Cecil Collins



Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Oil paint on board
Support: 1226 × 1530 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1961

Display caption

Collins’s paintings often present visions of a transcendental world. This picture was originally called Hymn to Death. It is both ‘a vision of Death as a moment of Transfiguration’ and one of salvation.

The chrysalis form lying on the segmented structure may be considered either as a dead or sleeping body. The celestial aura in the sky may be the ascending spirit of the body at the moment of its death. However, it could be an angelic presence come to wake the sleeping body, itself a metaphor for the modern, material world.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on tempered hardboard, 1223 x 1527 mm (48 1/8 x 60 1/8 in)
Inscribed by the artist in white oil paint ‘Cecil Collins 1953’ bottom right
Inscribed by the artist on back in white oil paint ‘GD ROBTSN | 2 CTS | SEPT 11th 1952’, in chalk ‘1st C RT SIZE Aug 2.30 PM [...] size 7.30 (Sunday) August 31’
Inscribed by the artist on two labels removed from back in red ball point pen ‘“HYMN TO DeaTH”’, ‘PRICE £125’, and on a series of labels in blue ball point pen ‘To SIR John Rothenstein CBE | DiRector | THE TATE GALLERY | MILLBANK | LONDON SW 1’, ‘PRICE £250’, ‘PRICE’ [in pencil] ‘300 GNS’, ‘“HYMN to DEATH” | (1953) | Oil 47” x 60” | Lent by the artist | For sale <£700> 750 GNS’, ‘PRICE 750 GNS’
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery, London 1961

Purchased from the artist by the Friends of the Tate Gallery, London 1961

Figures in their Settings, Contemporary Art Society, Tate Gallery, London, Nov.-Dec. 1953 (11)
Eliot Hodgkin Recent Tempera Paintings; Terry Frost New Paintings; Cecil Collins, New Paintings and Drawings, Leicester Galleries, London, Feb. 1956 (19)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Tapestries 1928-1959, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Nov.-Dec. 1959 (88, as Hymn to Death)
The Prints of Cecil Collins, Tate Gallery, London, Aug.-Nov. 1981, (xiv, repr. p.6)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1989, Southampton City Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Sept.-Oct. (33, repr., col. repr. p.49)
Cecil Collins: Full Circle, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991 (32, repr.)

Tate Gallery Report 1961-62, London 1962, p.20, repr. between pp.26-27
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.119
Sir John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Wood to Hockney, London 1974, p.144 (as Hymn to Death)
Kathleen Raine, Cecil Collins: Painter of Paradise, Ipswich 1979, p.17
Richard Morphet, ‘Collins’s Vision’ in The Prints of Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1981, p.7
The Divine Land’, Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.72
Sir John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: vol.3 Hennell to Hockney, London 1984, p.129 (as Hymn to Death)
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.119, 150, repr. in col., pl.60, p.87
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.87

Sir John Rothenstein, ‘Choosing Art’, Viewpoint, no.1, 1962, p.8 (col., as Hymn to Death)
Herbert Read, Contemporary British Art, 2nd ed., Harmondsworth 1964, pl.27b
Richard Shone, The Century of Change: British Painting Since 1900, Oxford 1977, pl.135

Hymn, originally called Hymn to Death, was painted in the flat at 15 Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge, to which the Collinses moved in 1951 after a nomadic period during which they moved between Yorkshire, London, Oxford and Cambridge. In the same year, the artist had been invited by William Johnstone, Principal of the Central School of Art and Design in London, to teach drawing part-time alongside Mervyn Peake. The return to an artistic environment was an important source of invigoration. He engendered a faithful following in the School, although some considered him eccentric and out of step with the art of the moment. He was in his second year of teaching in 1952-3.

