Friday 30 January 2015

John Collier, Obviously...

When I'm preparing posts on subjects like femme fatales and naughty women I always look forward to finding a suitable work by John Collier.  He's one of those painters who never fails to deliver something a bit saucy and fabulous, but on the whole his finer details are not really well known so I thought I'd do a post on him because he deserves it.  Plus, obviously, lots of nude-y ladies...

Manaeds (1886)

Born 1850, John Collier is probably remembered these days as a minor Pre-Raphaelite, catching the edges of the movement and occasionally applying it to his works.  In his lifetime he was recognised as a portraitist of tremendous skill and feeling, and produced images of the leading men of the day, many of which we recognise as being their almost 'official' image.

Charles Darwin (1881)
If you search for his work on the National Portrait Gallery website, or on 'Your Paintings', you will see a whole cavalcade of bearded, serious chaps doing serious, bearded, Victorian stuff which no doubt would make them very respectable.  I find the image of Darwin interesting as there is no hint of what he does, why he is famous, just his solemn face and hat in hand, revealing his pink scalp.  The majority of these portraits are just the men in a darkened room, all effort and interest in their faces, their expressions, as a window to their genius.

John Collier (1883) Marian Collier
John Collier married fellow artist Marian Huxley, daughter of the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, in 1879 after spending time within the Huxley family. After the birth of their daughter, Joyce, Marian was taken to Paris to treat her post-natal depression where she contracted pneumonia and died.  Collier then married his sister-in-law, Ethel, in Norway in 1889 (coming a cropper of the law against marrying your in-laws in this country, like Holman Hunt). In case you were wondering, he was also the uncle of Aldous Huxley, son of his brother-in-law and friend, Leonard Huxley.

An Incantation
It's fascinating reading Collier's obituary from The Times as they regard him as not a great artist but one who was extreme in his accurate presentation of the facts.  They felt he reduced art down to copying a subject without any artistic interpretation. Even when he went nude-tastic, it should not be thought that he was having fun:
'His occasional paintings of the nude show at least an appreciation of line and a pleasure in the surfaces and textures, and some of his landscapes have charm, but the effects were transferred to, not created on the canvas. Beauty for him was a matter of subject and there the matter ended'

Now, I hate to argue but I find tremendous amounts of artistic imagination in works like An Incantation and possibly his best known nude, Lilith...

Lilith (1889)
Look at the contrast between the skin of the snake and blonde loveliness of naughty Lilith, the wonderful tumble of hair. It seems a shame to think that Collier didn't paint these beautiful works with the pleasure that it affords others, and interesting that's the way the critics interpreted it. Unless of course his diary read 'Today I wrapped a python around a naked lady and painted. Had lunch. Stopped python squeezing naked lady to death. Painted. Had tea. Went to Bed.'

Marriage de Covenance (1907)
 As a writer, I adore what is known as his 'problem paintings', a term that the artist loathed.  He grumpily commented that 'They are nothing of the kind. The ones that have been so-termed merely depict the little tragedies of modern life, and I have always endeavoured to make the meanings perfectly plain.' In other words, he wrote stories condensed to a scene.  Take Marriage de Covenance above.  A girl has been told she is to marry for the benefit of her mother who is standing by the fireplace, while the daughter wails and clutches the bedspread. There is no mystery, only details for the viewer to fill in - why does the girl not want to marry the man? Does she love another? Is the man she has to marry a gianty weirdo with a funny beard and a limp and a fondness for eating kippers in bed? What's in it for the mother?

A Fallen Idol (1913)
When A Fallen Idol was exhibited in 1913 he explained the picture thus: The weeping woman is the Fallen Idol. It is a young wife confessing to her middle-aged husband. The husband is a studious man, and has probably neglected her. At any rate the first thing that occurs to him is - is it my fault? I imagine he will forgive his wife.

I love the idea that the woman has done something naughty but Collier blames the husband for neglecting her, it shows a very open mind on the subject of marriage. It also tells of a very straightforward attitude to what art is, which is entertainment, a still movie, a static book. And sometimes they were a thing of scandal...

Clytemnestra (1914)
This lovely lady (a later version of the subject from his 1882 original) was allegedly banned in 'a Northern City' but the reason was not just her boobs but her boobs and big knife combo (come on, it's a pretty decent way to go), explicit female violence, which was too shocking for the public delicate constitution. Maybe as Collier had the reputation for realism in his work, this was too much for anyone to deal with, all too realistic, present and threatening.

The Prodigal Daughter (1903)
I approve of Collier's use of women as the major active protagonist in his works. I've used The Prodigal Daughter before in a post about Prodigal Sons, but look at the magnificence of this woman, back, showy, unrepentant. Her parents look shocked.  She looks pleasingly dramatic.

Sacred and Profane Love (1919)
Being a later Victorian artist, he lived on into the twentieth century and his art changed in terms of costume but not in mode.  In Sacred and Profane Love, the returning soldier is faced with two women, both beautiful but one sedate and the other somewhat lively (in a suspicious, been-at-the-gin kind of way).  Whilst this seems to be straightforwardly about whether you pick the sensible girl or the low-cut-top girl, it might also be about the sort of life the soldier picks on his return - will he return to his pre-War life of sensible duty or does it let it all go with the new, unpredictable hedonism?

The Amber Necklace (1930)
I do love reading how mid 20th century art criticism responded to Victorian art and the Pre-Raphaelites and while we consider Collier a bit Pre-Raphaelish (new, totally legit term I just made up), he doesn't seem to count as a follower at all in criticism at the time of his death.  He is aligned with artists like Frank Holl rather than, for example, Arthur Hughes yet paintings such as The Amber Necklace are as beautifully rich in ornament as something like Dolce Far Niente by Holman Hunt. It also interesting that while noting his adherence to nature, his alleged extreme verisimilitude  is never connected to the Pre-Raphaelite's desire to reproduce reality.  Poor Collier is seen as a mere recorder in paint rather than a creator of imaginary scenes, which seems unfair.

Godiva (1898)
I would love to see an exhibition of his work, and I really must read one of the books he wrote on painting as Collier seems to have taken the role of bridesmaid in Victorian art, never the bride.  He has a healthy showing in regional galleries, so there is a good chance that if you are in this country, you probably aren't that far from a Collier.  What a lovely thought.

Unless it's Clytemnestra, then it's a little bit alarming...


  1. Did you see Endless Forms, at the Fitzwilliam a few years ago? It was about Darwin and the visual arts. Terrific show. They had Collier's portrait of Darwin facing you as you entered. It's a very powerful painting.

  2. No sadly I missed that show but I know it from the NPG. I find all his portraits compelling but you're right, this one is very 'human', if you know what I mean.

    Thanks for the comments.

  3. One of my friends has a print of Lilith with her snake, and I've been wanting one for my gallery of "slightly disturbing Victorian paintings" for a while. I will have to add Clytemnestra to list, especially as I ended up studying the Oresteia while at college. Greek tragedy is about as dark and unsettling as it gets for respectable literature.

  4. Everyone should have a slightly disturbing Victorian painting gallery....

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. Lovely read. Thanks.
    'Entertaining'? That's different from 'art for art's sake' or 'formalism', the delight of sensual and imaginative arousal from pigment and canvas interacting with brain and mind.. or is it? I'm not sure, and will write anon if I can think of why..
    Delight to read.
    C. of Oz.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx