Cecil Collins

The Angel of the Flowing Light


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Tempera on board
Support: 1220 × 1060 mm
frame: 1430 × 1275 × 50 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Carroll Donner Bequest 1985

Catalogue entry


Tempera on board, 1220 x 1060 mm (48 x 42 in)
Inscribed by the artist in maroon tempera ‘Cecil Collins 1968’ bottom right
Inscribed by the artist on back in blue oil paint ‘“Angel of the Flowing Light” | (1968) | by | Cecil Collins’, centre, ‘November 28th 1968 | 35 Selwyn GaRdens | CambRidge’, centre right, and ‘size: “4ft x 3ft 6ins”’ bottom left
Purchased (Carroll Donner Bequest) 1985

Acquired from the artist by Mrs Edward Gage 1973, from whom purchased 1985

Cecil Collins: Recent Paintings, Arthur Tooth and Sons, London, Sept.-Oct. 1971 (20, repr.)
Cecil Collins: Drawings, Watercolours, Gouaches and Paintings 1936-1968, Hamet Gallery, London, Nov. 1972 (21, repr.)
The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art, Tate Gallery, London, July-Sept. 1984 (38, repr. p.57)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1989, Southampton City Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Sept.-Oct. (49, repr., col. repr. p.55)
Cecil Collins: Full Circle, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991 (39, repr.)

James Burr, ‘The Hieroglyphics of Machinery’, Apollo, vol.94, Sept. 1971, p.239, repr. p.240
William Feaver, ‘London Letter’, Art International, vol.17, no.1, Jan. 1973, p.33
Kathleen Raine, Cecil Collins: Painter of Paradise, Ipswich 1979, p.23
Brian Morton, ‘Fools’ Paradise’, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 6 Sept. 1985, p.12 (as Angel of the Floating Light)
Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, London 1986, pp.84-5, repr. (col.)
John Lane, ‘Cecil Collins: To the Gates of the Sun’, Resurgence, no.122, May-June 1987, p.15, repr.
Brian Keeble, ‘Cecil Collins’, Modern Painters, vol.1, no.2, Summer 1988, p.66, repr. p.65
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-6, London 1988, pp.128-30, repr.
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.102, 125, 136, 150, 159, repr. (col.), p.166, pl.114
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, pp.21, 92
James Burr, ‘The Apollo Portrait: Cecil Collins’, Apollo, vol.129, April 1989, p.264, repr. p.265
Patrick Reyntiens, ‘Galleries’, Tablet, 20 May 1989, p.586
Brian Morton, ‘Shadows of a Lost Eden’, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 26 May 1989, p.17
William Anderson, ‘Obituaries’, Independent, 6 June 1989, p.18, repr.
Charles Pickstone, ‘Cecil Collins: Misguided Vision?’, Apollo, vol.130, Aug. 1989, p.114

Sir John Rothenstein, ‘Masters of Tomorrow’, Accent on Good Living, no.1, March 1970, p.42 (col.)
Michael Shepherd, ‘Cecil Collins’, Arts Review, vol.23, no.19, 25 Sept. 1971, p.570
‘Cecil Collins, Theatre of the Soul. A Conversation with Brian Keeble’, Temenos, no.1, 1981, pl.10, between pp.76-7
Philip Vann, ‘The Poet’s Vision’, The Artist, vol.101, no.1, Jan. 1986, on front cover (col.)
Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich, 1994, p.160, pl.16 (col.), and on front cover (col.)

The precision of The Angel of the Flowing Light may run against the spontaneity of Collins’s Matrix technique of the previous decade, but it suggests the ease of its conception and sure resolution. On sundeala board primed with white, it was painted in what the artist identified as ‘glue tempera’.[1] The texture of the board and the vertical brush strokes of the priming are made visible in the sky by the rubbing down of layers of rose, green and black paint. The underlying rose is also visible in the landscape, suggesting that it had extended across the whole board. The triangular mountains are built up in layers of blue-green and bluish purple glazes. Some of these, and particularly a layer of black, appear to have been lifted-off again to create the spirals. The figure was treated in the same way, but additional details - especially on the wings - were made in white impasto and then glazed in a soft peach colour. The black outline of the figure appears to be the residue of the black glaze that covered the whole of the sky but was rubbed away elsewhere. The artist is reported to have confirmed that this delicate process consisted of ‘twelve separate layers of colour harmonies, each one glazed’.[2]

The hieratic image of The Angel of the Flowing Light provided a succinct encapsulation of one of Collins’s most important archetypal figures. Although angels had featured in his pre-war works, they appeared in especial concentration with the Christian religious paintings of the 1950s and 1960s. With their air of omniscience, they come to replace the innocent fool in this period. Of these works, The Angel of the Flowing Light most closely relates to The Guardian of Paradise, 1963 (private collection),[3] both containing angels which dominate the composition with outstretched wings. However, the earlier painting - a Matrix work -was more ominous in atmosphere. Kathleen Raine, remarking upon the ‘grandeur’ and ‘solemnity’ of Collins’s angels, wrote that the eyes of The Angel of the Flowing Light, ‘express at once knowledge, sorrow and judgement, but in a mode utterly removed from the human.’ She added: ‘Such a figure, too powerful for any secular art gallery, should be in a shrine dedicated to St Michael and All Angels’.[4] It may be this description which encouraged William Anderson to say that the painting had been created for a meditation room,[5] a suggestion denied both by the artist,[6] and by the evidence of the first owner.[7]

