Cecil Collins

Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 762 × 566 mm
frame: 985 × 790 × 35 mm
Purchased 1991

Display caption

Collins has often been seen as an inheritor of William Blake because of his highly personal understanding of Christian spirituality. This view has been reinforced by the fact that he, like Blake, claimed to be a visionary. It is, therefore, surprising that he exhibited this drawing with the avowedly atheist Surrealists in 1936. The biomorphic forms and mysterious, absurd imagery might be readily compared to Surrealism, but Collins’s subject is a symbolic battle between forces of good and evil.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Ink, pen and wash on paper, 762 x 566 mm (30 x 22 ¼ in)
Inscribed by the artist in black ink ‘Cecil Collins 1933’ bottom right
Inscribed by the artist on back ‘WILL OVER NEGATIVE’ lower centre
Purchased 1991

Purchased from the artist’s estate through Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1991

International Surrealist Exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London, June-July 1936 (59)
Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins, The Barn Studio, Dartington Hall, Devon, June 1937 (Drawing 1)
The Vision of the Fool: Early Drawings by Cecil Collins, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, March-April 1991 (4)

Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.24
Geraldine Norman, ‘Recession Favours Conservative Styles: Contemporary Art Market’, Independent, 8 April 1991, p.7

Herbert Read, Surrealism, London 1937, pl.21

Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict is an important drawing from the early 1930s, a crucial period of Cecil Collins’s development, and exemplifies his experiments in technique and imagery. The ink has been applied both with a pen and in washes in a number of layers. In some places, especially at the margins and around the sun, it has been combined with a gum (possibly gum arabic), presumably employed to add body.[1] The gum, which was also applied on top, has discoloured and cracked, lifting the surface of the paper with the ink. In addition to this deterioration, the medium weight paper has been treated for damage by worm holes (around the structure on the left) and a number of tears. The most dramatic of these is a vertical tear of 400 mm rising from the base, which nearly resulted in the loss of the lower right corner of the drawing.[2]

Washes reinforced with gum establish a cloudy periphery within which the details of the image are arranged. The brightness of the sun is achieved by contrast to the surrounding curved stabs of the pen and further veils of ink. The stabbing lines form two clouds which fall between the sculptural forms. These forms are given solidity through a combination of shading, cross-hatching and washes. The branching structure to the left is topped with a single eye; there is an emission of rays from the structure’s central cavity and four trumpets blasting from its main extremity. The precariously balanced pile further back to the right, rises to the height of the sun and is secured by tensile lines reminiscent of guy-ropes. A third structure appears to the right. These structures are linked by webs of lines and stand on a stepped surface worked in blotchy washes, in which four carrot-shaped figures are attached to an arterial root system in the lower right corner. The nature of these lowest forms suggests that they are seen as embedded in the ground.

The sum of these details is a vision of chaos at the moment of the emergence of clarifying light. As the title confirms, it is also to be seen symbolically as a conflict between good and evil. However, the exact embodiment of the immaterial ‘angel images and negative spectres’ is difficult to ascertain, even if the title suggests that the latter are the less substantial of the two. Some elucidation may be gained by comparison with The Fall of Lucifer (Tate T07731). Like the drawing it was concerned with the conflict between good and evil, but it offered a more literal interpretation of the battle with the fallen angels. The juxtaposition of the drawing and painting visible in an installation photograph of Collins’s Barn Studio exhibition at Dartington in 1937,[3] suggests that the artist encouraged their comparison despite their difference in size and medium.

Two important details are held in common between The Fall of Lucifer and Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict. In both, the strong rays of the sun disperse a curl of cloud; this conjunction is also found in a watercolour, Souls Singing in the Evening, 1933 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut).[4] In a parallel development in The Fall of Lucifer, groups of angels aim their trumpets at the falling archangel. The trumpets in Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict echo this detail, suggesting that the structure on the left may be seen as an angelic presence dispersing evil through the lines emitted by the nodes at their mouths. The presence of the single eye, a traditional image of the all-seeing God, also identifies this structure as a force for good. The trumpets’ target may be the piled structure on the right, but it sprouts co-operative nodes of its own (from the top and in the centre) and tiny hands which offer a friendly grasp to the lowest trumpet. Alternatively, given the symbolic battle between light and dark, the stabbing lines may be the ‘negative spectres.’ They are under attack from both sun and trumpets, and their formlessness may be associated with a primal chaos and contrasted with the solidity of the structures. That the radiating lines are associated with good and with music is confirmed by their reappearance in the contemporary watercolour and ink drawing, The Music of the Worlds, 1933 (private collection).[5] In this work, just as in the slightly later The Cells of Night, 1934 (Tate T01478), musical and planetary harmony coincide as traditional symbols of spiritual order.

