Cecil Collins

The Artist and his Wife


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Oil paint on canvas
Image: 1200 × 900 mm
Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the Art Fund 2001


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

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Display caption

Cecil Collins and his wife, the painter, Elisabeth, are shown in their house, Swan Cottage, in front of a window looking onto the Devon landscape. The format is deliberately reminiscent of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraiture. The figures and the interior are linked to the landscape through the repetition of the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of eternal life, which each artist holds and which appears on the hill in the background. The chalice on the domestic table gives the setting a sacramental quality, while the idealised view might suggest a modern Eden before the Fall. 

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 1213 x 914 mm (47 3/4 x 36 in)
Inscribed by the artist in red oil paint ‘Cecil Collins | 1939’ bottom left
Inscribed by the artist on back, in black oil paint, ‘THE ARTIST AND HIS WIFE | (Cecil Collins) | (1939)’ top centre; in white chalk, ‘89’ in a circle
Inscribed by the artist on three labels: ‘“The ARtist and his Wife” | (1939) | By | CECIL COLLINS | (47ins x 36ins)’; ‘The ARTS Council | EXHIBITION | “ThiRties | BRitish ARt and Design”’; ‘HAYWARD GalleRy | LONDON | 24th October 1979 | To 13th January 1980’, upper centre; on four labels ‘LENT By | MRS CECIL COLLINS | NOT FOR SALE | <...>; ‘THE ARTIST AND HIS WIFE | (1939) | By CECil COLLINS’; ‘Size | 36ins x 47ins’; ‘C. Collins | 15-25 SELWYN GARDENS | CAMBRIDGE’ on central stretcher bar; and on three labels ‘CECil COLLINS | Retrospective Exhibition | 1936-68 | The HAmet GAllery | 8 CORK Street | LONDON W1 | October 21st - November 25th’; ‘PRIVATE COLLECTION’; ‘CECIL COLLINS | 47 Paultons Square | Chelsea | London SW3 | Tel 352-4243’ lower centre
Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the National Art Collections Fund 2001

The artist
Elisabeth Collins, the artist’s widow

Panorama, Barn Studio, Dartington Hall, Devon, March-April 1940 (3)
Cecil Collins, Alex. Reid and Lefevre, London, Feb. 1944 (16)
Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, Benson Hall, Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1949 (no catalogue traced)
Modern British Painting 1900-1949, Heffer Gallery, Cambridge, Oct.-Nov. 1949 (66)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Tapestries 1928-1959, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Nov.-Dec. 1959 (21, as Portrait of the Artist and his Wife)
Cecil Collins: Drawings, Watercolours, Gouaches and Paintings 1936-1968, Hamet Gallery, London, Nov. 1972 (2)
The Thirties: British Art and Design Before the War, Hayward Gallery, London, Oct. 1979-Jan.1980 (6.13, repr., as Portrait of the Artist and his Wife)
A Paradise Lost: the Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, Barbican Art Gallery, London, May-July 1987 (47, col. repr. p.17)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1989, Southampton City Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Sept.-Oct. (15, repr.) repr. in col. p.45 and back cover
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, May - Aug. 1990 (38)
Cecil Collins: Full Circle, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991 (15, repr.)


