The Prince of Aquitaine c.1950
Gouache on wove paper 487 x 320 (19 1/8 x 12 5/8)
Inscribed in pencil ‘Elisabeth Collins’ b.r.; inscribed on back of cardboard in pencil ‘No Name’; inscribed in another hand on label ‘CARDBOARD WITH CARE - KEEP DRY | < Messrs. E. CLARKE | 3, FREE SCHOOL LANE | CAMBRIDGE > | per: LMS DATE 31/10/59’
Purchased from the artist, 1996
The artist, purchased through England & Co., London, 1996
Elisabeth Collins, England & Co., London, Sept.-Oct. 1996 (not in cat., typescript listing 55 as Prince of Acquitaine [sic])
The Prince of Aquitaine seems to be one of the relatively few paintings surviving from the Collinses’ first years in Cambridge, although it was made when Elisabeth Collins was staying alone at Cagnes-sur-Mer in the South of France. It was the only work completed prior to the arrival of her husband (interview with the author, 17 Oct. 1997).
The composition shows certain similarities with Cecil Collins’s contemporary gouache Head of a Fool, 1949 (private collection). Both concentrate upon the head and shoulders of a man in slight three-quarter view, and both are crowned and mysterious. However, in contrast to the tight working and control of her husband’s image, Collins’s Prince is painted with a looseness which allows underlying layers to be visible. Close inspection reveals the use of pencil at various stages (it is visible in the drawing of the chin) as well as scratching into the surface with a blunter instrument, perhaps the end of the brush, in the area below the eye to the left where viridian green is revealed. Much of the drawing was swiftly done with black paint, which precedes most of the other colours with the possible exception of a series of strong pink dots arranged across the face (three especially associated with the eyes) and down the front. It is not clear whether these performed some sort of mapping function in the emergence of the image. The background was washed in, but the figure was built up in blocks and layers. All the colours appear to have been mixed with white, giving the painting a characteristic muted quality and generating the play between the soft green and pale purple of the clothes, the grey of the bows and the pale blue of the hat’s large tassel. Many of the details were tightened further with black, but the delicacy of the facial features is notable, with the irises in particular left as delicate drawing on the preliminary layer of paint.
Collins recalled that she had identified her subject with The Prince of Aquitaine from the outset. As there had been no royal family of Aquitaine in Western France since the eleventh century, it is probable that she had in mind the character in the opening of Gérard de Nerval’s well-known poem ‘El Desdichado’:
Je suis le ténébreux, - le veuf, - l’inconsolé
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie:
Ma seule étoile est morte, et mon luth constellé
Porte le soleil noir de la mélancholie.
[I am the shadowy one - the widower - the unconsoled
The prince of Aquitaine whose tower has been destroyed:
My only star is dead, and my star strewn lute
Carries on it the black sun of melancholy.]
The second of these lines reappears famously at the end of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ among ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’. The despair of Nerval’s character, somewhat modified into contemplation by Eliot, appears to be shared by the melancholic Prince of Collins’s image, whose solemnity contrasts with the decorative form of his clothing. The elongated face similarly recalls the anxious features of figures in the work of such painters as John Minton and Michael Ayrton in the preceding years. It is not clear why Collins should have made a work with melancholic associations, but the link to the poets’ cosmic imagery may be seen in relation to her wider immersion in symbolist poetry; at the simplest, this familiar verse may have come to mind in the process of painting.