Summary

This double portrait, one of the best known of Collins’s paintings, represented for him a return to a more straightforward imagery after his fantastic and dream subjects of the 1930s. It depicts the artist with his wife, Elisabeth. They are shown as equals, the outward gaze of both sitters inviting the onlooker to share in the celebration of their marriage. Collins paints each object between them as a separate item and with the same degree of attention. This enumeration, heightened by the reverse perspective of the table, serves to ‘sharpen our sense of its [the table’s] symbolic meanings, the first and most obvious signifying the meeting place of family life and the exchange of foods on both physical and spiritual levels between the couple’ (Anderson, pp.51-2). Judith Collins has emphasised many of the unusual objects in the painting, for example the ankh, an Egyptian symbol of eternity, which they both hold in their right hand. In addition she sees the table as an altar, with Collins and his wife taking on the roles of ‘priests in a ritual’ (Collins, p.18).


The picture was painted at the Collins’s house, Swan cottage, on the outskirts of Totnes in Devon. Collins had married Elisabeth Ramsden, a fellow student at the Royal College of Art, in 1931, and she was to become the most important influence on his work, appearing in many of his paintings and prints. The Devonshire landscape is prominently visible through the large window behind the figures. The central path, with two neat areas of lawn on either side, leads to an area of open land with a wooden pavilion on the right and a lake to the left. Each feature in the scene, although based on the real view, has a symbolic function. For example the carefully arranged seven swans on the lake, the shrine near the hill’s summit and the mysterious cloaked figures all suggest that they are part of a world beyond that which we can see and feel. In addition the many-facetted surface, created by hatching and scoring, allows the onlookers, according to the artist, to ‘be able to go right into a painting, so that they enter a world in which more and more experiences are unfolded’ (quoted in Anderson, p.120).

Further reading:
David Mellor, A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, no.55, pp.16-20, reproduced in colour pl.8
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.51-2, reproduced in colour, pl. 29
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1989, no.15, p.80, reproduced in colour, p.45,

Heather Birchall
September 2002