The “Forgotten Man” of the Vallejo

By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

We’ve all heard colorful stories about Jean Varda and Alan Watts aboard the ferryboat Vallejo. But before Watts, an artist named Gordon Onslow Ford was Varda’s partner in buying and restoring the ferryboat.

“While visiting Henry Miller in 1947, at Big Sur, Varda met British-born artist Gordon Onslow Ford,” writes Historical Society member Betsy Stroman in her book The Art and Life of Jean Varda. The book continues: “Born in 1912, Onslow Ford, who had moved to Paris to pursue a career in art, become an official member of the surrealist group of painters. In 1941 he accepted an invitation from the New School for Social Research, in New York City, to present a series of lectures on surrealism. While there he met and married Jacqueline Johnson, and moved to Mexico, for seven years”

PHOTO FROM WEINSTEIN GALLERY CATALOG  Gordon Onslow Ford (left) and Chilean artist Roberto Matta (right) on the Vallejo in 1956.


Gordon Onslow Ford (left) and Chilean artist Roberto Matta (right) on the Vallejo in 1956.

After the war, deciding that they wanted to move to the San Francisco Bay Area, to be closer to Jacqueline’s family, the couple began driving north, stopping off to visit with Henry Miller. Onslow Ford (as he came to be known in the art world) had known Miller when Miller was living in Paris as an expatriate before the war. It was at Miller’s home in Big Sur that the Onslow Fords met Varda. 

Later the Onslow Fords rented an apartment in San Francisco, but he was looking for studio space outside of the city. Both Onslow Ford, who had served in the British Navy, and Varda wanted to be closer to the water, so the two began talking about finding a place together. 

San Francisco’s Weinstein Gallery presented an exhibition of Onslow Ford’s paintings in 2007. The catalog for that exhibit tells the story of how they found their Sausalito home:

“In 1949 Gordon Onslow Ford and poet-painter Jean Varda rescued the SS Vallejo, a decommissioned ferryboat about to be disassembled and sold for scrap. They docked her at Gate 5 in the abandoned shipyards north of San Francisco in Sausalito. Onslow Ford and Varda proceeded to renovate the boat and build their studios there. Forrest Wright, an architect and recent graduate of the famed Black Mountain College, would also move his studio to the boat. They could not have imagined that the Vallejo would become a flash point for the artistic renaissance that would take place in the Bay Area in the 1950s.

The combination of Onslow Ford's and Varda's history, interests, and personalities proved to be an immediate draw

“Many years later, Onslow Ford described the transaction that led to its purchase: ‘We hurried over to the Gardiner Steel Mills office in Oakland, arrived rather disheveled and said we wanted to acquire the ferry. He asked how much money we had. Forrest had none. Varda had none. I had $500. So he took that as a down payment and we agreed to pay $60 a month’.” Gardiner Steel Mills had acquired the ferry for scrap and had

towed it to Arques Shipyard in Sausalito to be broken up.

According to an article in Preservation Magazine in 2005: “The avant-garde writer Anais Nin, a frequent visitor to Sausalito, watched the Vallejo's transformation into a dock-side artists' colony. ‘The motors and wheels had been extracted leaving a pool like center to look into,’ Nin wrote in her diary. ‘[Varda] was beginning to make windows for the deck. With time the ferryboat grew in beauty’.”

Onslow Ford moved onto land in 1953, and Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts moved aboard. Soon the Vallejo became the epicenter for the “Bargeoise,” as author Herb Gold referred to the Sausalito’s Bohemian waterfront culture.

Onslow Ford and he wife eventually moved to Inverness, where he died peacefully in his home in 2003, at age 90. To see some of his paintings, go to artists/gordon-onslow-ford.