After its purchase by the Tate Gallery, Collins discussed The Angel of the Flowing Light in interviews with Richard Morphet (11 March 1985) and Judith Collins (13 July 1988). The results formed the basis of the entry concerned with the painting in Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-6.[8] There the angel was seen as an archetypal figure mediating between metaphysical and everyday realities. How this manifested itself in the image was discussed in detail, although it was accepted that no single reading could be considered as ‘fixed’. Noting the coincidence of the colour of the sky and the mountains in the Angel’s dress and face, the setting was identified as helping to define its role: ‘The sky ... is suffused with the soft warm light of dawn, because the angel is a dawn angel, who is the realisation of the light and the coming of the new day.’ Anderson’s suggestion that the mountains relate to the clay spoil heaps that Collins would have seen in his childhood,[9] was also noted.[10] The multiple aspects of the figure were found in the columnar body, which ‘is also a tree, with its wings as branches bearing fruit’, and in the wings, which suggest those of a butterfly, ‘an insect which undergoes a transformation from one state, the larval chrysalis, into another of aerial flight.’[11] Other details are resonant: the gaze of the ‘heart-shaped’ head ‘suggests both judgement and love. Collins speaks of it having the quality of “austere tenderness”. From the area of the angel’s heart flows a fountain of water, which is also an emanation of light and energy.’[12]

Collins also elaborated upon the relationship between technique and image. He explained his preference for working on board as a way of guarding against self-expression, adding that he liked ‘the “feeling of austerity” created by painting on a hard surface’. While this was generally related to Medieval and Renaissance panel painting, the use of glazes allowed ‘the emanation of light coming through ... [to give] an inner radiance to the painting which is as much metaphysical as technical in character.’[13]

As well as drawing upon conversations with the artist, the Tate Gallery Acquisitions entry quoted Collins’s discussion of the angel archetype in two published interviews. In 1987, he spoke to John Lane about The Angel of the Flowing Light. Discussing the wings as a suggestion of freedom, he added that, ‘Angels belong to the open sky of eternity. They live the oxygen of God, the only reality which keeps us alive. They are also images of what is the highest in us.’[14] In 1981, Collins had spoken to Brian Keeble at greater length and more generally about his conception of angels:

The angelic tradition or the angelic intelligence is that which connects all the worlds and very often visits this world and enters into ... the battlefield of this world. And they exist to transform our consciousness, to open our awareness - and contemplation of their beauty purifies us ... Now this vision of the Angels is an expansion of our awareness wherein the Angels are instruments of transformation and through their flow of love they are very close to us ... They are the vision of God, the winged thoughts of the Divine Mind.[15]

In the same conversation, Collins dismissed the rationalisation of symbolism through iconographic interpretation, suggesting instead that ‘the symbol is an instrument of evocation ... to set in motion an articulation of the Soul’.[16]

It is notable, however, that Collins’s works of this period are rooted in an intelligible symbolism - with traditional associations - as distinct from the purely personal meanings of the early visionary works. The fountain falling from the angel’s heart in The Angel of the Flowing Light represented the life-giving source to which the title referred. This made plain what had only been alluded to in The Promise, 1936 (Tate T01692), where a similar spring had appeared. Collins’s use of more traditional symbolism was partially a function of his increasing accommodation of orthodox Christian imagery from the 1950s onwards. The artist drew Richard Morphet’s attention to the Byzantine qualities of The Angel of the Flowing Light.[17] It is also notable that the painting was completed at the end of the year (it is inscribed ‘28th November’) in which he had made illustrations for three books of the Oxford Illustrated Old Testament - Psalms, Ezekiel and the Song of Solomon. Anderson has linked the precision of these drawings to the painting’s resolution as distinct from the informality of the Matrix works,[18] and Collins himself called it ‘absolutely complete’.[19]

Matthew Gale
April 1996

[1] Tate conservation questionnaire, 9 Dec. 1988
[2] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-6, London 1988, p.130

[3] Repr. Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.51, no.42, (col.)
[4] Kathleen Raine, Cecil Collins: Painter of Paradise, Ipswich 1979, p.23
[5] William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, p.120
[6] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-6, p.129
[7] Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.499

[8] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-6, pp.129-30
[9] Anderson 1988 p.150
[10] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-6, p.129
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] John Lane, ‘Cecil Collins: To the Gates of the Sun’, Resurgence, no.122, May-June 1987, p.14

[15] ‘Cecil Collins, Theatre of the Soul. A Conversation with Brian Keeble’, Temenos, no.1, 1981, pp.74-5

[16] Ibid., p.83

[17] Cecil Collins, interview with Richard Morphet, 11 March 1985
[18] Anderson 1988, p.102
[19] Interview, 11 March 1985

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