W.G. B[oscene], ‘Exhibition of Modern Art: 1 Panorama’, News of the Day (Dartington Hall newsletter), no. 1026, 12 March 1940, p.2
Stephen Spender, ‘The Work and Opinions of Cecil Collins’, Horizon, vol.9, no.50, Feb. 1944, p.117
Maurice Collis, ‘Harry Morley; The Poles; Cecil Collins’, Time and Tide, 12 Feb. 1944, pp.134-5
W.G.H., ‘Art’, Cambridge Review, 5 Nov. 1949, vol.71, no.1724, pp.110-12
Malcolm Ruel, ‘An Interesting Exhibition’, Varsity Supplement, vol.2, no.6, Oct. 1949, p.6
H.S.D., ‘Art’, Cambridge Review, 5 Nov. 1949, p.112
James Burr, ‘Into Something Rich and Strange’, Apollo, vol.97, Nov. 1972, p.446, repr.
Terence Mullaly, ‘Painting Strange but Potently Poetical’, Daily Telegraph, 2 Nov. 1972, p.14
Richard Shone, ‘Cecil Collins, Stephen Tennant’, Arts Review, vol.28, no.14, 9 July 1976, p.350 (as The Artist and his Wife Seated at a Table)
‘Cecil Collins, Theatre of the Soul. A Conversation with Brian Keeble’, Temenos, no.1, 1981, pp.69, 76, pl.2
Helena Drysdale, ‘Cecil Collins: “The Quest for Paradise”’, unpublished BA thesis, University of Cambridge, 1982, p.15
Sir John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: vol. 3 Hennell to Hockney, London 1984, p.123
Philip Vann, ‘The Poet’s Vision’, The Artist, vol.101, no.1, Jan. 1986, pp.5-6, repr. p.4
Peter Fuller, ‘London, Barbican Centre, The Neo-Romantics’, Burlington Magazine, vol.129, July 1987, p.473
William Anderson, ‘A View of Paradise’, Resurgence, no. 124, Sept.-Oct. 1987, p.21
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.51-52, 62, 79, 114, 119, 120, 125, 134, 169, repr. pl.29 (col.)
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1989, pp.18, 80
Mary Rose Beaumont, ‘Summer Exhibitions at the Tate: Cecil Collins’, Arts Review, vol.49, no.11, 2 June 1989, p.438
William Feaver, ‘Purple Heart’, Observer, 14 May 1989, p.47
Brian Morton, ‘Shadows of a Lost Eden’, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 26 May 1989, p.17
Peter Fuller, ‘Cecil Collins: A New Dawn?’, Modern Painters, vol.2, no.2, Summer 1989, p.31, repr. in col.
William Anderson, ‘Obituaries: Cecil Collins’, Independent, 6 June 1989, p.18, repr.

‘Round the Art Galleries’, Listener, vol.31 no.788, 17 Feb. 1944, p.190
Alex Comfort, Cecil Collins: Paintings and Drawings 1935-45, Oxford 1946, [p.22]
William Gaunt, ‘On the Slopes of Parnassus I - Cecil Collins’, World Review, Sept. 1950, p.32
William Packer, ‘London’, Art and Artists, vol.7, no.9, Dec. 1972, p.44
Peter Fuller, ‘The Avant-Garde Again’, Art and Design, vol.3, no.7/8, 1987, p.21
Marina Vaizey, ‘The Quest for Paradise’, Sunday Times, 24 May 1987 (detail with artist himself)
William Anderson, ‘Cecil Collins and the Singing Sea’, Resurgence, no.128, May-June 1988, p.29, in col.
Andrew Lambirth, ‘Cecil Collins: The World of the Heart’, Artists and Illustrators, no.24, Sept. 1988, p.15 in col.
‘Cecil Collins’ (obituary), Daily Telegraph, 6 June 1989 (detail with artist himself)

Cecil Collins was thirty-one when he completed The Artist and his Wife in 1939. Its size and achievement announce it as a major endeavour and a deliberately programmatic painting. The canvas was painted at Swan Cottage, Weirfields at Totnes in Devon. The Collinses were already associated with Dartington Hall but did not move there until late 1939. Not far from this bungalow was ‘the river Dart . . . punctuated by a weir’.[1] There were swans on the river but their presence in the painting may also allude to the name of the cottage. According to Elisabeth Collins,[2] the artist’s makeshift studio was in one of the two rooms at the front of the house which, by way of contrast to the rural surroundings, was shielded by a tall hedge from a suburban road and was so close to the railway station that the trains woke them at night.