Although details of the conflict in Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict leave room for interpretation, the tuber-figures at the base provide an early example of one of Collins’s recurrent images. All - and especially the largest recumbent form in the lower left - prefigure the chrysalis forms of subsequent paintings, such as The Promise (Tate T01692), which the artist has identified as embodying the incubation of knowledge and spiritual awareness when nourished by the arts.[6] In Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict these bodies, while rooted in the ground, have a direct link to the structures above which suggests the spread of their beneficence. Similar figures have gained human features in a related but untitled ink sketch, signed and dated ‘Cecil Collins 1933’.[7] Against a backdrop of a devastated city, a female nude reclines to the right, as her male companion is hauled from a dark hole by a figure to the left. While the scene is apocalyptic in nature, it may continue the theme of emergence from chaos found in Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict.

Of more general significance are Collins’s notes on the reverse of the untitled sketch. They are headed ‘Inner Nature of Form, Invisible Attitudes’ and may be presumed to date from the same moment. Although they are enigmatic in their brevity, they suggest the artist’s approach to composition. He divides the ‘inner nature of form’ into three linked musical categories: ‘Rhythm (unity by pulse) active’, ‘Harmony (unity by architecture) passive’ and ‘Melody or Theme (unification by mood or moods) active/ passive).’ To these he adds two more expressive categories, ‘Energy - vibrations’ and ‘Affinities - improvisation.’ He also includes a drawing of a square and a circle noted as, ‘The 2 Key families of form (concrete - Transcendental fluid).’ Collins carried through to his work the emphasis found here upon the dynamics of contrast in composition and technique, as well as in his choice of conflict as his underlying theme. Two aspects of these notes are particularly relevant to Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict. First, they demonstrate that the musical details in the drawing belong to Collins’s wider concern with musical analogies for pictorial compositions and as manifestations of an underlying order. Second, the formal families of the ‘concrete’ and the ‘transcendental fluid’, which facilitate the creation of this order, are present in the drawing in the placement of solid structures within an amorphous frame.

According to the artist’s widow, Elisabeth Collins, Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict was executed at Speen. She emphasised their isolation there from outside events, suggesting that the ‘negative spectres’ showed her husband ‘feeling his way and getting rid of a lot of negative things’.[8] This she associated specifically with his turbulent early life in Plymouth and, more generally, with everyone’s need to throw off negativity. However, the concentration on subjects of conflict also reflects aspects of a broader context. Among the Collinses’ friends in Buckinghamshire was a growing concern with the marginalisation of art by the material and industrialised modern world, a fissure expressed in robust terms in Eric Gill’s Art (London 1934) and later in Collins’s The Vision of the Fool (London 1947) and the writings of Peter Goffin, such as The Realm of Art (London 1945). Solutions to this impasse were sought in spirituality. Collins took the opportunity of his country life to walk, contemplate and read mystical works such as the poems of Thomas Traherne and the writings of Meister Eckhardt; volumes of both survive in the Collinses’ library inscribed, respectively, 1933 and 1934. In the introduction to the catalogue of his first solo exhibition in 1935, Collins reflected these converging concerns. Setting himself against ‘contemporary sterile geometric art’, he declared: ‘My works are visual music of the kingdoms of the imagination.’[9] He also favoured the isolation of the individual from what he termed the ‘ant-psychology’ of the crowd.

William Anderson has remarked upon the significance of Collins’s execution of The Fall of Lucifer in the year of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany.[10] Given the coincidence in theme, this opens a wider political context for Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict, which may therefore reflect Collins’s concern with the state of contemporary civilisation. His view of the importance of individualism lay in direct contrast to the crowd psychology imposed under totalitarian regimes. Events in Europe were difficult to avoid, as the disintegration of democracy in Germany was matched by economic crisis closer to home: in 1932-33 social unrest led to rioting and strikes in Paris - which the Collinses visited in 1933 - and unemployment marches and demonstrations in London. In this context the inscription on the reverse of Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict, ‘will over negative,’ takes on manifold political as well as personal associations.

