape of the Alba with water mid-ships, washing right over it. Far-right, the dark rocky shape of the ‘island’ juts into the sea. Not to scale, the vessel is almost as big as the island. Wallis is playing with perspective to convey the drama of the wreck. On the headland, the lifeboat is a tiny white shape; in the distance, the Godrevy lighthouse is much bigger than in reality, its large presence symbolic.
It’s a curious painting. Why are there two ships? There is the Alba and, in the top left corner, another boat looking strikingly similar to the doomed steamer. Wallis appears to be using a device known as synoptic narrative, collapsing scenes together to tell more than one aspect of a story at the same time —the ancient Greeks used the same technique on their vases. There are not two ships: they are the same ship. One is the wreck, the other is the Alba steaming along to meet its fate. The five figures on deck are the five drowned sailors. This is a ghost ship, a ship of souls, a ship of death.
If you look closely, you will see the name on the ship is not Alba but Albian, an ancient name for Britain. Is this the ship of state being overwhelmed by the storm of war? Perhaps, the painting is concerned not only with a past event but has something to say about the future too.
Within this small compass, the artist has created an intensely haunting image. Although described as naïve, Wallis’s work has a subtlety and sophistication that is often overlooked.
Wallis became one of the most celebrated artists of St Ives but died in poverty in a local workhouse. Yet, if you meander through the overgrown paths of the town’s cemetery, on an exposed hillside facing the sea, you will stumble across a most elaborate grave. Decorated by the renowned potter Bernard Leach, perhaps as restitution, its ceramic tiles depict a tiny mariner at the foot of a huge lighthouse, it is the final resting place of Alfred Wallis.
These days, however, Wallis is more popular, and collectable, than any of those superstars who settled in St Ives, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Bernard Leach. Insured for tens of thousands of pounds, and some of his larger works for hundreds of thousands, Wallis’s paintings are in major collections all over the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a city across the sea Wallis looked out over all his life.
As I walk back, I, too, look out over the Atlantic. The tide has come in and the Alba has sunk, once more, beneath the waves.
Gayle Wood is a travel and nature writer living in West Penwith. In recent years, she has travelled West to Canada and East to Singapore. At the moment, you’ll usually find her back in Cornwall, on the top of a little green hill looking out at over Atlantic. She believes ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new places but in having new eyes.’