A thick primer was applied to the canvas and over a number of tacks driven through the front (centre, top and bottom), which have become visible. Typically for the artist, the surface was given a rough texture which was not related to specific details of the final image.[3] On top of this, the handling of paint was complex. Use of the brush was combined with scraping - especially in the landscape, sky and floor - and linear scratching, which provided the white details in the garden, in the hair of both sitters and the artist’s beard. This ‘negative’ drawing may be related to the artist’s technique of ‘white writing’ (drawing in white ink) which he shared with Mark Tobey at Dartington. The paint on The Artist and his Wife was also rubbed into the surface, combining dry and wet on wet working to produce a patinated effect. The working and re-working of the faces in this process seems, particularly in the image of the artist himself, to have resulted in paint losses at the time of working. Changes in the handling behind both heads suggest that they have been made narrower.[4] Further changes are revealed by comparison with an early photograph of the painting.[5] This shows that, as has been discussed in relation to The Cells of Night (Tate T01478),[6] the eyes of both sitters were originally without pupils. Furthermore, the jaw-line, chin and cheek of Elisabeth Collins’ face were more pronounced, her forehead was narrower and her nose broader; the effect was both more charicatural and more flattened - a tendency in harmony with the rest of the composition. Elisabeth Collins herself has explained that the refinement of her features resulted from the objections of her parents.[7] Although she added that they did not really understand Collins’ work, the painting was hung in their house (near Halifax in Yorkshire) during the war, presumably for safe-keeping. It is not certain exactly when the changes were undertaken, but the revised features may be compared to those of Elisabeth, the Artist’s Wife, 1950 (private collection).[8]

The precision of the details and the compositional scheme in The Artist and his Wife may be attributable to the fact that Collins, by his own account, made preparatory drawings.[9] This was a departure from his usual practice, but gives some indication of the planned intricacy of the result. The composition is divided into two zones: the realm of the sitters and the view from the window. The broad areas of the interior are balanced by the exacting detail of the garden beyond, but each is only partially realistic. The reverse perspective of the table has the effect of lifting it towards the picture plane, a treatment repeated in the thematically related drawing The Artist’s Wife Lighting a Lamp, 1942 (private collection).[10] In The Artist and his Wife, this device, the treatment of the fruit plate and the chalice, and the rhythmic table legs and splayed chair legs all adapt Cubist vocabulary.

Collins is known to have been interested in Cubism. Two years after completing the painting he spoke of Cubism as ‘restoring the structural sense in pictures’.[11] He also admired Picasso, whose still-lifes with candles and jugs were reproduced in XXe Siècle in early 1939;[12] a copy of this number of the bilingual periodical remains in Collins’s studio. This interest may have been shared and reinforced by Hein Heckroth with whom he taught at Dartington. Although Elisabeth Collins does not recall seeing them,[13] Heckroth’s paintings of 1939 moved freely between an illusionistic Surrealism and the patterned Cubism of Still-life II, c.1939 (private collection).[14] Even Tobey had used such a vocabulary of form, as is evident from the Cubistic chalice and dish of fruit in his pastel Still-life - England, 1932 (collection Mr and Mrs John C Denman, Bellevue, Washington).[15] Collins may have known this work, as a number of such still lifes appeared in Tobey’s exhibitions at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London in 1934 and at Dartington in July 1937.

The effect achieved by all three artists was a denial of orthodox pictorial perspective through a flattening of the objects up to the picture plane. In The Artist and his Wife, Collins suggested only a shallow space by shading around the edges of forms (the table, the window and the junction of the floor and wall). He told Brian Keeble that his modified perspective served ‘emotional reasons ... and, if you like, spiritual reasons’, although he added that there were ‘compositional functions of leading the eye from one episode to another’.[16] This ambiguity is also found in the realism and drawing of the two figures. Judith Collins has indicated that the artist had just such a green suit.[17] However, the bodies of both sitters are deliberately stiff and the artist’s wife appears to float in front of her chair. This conveys her ethereal presence, appropriate to her role as his muse, which is enhanced by the green halo formed by the lawn behind.

Just the same ambiguities appear in the view through the window, in which the garden combines with a wilder domain beyond. Calling its depiction ‘naturalistic’, Elisabeth Collins has recalled that this was exactly how the garden looked.[18] Although she suggested that the pond was added from the artist’s imagination, looking back in 1982 he had suggested that it was an expression ‘in one all-encompassing form’ of the nearby River Dart.[19] The swans - with their associations of beauty and silence - share the water with a naked couple in a boat, who may be a transformation of the sitters into a pre-lapsarian state. A single white-cloaked figure to the right, and five others gather on the shore. The pond is placed below a hill which may conflate one visible from the house,[20] with one seen on entering the Dartington estate.[21] The triangular based trees, with branches and foliage shown as if in section, contained within the hill’s profile are close to the slightly later Landscape with Hills and River, 1943 (former collection Sir Michael Culme-Seymour).[22] The exclusion of any reference to the suburban site of Swan Cottage in The Artist and his Wife serves to emphasise the pastoral idyll envisaged in the simple abundance of life in the garden. The only jarring detail is the central flaming brazier, but its place in the cycle of red details (tie, lips, brazier, lips, chalice, chair, fruit, signature) suggests that it is a symbol of love; William Anderson has called the painting ‘a celebration of his [Collins’s] marriage to Elisabeth after eight years’.[23]