Collins regarded Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict as an important work. It appeared as the first drawing on both an undated manuscript list[11] and in the catalogue of the Barn Studio in Dartington in 1937.[12] In the previous year it was included in the International Surrealist exhibition in London, along with the oil, Virgin Images in the Magical Processes of Time, 1935 (private collection).[13] These choices were made by Herbert Read at the Collinses’ London flat; the strained atmosphere of the visit has been recalled by Elisabeth Collins,[14] as Read was silent about works for which the painter expected enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the drawing is visible in one of the photographs of the installation of the exhibition,[15] taken for Roland Penrose. It was hung in the second drawing gallery and, from a related diagram, the surrounding works may be identified as mixing continental artists - such as Wolfgang Paalen, Leonor Fini, Joan Miró and Paul Klee - with Paul Nash, Eileen Agar and Collins’s friend Julian Trevelyan. Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict was also illustrated in Read’s book Surrealism (London 1937), although a legal letter amongst Collins’s papers indicates that the artist had not given permission for its reproduction.[16]

The extremely selective choice of the drawing from Collins’s works of 1933 reflected the slightly arbitrary way in which the British Surrealists were found for the exhibition,[17] but it also highlighted a genuine affinity. The year in which Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict was made saw the arrival of Parisian Surrealism in London through exhibitions of Max Ernst and Miró at the Mayor Gallery.[18] Collins was interested in Picasso and in Ernst, [19] and went to Paris in the same year; he is said to have seen Klee’s work there,[20] with which he would have been familiar from the group exhibition at the Mayor Gallery in April. The structures on the right of Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict, like the exactly contemporary works of Henry Moore and the Surrealist sculptures of F.E. McWilliam, appear to have been inspired by Picasso’s anthropomorphic bone-like works associated with his studies for a Monument to Apollinaire, reproduced in Cahiers d’Art.[21] In Collins’s drawing the two upright forms with circles on them are close to Picasso’s conflation of eyes and breasts. Elisabeth Collins has acknowledged that her husband was interested in Picasso,[22] and several copies of Cahiers d’Art concerned with his work survive in Collins’s studio.[23]

By showing a drawing with such references in the Surrealist exhibition of 1936, Read located it in a context distinct from its mystical imagery. Collins’s work of the early 1930s demonstrated an experimentation with a variety of styles, even if he rejected any formal association with Surrealism after the exhibition.

Matthew Gale
February 1996

[1] Tate conservation files
[2] Ibid.

[3] Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.28

[4] Repr. Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich 1994, p.145, no.1 (col.)
[5] Repr. William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pl.95 (detail)

[6] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1972-1974, London 1974, pp.109-10
[7] Tate Archive TGA 923.1.2.63

[8] Elisabeth Collins, interview with the author, 28 Feb. 1996
[9] ‘Introduction’, Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Bloomsbury Gallery, London 1935

[10] Anderson 1988, p.37

[11] ‘Catalogue of Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins’, Tate Gallery Archive 923.2.1.1
[12] Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins, The Barn Studio, Dartington Hall, Devon, June 1937
[13] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.43 (col.)
[14] Elisabeth Collins, interview, 28 Feb. 1996
[15] Witt Library, Courtauld Institute, London
[16] Alice Raven, letter to Cecil Collins, 5 March 1937, Tate Gallery Archive 923.4.2.1511

[17] Michel Remy, ‘Surrealism’s Vertiginous Descent on Britain’, Surrealism in Britain in the Thirties, exh. cat., Leeds City Art Galleries, 1986, p.26
[18] Max Ernst and Miró, Mayor Gallery, London, June-July 1933
[19] Anderson 1988, p.31
[20] Judith Collins 1989, p.28
[21] Cahiers d’Art, no.8-9, 1930
[22] Interview, 28 Feb. 1996
[23] E.g. Cahiers d’Art, no.6, 1929 and no.8-9, 1930

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