Cecil Collins 1908 - 1989


The Artist
Julian Trevelyan, gifted by the above 1946


London, Alex Reid & Lefevre Ltd, Cecil Collins, February 1944, cat no.10, not illus
London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Cecil Collins A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Tapestries from 1928-1959, November - December 1959, cat no.30, not illus, p12
London, Tate Gallery, Cecil Collins A Retrospective Exhibition, 10 May - 9 July 1989, cat no.20, illus b/w p82


Alex Comfort, Cecil Collins: The Painter's Subject, Holywell Press, Oxford, 1946, illus b/w p42
William Anderson, Cecil Collins, Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1988, cat no.117, illus colour p168


Early in his career, Cecil Collins came to be associated with Surrealism through his participation in the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, but unlike the Surrealists who accessed the unconscious mind to produce works undirected by intellect, each motif in Collins’ works exerts a symbolic function and is firmly rooted in his personal, spiritual philosophy. For Collins, modern day society was becoming sterile, culture-less and distanced from God and as such, required an urgent spiritual awakening. He believed that only the Fool had the vision necessary to find fulfilment and eventual spiritual reward.

The Return was painted in 1943, an important year for Collins in which he began writing his seminal essay ‘The Vision of the Fool’ (published in 1947). The first example of Collins’ Fool is found in the gouache Meeting of the Fools, 1939, and this archetypal figure subsequently inspired a large and important body of work, to which The Return belongs. Here, Collins depicts a solitary male figure, dressed in a cloak and holding a staff, like a medieval pilgrim, but with the three-pointed hat of the Fool. The silver tones of the Fool’s skin, hair and clothes imply that he is a spirit, thus imbuing the scene with a dream-like quality. That he is portrayed alone, seemingly in a state of exile, reflects Collins’ belief that there was no longer a place for the individual ‘dreamer’ in modern society, which he saw as superficial and predominantly focussed on productivity and conformity. The arrangement of the composition, which is split into two distinct levels, is suggestive of a quest or journey, harking back to archetypal legends. The undulating landscape in the foreground, is set against a backdrop dominated by a vertiginous hill which points skyward, a symbol, conceivably, of transformed consciousness, a notion which is reinforced by the rising sun.

Despite its small scale, Collins has incorporated an astonishing level of detail into this composition. Every highly stylised form has been executed with the finest of brushstrokes, and many contain intricate patterns and shapes, recalling the calligraphic style of his drawings. His technique requires the viewer to move in close, ‘I like every painting to live on its own as an object of contemplation. I like paintings which can be looked right into. I don’t like paintings which give a certain effect at a certain distance but, when you look into them, get coarser and coarser. People ought to be able to go right into a painting, so that they enter a world in which more and more experiences are unfolded.’ 1

1 The artist quoted in The Quest for the Great Happiness, William Anderson, Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1988, p120