There are other colour echoes. The two zones of the composition are united by the green of the artist’s suit, the treatment of which resembles and draws in the landscape. Judith Collins has also observed that: ‘The leaves scattered on the table link the interior with the exterior world.’[24] In this play of colour, the dress worn by the artist’s wife sets her apart. Its combination of the white skirt with the golden top is found in the centrally placed chalice, which also rhymes with her wasp-waisted form. This reinforces the way in which the artist attributed an other-worldly presence to his wife.

Although their eyes do not meet, the sitters appear to commune through the enigmatic objects assembled on the table. The form of the chalice may be compared with that held by the figure in the drawing of The Pilgrim, 1935 (private collection),[25] suggesting its function as the revered goal of a quest. The inclusion of ankhs, the Egyptian sign of life, in the painting may reflect Collins’s interest in the unity of faiths propounded by Bahá’íism, to which he had been introduced by Tobey. Judith Collins has noted, of the religious atmosphere of the painting, that the sitters:

seem about to partake of a sacramental meal, with fruit and two chalices . . . and with both of them holding an ankh in their . . . painting hands. Collins sees the domestic table laid with various simple objects or with a white cloth as symbolic of an altar. Thus this double portrait represents these two artists as priests in a ritual.[26]

The extension of this ritual into the landscape is assured by the echo of the chalice in the brazier and by the third ankh which appears in the grove at the top of the hill.

William Anderson, deriving much of his information from discussions with Collins in the 1980s, has indicated a crisis for the painter in 1939 just before The Artist and his Wife was made in the autumn. Anderson characterised it as a ‘conflict between his heart and his intellect’, resolved by the determination that the latter should ‘defend what was his treasure’.[27] The first indications of this resolution were to be found in the double portrait, which demonstrated ‘the reconciliation of the inner side of human nature - the feminine qualities of the soul - with the outer side - the masculine, intellectual and practical qualities of the mind directed to the world.’[28] In a later passage, Anderson acknowledges the Jungian terms of this interpretation. [29] Such an assessment also fits with Collins’s view of Elisabeth as his muse. A number of details were interpreted in the light of this position:

A chalice holding the waters of inspiration stands on the table in front of her and each in their right hand holds a crux anstata or ankh, the Egyptian symbol of eternity. The wind has blown the leaves of love on to the table ... [which] has curlicued spiral legs, as though the energies from the earth are drawn up through them into awareness.[30]

Anderson saw the visionary world outside the window as ‘the true source of inspiration’, as suggested by the ankh on the ‘sacred hill’. He concluded:

Three worlds appear in this painting: the physical world of the bodies, tables and pepperpots all transfigured by the meaning that comes through the window mediated by the second world, that of the garden and the temple which is the meeting place between the physical world and the third world, that of the universal psyche in the lake and on the hill. Here the reversed perspective of the table hands on yet another meaning: what is outermost in the painting is innermost in its symbolic meaning [31]

Such an interpretation of the symbolic order may be accepted as one broadly sanctioned by the artist himself. This is confirmed in the reappearance of the chalice and the anhk in the contemporary canvas Dawn, 1939 (private collection).[32]

To Anderson’s interpretation of The Artist and his Wife should be added the context, beyond the safety of Swan Cottage, in which it was made. The Collinses had moved to Devon in 1936 with the encouragement of Tobey and participated in his classes at Dartington. There Collins exhibited in the Barn Studio in 1937 and, as Anderson has pointed out, his works were criticised in the establishment’s newsletter as ‘so private and so intensely personal’.[33] Despite this, the painter was invited by Heckroth to share the teaching at the summer school two years later. Bernard Leach and Willi Soukop were colleagues, but Tobey had gone to the USA in 1938 and not returned because of the political situation. Dartington remained a haven for the German contingent around the Ballet Jooss, but the declaration of war in September 1939 altered their status from refugees to enemy aliens. Many, including Heckroth and Soukop, were interned in early 1940.

