Tate Britain hosts a lunatic vision of a lost paradise

PUBLISHED: 11:54 29 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 07 September 2010

BY ALISON OLDHAM The English visionary artist and educator Cecil Collins had a singular personality with apparently contradictory facets. One of his most moving paintings, The Poet, was made in response to the devastating blitz of his home town, Plymou


The English visionary artist and educator Cecil Collins had a singular personality

with apparently contradictory facets.

One of his most moving paintings, The Poet, was made in response to the devastating blitz of his home town, Plymouth, in 1940.

He was then living and teaching at Dartington Hall, near Totnes, Devon, with his wife Elisabeth.

Her reaction to the bombing was to buy a car to ferry survivors to safety.

They included her husband's mother, who had raised him in difficult financial circumstances.

Elisabeth brought her to a cafe in Totnes, then phoned Cecil who said he didn't want to see her or have her in their house.

The compassion evinced in his paintings did not extend, on this occasion, to his mother.

Bryan Robertson, who gave Collins his first retrospective in 1959 at the Whitechapel Gallery when he was director, found him stiflingly self-centred when they first met. But he later warmed to Collins's lunatic sense of humour.

One of his habits was to transform himself into a Bolshevik spy, slinking along walls, when he saw friends approaching in the street.

These anecdotes come from a new publication by Belsize Park resident and Hampstead Authors' Society member Nomi Rowe.

She was inspired to create a portrait of Collins, which is "a mosaic in words", by a wake for her 91-year-old mother where "each one who had known and loved her was, like a hologram, a fragment reflecting the whole woman".

In Celebration Of Cecil Collins (Paul Holberton publishing, £25) combines his own words with memoirs by his wife, friends, art world associates, students and models - and also images by all the art practitioners.

It makes a fascinating document because Collins had a cathartic effect on the lives of so many - not least Rowe, who studied with him for five years and used his methods in her own teaching.

Attending his course on colour at the City Literary Institute in Covent Garden, she felt reconnected her to childhood delight in adventuring into the unknown.

Collins believed in encouraging rather than teaching but expounded beliefs including one that vibrations inherent in colours evoke atmospheres relating to different times of day and night.

Rowe found his views a refreshing antidote to the Kitchen Sink school of painting prevalent at St Martin's.

She subsequently attended his life drawing classes at the City Lit, for which people queued to enrol from 4am.

These began with a version of musical statues in which Collins played music ranging from Mahler to Satie or such sounds as leaves rustling or a stream trickling.

Models responded, with students mimicking their movements, until Collins stopped the music at a point where he liked the pose.

Model Alex Kingston recalled taking on the role of observer, assuming "a shape that would be really interesting to draw".

Rowe contends that Collins's art has not received its due because it does not "fit easily into the categories beloved by art historians", a view confirmed by historian Frances Spalding.

Though he has been associated with the postwar Neo-Romantics, his lyrical art is closer in spirit in to the French Symbolists, especially Odilon Redon.

To mark the centenary of Collins's birth in 1908, Tate Britain currently has a display juxtaposing his work with Blake's. Collins was, however, adamant that Blake was not an influence.

Throughout his life, Collins pursued his vision of a lost paradise, destroyed by the mechanisation of the modern world.

In The Poet (pictured, top), the figure is shown trying to break free from an oppressive, enclosing geometric construction while being blinded by the sun.

Collins had a repertoire of such archetypal figures - the Angel, the Pilgrim, the Sibyl - recurring in extraordinary landscapes.

The Fool appeared in his work in 1940 - and he once said of this figure "the Saint, the artist, and the poet are all one in the Fool, but the Fool is more than this, he is the sorrow of life."

The Tate display includes a captivating portrait The Artist And His Wife (pictured above), made in Devon in 1939.

Collins met Elisabeth at the Royal College of Art where he studied from 1927 to 1931.

They moved to Dartington in 1936 and there he had a key visionary experience.

Late one afternoon, after a shower, the light of the setting sun shone through raindrops on the leaves of a small tree on top of which a thrush was singing.

He saw the shape of birdsong as the shape of the tree. This inspired several of his most beautiful drawings.

As an educator, Collins retained a fanatical following.

When curator Judith Collins (no relation) was preparing the Tate's 1989 major Collins retrospective, she attended his classes but often arrived late so was at the back.

"I had to imagine what he was saying because these menopausal women in macrame tops pressed themselves up against him," she recalls.

Collins died, at the age of 81 in 1989, during the retrospective.

Spalding's contribution to Rowe's book includes this poignant anecdote.

As he was being pushed around the exhibition in a wheelchair, he repeatedly said aloud, as he looked at his art: "I have spoken the truth."

Cecil Collins And William Blake is in Room 8 of the BP British Art Display at Tate Britain, Millbank, Pimlico. The gallery opens daily 10am to 5.50pm (Fridays until 10pm).


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