Anderson has described Collins resolving a ‘crisis of confidence’ in the late 1940s by studying Old Master techniques.[1] Extensive notes on methods survive among the Collins papers in the Tate Gallery Archive. Perhaps as a consequence of this research, the artist began to annotate his own works with technical information. The detailed procedural inscriptions on the reverse of Hymn show that it was begun in the autumn of 1952. They indicate that the hardboard was treated with two coats of size in August, before two coats of Roberson’s oil primer were applied on 11 September. The board was then painted with a warm dark grey underpainting, which is quite thinly brushed out in the sky and the earth (lower left) to allow a glow of the ground from below. On top of this, a very limited range of colours were used unmixed: red, yellow, green, black and white. They were applied by ‘lightly dragging or dabbing’ onto the grey to create a broken surface and ‘a vibrancy to the otherwise sombre key of the painting’.[2] In this way, red was used to secure the glowing horizon and the chrysalis form to the right, while white was used for its structure and the ascending couple in the sky. The application of the paint differed noticeably from the meticulous detail of earlier works, such as The Sleeping Fool, 1943 (Tate N06036), and pointed towards the loosening and experimentation of the mid 1950s.

The original title, Hymn to Death, indicated that the conjunction of gloomy colouring and the buried figures amounted to a contemplation of mortality. The cocoon or chrysalis form is familiar from earlier works, such as Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict, 1933 (Tate T06457), in which it was a sign of man’s potential. Despite the aura of shimmering white, it rests in a structure, the segmented sides of which are reminiscent of the cyclopean walls of Archaic Greece. This confrontation with mortality is contrasted with a pair of spirits, encircled by swirling auras, in the sky. Anderson has written: ‘Spirits in the arabesque shape of the primordial form fly to the help of the chrysalid on the catafalque.’[3] However, comparison to earlier images, such as The Fall of Lucifer (Tate T07731), suggests that these figures may well be ascending into the after-life. This is reinforced by the artist’s description of the image. He wrote to the Tate Gallery in 1961: ‘The “Hymn to Death” was in my mind for a great many years before I actually painted it and, like most of my works, it was a concentration of the essence of an accumulated experience. It is a vision of Death as a moment of Transfiguration’.[4] Thus the chrysalis may be seen as the death of the body, a shell sloughed off by the ascending spirits.

Twenty years later, the artist touched upon the painting in an interview related to another work, The Divine Land, 1979 (Tate T03322). Discussing his paintings set at night, he is reported to have indicated that:

Its central, chrysalis-like form represents the world’s state of sleep and the loneliness of the sleeper, who is shown as being in a tomb. This figure is about to be awakened by the angelic presence which approaches it through the night sky but is not yet hovering quite over it. The Angel’s arrival is heralded, however, by the ripples or vibrations it causes in the landscape beneath it, and correspondingly the first flush of dawn is visible on the horizon[5]

This interpretation coincides with Anderson’s reading - also derived from the artist - of the approach of an angel rather than the transfiguration of the dead implied in 1961. It also served to extend the earlier and more particular description onto a universal level in perceiving an awakening of the world from sleep.

By 1953 Collins had used ‘hymn’ in the title of a number of works, amongst the earliest of which was the drawing now known as Landscape with Heads, 1940 (Tate T01905). The present work, though labelled Hymn to Death, was exhibited under the abbreviated title in the year of its completion. In 1977, the artist requested that the Tate should revert to this title. A generic - rather than an iconographic - link underlies these works, as ‘hymn’ indicates a song of praise to God. In the year before Hymn was begun, Collins had used the title for the sexually charged image of a nude in front of a willow in Hymn to Night, 1951,[6] a work considered ‘a mature example of this symbolic art’ by Christopher Middleton.[7] Collins often found the process of painting difficult and was, according to Elisabeth Collins, prone to periods of doubt and despondency.[8] Despite the promise of transfiguration, this seems to be reflected in the contemplation of death in Hymn. In the year after its completion, he wrote to Hans Tisdall: ‘painting is so difficult, so heart breaking, but in the dark growingness throwing up small shoots of happiness - the difficulty is so inevitably mixed with the happiness, there is no describing it, there is only concentration, work, the need to keep one’s self containess from spilling, from being diluted by what a lot of people call life.’[9]

Matthew Gale
July 1998

[1] William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.71-2
[2] Tate conservation files

[3] Anderson 1988, p.150
[4] Cecil Collins, letter 15 July 1961, Tate catalogue files

[5] Cecil Collins interview with Richard Morphet, 8 Oct. 1982

[6] Repr. Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.47, no.31
[7] Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Tapestries 1928-1959, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1959, p.8
[8] Elisabeth Collins, conversation with the author, 8 March 1996
[9] Cecil Collins, letter to Hans Tisdall, 4 Aug. 1954, Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.1906

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