The Artist and his Wife was made in the midst of this turmoil. Anderson has stated that it was painted in the autumn of 1939,[34] and that the Collinses moved from Swan Cottage to Dartington in early 1940, following the internment of Heckroth, whom Collins replaced as art teacher.[35] Thus, The Artist and his Wife may have been completed after war had been declared (on 3 September). In any case, its retrospective nature reflected the acute uncertainty in the future. Collins was devastated by the return to war; Peter Goffin wrote to him on 11 September 1939:

I was glad to hear from you. The deep bitterness you feel in everything I share with you, & by reason of this madness which now surrounds us, I feel in greater need than ever to keep in touch with you, & with all the things we both love & understand. I suppose the work you were about to begin at Dartington has been abandoned? You don’t mention it in your letter, but all creative work seems to be arrested [36]

Despite this, Collins’s prospective teaching was not abandoned and he remained at Dartington until the end of 1943.

Although an element of uncertainty might be seen in the rose sky, The Artist and his Wife reflects a moment of personal and pictorial change, effectively closing Collins’s pre-war period of experimentation. Given its contemplation of the couple’s relationship, it is notable that it immediately became Elisabeth Collins’s property. It was shown at Dartington soon after completion at the Panorama exhibition,[37] and in the artist’s important London show four years later;[38] it appears as no.10 on his undated manuscript ‘Catalogue of Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins’.[39] That he continued to consider it as a major statement is confirmed by its inclusion in 1951 as one of his five ‘Chief works’.[40]

Matthew Gale
March 1996

[1] Judith Collins, Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1989, p.80
[2] Elisabeth Collins, interview with the author, 26 Feb. 1996

[3] Tate Gallery conservation files
[4] Ibid.
[5] Alex Comfort, Cecil Collins: Paintings and Drawings 1935-45, Oxford 1946, [p.22]
[6] See catalogue entry on The Cells of Night, Tate T01478
[7] Elisabeth Collins, interview with the author, 8 March 1996
[8] Repr. William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pl.43, p.68

[9] ‘Cecil Collins, Theatre of the Soul. A Conversation with Brian Keeble’, Temenos, no.1, 1981, p.69
[10] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.108, no.99

[11] Cecil Collins, ‘Art and Modern Man; A Study and Interpretation of the Problems of Modern Painting’, lecture, 1 Oct. 1941; published as ‘The Artist in Society’ in Collins, The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich 1994, p.46
[12] XXe Siècle, 1e année no.5-6, Jan-March 1939
[13] Elisabeth Collins interview, 26 Feb. 1996
[14] Repr. Hein Heckroth, 1901-1970, exh. cat., Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel 1977, no.16, fig.27
[15] Repr. Mark Tobey Retrospective, exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Fine Arts 1968, no.6

[16] ‘Cecil Collins, Theatre of the Soul. A Conversation with Brian Keeble’, Temenos, no.1, 1981, p.76
[17] Judith Collins 1989, p.80

[18] Elisabeth Collins interview, 26 Feb. 1996
[19] Helena Drysdale, ‘Cecil Collins: “The Quest for Paradise”’, unpublished BA thesis, University of Cambridge 1982, p.15, n.17
[20] Judith Collins 1989, p.18
[21] Elisabeth Collins interview, 26 Feb. 1996
[22] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.46, no.21
[23] Anderson 1988, p.51

[24] Judith Collins 1989, p.18

[25] Repr. ibid., p.99, no.71

[26] Ibid., p.18

[27] Anderson 1988, p.51
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., p.120

[30] Ibid., p.52

[31] Ibid.

[32] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.81, no.16

[33] Anderson 1988, p.49

[34] Ibid., p.51
[35] Ibid., p.58

[36] Peter Goffin, leter to Cecil Collins, 11 Sept. 1939, Tate Gallery Archive 923.4.2.551

[37] Panorama, Barn Studio, Dartington Hall, Devon, March-April 1940 (3)
[38] Cecil Collins, Alex. Reid and Lefevre, London, Feb. 1944 (16)
[39] Tate Gallery Archive 923.2.1.1
[40] Tate Gallery Questionnaire, 12 Dec. 1951, Tate catalogue files

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