Cecil Collins 1908 - 1989


The Artist

Carroll Donner, USA

Santa Barbara Museum, USA

Mr and Mrs Thomas E. Worrell Jnr,

Private Collection, New York, where acquired in 1988


London, Leicester Galleries, Catalogue of the exhibitions Eliot Hodgkin recent tempera paintings. Terry Frost new paintings. Cecil Collins: new paintings and drawings, 1956, cat no.13


London, Whitechapel Gallery, Cecil Collins: A retrospective exhibition of paintings, drawings and tapestries from 1928- 1959, November- December 1959, cat no.16


Cardiff, The National Museum of Wales, British Art and the Modern Movement 1930-40, October-November 1962, cat no. 102


London, Hamet Galleries, Britain's contribution to surrealism of the 30's and 40's, November, 1971, cat no. 26


London, Barbican Art Gallery, A Paradise Lost, The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, 1987, cat no. 46


London, The Royal College of Art, Exhibition Road Painters at the Royal College of Art, March-April 1988, catalogue number 41, illus p.19


London, Tate Gallery, Cecil Collins, A Retrospective Exhibition, 10 May - 9 July 1989, cat no.13, pp18, 79-80, illus b/w p79




Kathleen Raine, 'Cecil Collins- a platonic painter,' The Painter and Sculptor, A Journal of the Visual Arts, Vol.1, No.1, Spring, 1958, illus b/w, p25

William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, Barrie and Jenkins, London, 1988, pp.58, 79, 119, 122, 125, 134, 154, 170, 177, pl.94, illus colour p31

Peter Nahum, Angels Dancing with the Sun and Moon, Modern Painters, Summer, June 1990, Vol. 3 Issue 2, p4


Cecil, as an artist, hadn’t entered my consciousness for many years because there were only scraps around on the market by him of no consequence and so I didn’t even think about him. Then somebody brought me a transparency of The Voice which was coming up for sale in America and I thought, ‘If this is a good and important picture, then I should buy it.

When The Voice arrived I hung it and eventually Cecil found out where it was and he and Elisabeth arrived at the gallery; this was in 1984. They sat in front of the picture and I was not sure how this spiritual visionary would view a commercial dealer, but we got on very well. People are either special in your lives or they’re not. If they’re special, as Cecil and Elisabeth became, they’re very precious and to be cherished.’ (Peter Nahum in, In Celebration of Cecil Collins, Visionary Artist and Educator, Tate London, 2008, p49)

Peter Nahum of the Leicester Galleries, speaking here, would go on to form a lasting friendship and working relationship with Cecil and his wife Elisabeth and it is fitting that the first work he would buy was The Voice. Originally purchased directly from the artist by an American collector, Carroll Donner, it was bequeathed to the Santa Barbara Museum, California by her family who subsequently sent it off for sale at the behest of the family, not knowing of the artist. It would remain in a private collection until 1984 when it was purchased by Nahum.

This important painting belongs to a significant body of work created during the 1930s in which Collins reached an artistic maturity, cultivating and articulating, through a language of form, his unique vision. As a student at the Royal College of Art (1927-31) under the direction Sir William Rothenstein and tutelage of artists such as Gilbert Spencer, Collins’ talents were recognized early and he was generally accepted as the genius of his year. A wonderful comment from fellow student, Ronald Grimshaw, expresses the unique perspective that Collins viewed the world from, recalling that is was slightly unnerving, '…when at the first life class, he climbed a ladder and proceeded as if it were normal to draw the model from the celestial height.' (William Anderson, Cecil Collins, The Quest for the Great Happiness, Barrie and Jenkins, London, 1988, p25)

The contemporary climate also did much to educate the student Collins; the metaphysical poets were being widely read and works by de Chirico, Picasso, Chagall and Ernst were all brought to London. 1931, the year of Collin’s graduation also saw the establishment of a metaphysical group of painters who would become known as Unit One. Yet Collins would remain a resignedly singular artist, motivated by a very personal, unique and spiritual vision. As William Anderson has discussed, his artistic maturity came not from his graduation from college but his marriage to fellow student Elisabeth Ramsden. Their marriage took place in 1931 and after this point the two currents that had been prevalent in his life, the inner imaginative life that had found its voice in stories and poems, and his years of artistic training, came together under inspiration of his love for her. (Ibid, p25)

Several of Collins’ paintings from the 1930s are characterized by a deeply visionary and unique outlook and they explore cosmic themes through both biomorphic shapes and figurative symbolism and references. From The Cells of the Night (1934), to The Voice (1938) and The Quest, completed in the autumn of 1938, the imagery of cosmic worlds, primitive life forms, and the power of the sea pervades.

By 1938 Cecil and Elisabeth Collins were living in Swan Cottage, Weirfields, Totnes where they had become a central part of the artistic community at nearby Dartington Hall. As Nahum has commented,

The influence of Dartington…was very powerful. It had that extraordinary spiritual energy. Dartington is a spiritual community and you do feel this special atmosphere when you go there, probably because it’s placed on certain ley lines; some places are imbued with this energy and some aren’t. It’s not the people; rather that sympathetic people are drawn to these places. (Nahum, p50)

The idea of place is central to Collins’ painting. At Dartington, Collins met and became close friends with the American artist Mark Tobey (who was, the Director of the Art Studio at Dartington at the time) and the potter Bernard Leach. Yet perhaps more than the community of people at Dartington, it was a return to the landscape of his childhood which provided further stimulus to Collins and allowed him to work on a deeply intuitive level, creating the potent and emotional images that we find in The Voice.

Collins was born in Plymouth, the only child of Cornish parents who had moved across the Tamar for his father's work, and his early life was filled with strong associations and folklore related to the sea (his grandparents lived in Falmouth and Penryn). It was this unique heritage which meant that unlike the Newlyn artists who went to Cornwall, excited by the light and landscape, Collins was already familiar with these things and instead, was able to focus on the inward and ancient life of those environments, creating a 'new landscape of the soul.' (Anderson, p.17)

The Voice exists as a beautiful rumination on this very ‘landscape of the soul’. Collin’s mastery of colour means that even the most vibrant and vital colours work together to create a harmonious whole. The rolling waves draw our view upwards towards the portrait of an unknown figure, which appears to us as a cosmic vision. In these images, we are reminded of the flattened forms and pure lines of the Byzantine art that Collin’s admired for its austerity and ability to communicate the very essence of an object or scene.

The artist has said 'There is only one voice in the universe. We do not even know our own voices.' (Judith Collins, Cecil Collins Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, Tate Gallery, 1989, pp 18, 79-80).

The serene profile head could represent this voice, or indeed, be the one who hears it. The picture belies any exact interpretation but in this lays the nature and triumph of Collins work. Often criticised at the time for being too personal and introspective, it is his commitment to the interior vision which gives his work its power and depth. As Collins replied to this very criticism in 1937, 'The only way we can experience truth is through our own personal identity, and one of the mysteries of this life is human personality, the things that makes one being different from another.' (Anderson, p49)