Artist biography

Cecil Collins 1908-1989

Cecil Collins was born in Plymouth, Devon on 23 March 1908. He early life was physically and economically difficult and he was apprenticed to an engineering firm for a year before winning scholarships to Plymouth School of Art (1924-7) and the Royal College of Art in London (1927-31). At the College he won the William Rothenstein Life Drawing Prize. He also met and, in 1931, married Elisabeth Ramsden, a sculpture student. They lived in London and rented a cottage at Speen, north of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where they were introduced to Eric Gill, nearby at Piggots, and met David Jones. In 1933 the Collinses visited Paris, where they saw the work of Paul Klee and visited Gertrude Stein's apartment. They became friendly with Mark Tobey after his exhibition at Beaux Arts Gallery. Collins held his first exhibition at the Bloomsbury Gallery (Oct. 1935), where he showed some of his most important early paintings, including The Fall of Lucifer (1933), which indicated the mystical direction of his work. He published a poem in The New English Weekly in 1936 and a painting and a drawing were included in the International Exhibition of Surrealism (New Burlington Galleries, 1936). In the same year, the couple moved to Devon, attending Tobey's classes at Dartington Hall. Collins held an exhibition in the Barn Studio (1937) attached to the Dartington Hall Art Department and, after Tobey's departure in 1938, he taught there (1939-43) alongside Bernard Leach, Hein Heckroth and Willi Soukop (q.v). The combination of interests in Far Eastern art and philosophy and German Expressionist performance proved important, and it was there that Collins began the series of Fools.

Between 1944 and 1948, the Collinses divided their time between London and Cambridge. His exhibition at Lefevre's (Feb. 1944) escaped major damage even though blown off the walls in an air raid, and two more exhibitions in London followed in 1945. This period saw the publication of the first monograph on the artist by Alex Comfort (Cecil Collins: Paintings and Drawings 1935-45, 1946) and Collins's own major text written in 1944, The Vision of the Fool (1947). Both confirmed the artist's links with the poets of the 'Apocalypse' group and the associated inclination towards a visionary Neo-Romanticism in painting. In Cambridge from 1948, the Collinses were part of a circle, including the painters Nan Youngman and Elisabeth Vellacott, which founded the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors (1955). From 1951, Collins also taught life drawing part-time with Mervyn Peake at the Central School of Art in London. He had a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1959, which included some 'matrical' paintings, which developed mystical images from gestural beginnings. The Collinses moved to Chelsea in 1970. He received a number of religious commissions, making an altar front for the Chapel of St Clement in Chichester Cathedral (1973), for which Elisabeth made kneelers, and windows for St Michael and All Saints, Basingstoke (1985). In 1979 he was awarded the MBE. A retrospective of his prints at the Tate Gallery in 1981, was followed by one of paintings and drawings in 1989. The painter died on 4 June 1989, during the course of this exhibition.

Further reading:
Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool, London 1947, reprinted Chipping Norton 1981
Richard Morphet, The Prints of Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1981
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Catalogue, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1989
Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich 1994