Cecil Collins

The Artist’s Wife Seated in a Tree


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Tempera on board
Support: 600 × 490 mm
Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the Art Fund 2001

Display caption

Collins met his wife, Elizabeth Ramsden, when he was studying at the Royal College of Art. They married in 1931 and for the next sixty years she became the most important influence on his life and art. She often appears in his work as the angel or ‘anima’, representing the inner self.

In this unusual image Collins shows his wife sitting in a tree, holding in her hand a trophy symbolising eternity. The bird nesting beside her represents freedom, and possibly indicates the artist’s awareness of the emerging powers and rights of women in society.

Gallery label, February 2004

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Catalogue entry


Gum tempera on board, 607 x 507 mm (23 7/8 x 20 in)
Inscribed by the artist in green paint ‘Cecil Collins 1976’, bottom right
Inscribed by the artist on back in black oil paint, ‘FOR my VeRy DeaResT Bell | from | your ever Loving PaRc | “The ARTisT’s Wife seaTeD in a Tree” | (1976) | By | Cecil Collins | FebRuaRy 1976 | 47 Paulton’s SQUARE | Chelsea | LONDON SW3’; also inscribed in other hands on labels ‘EX-CAT | 19 | Cecil Collins’; ‘THE ARTIST’S WIFE SEATED IN A TREE’ | To be returned to | CECIL COLLINS’
Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the National Art Collections Fund 2001

The artist
Elisabeth Collins, the artist’s widow

Cecil Collins Prints, Tate Gallery, London, Aug.-Nov, 1981 (xix)
Tribute to Cecil Collins, Plymouth Arts Centre, Nov.-Dec. 1983 (8)
Cecil Collins, Festival Gallery, Aldeburgh, June 1984 ([5])
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1989, Southampton City Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Sept.-Oct. (55, repr.)
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, May- Aug.1990 (39)
Cecil Collins: Full Circle, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991 (43)

Philip Vann, ‘The Poet’s Vision’, The Artist, vol.101, no.1, Jan. 1986, p.6
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, p.174, pl.69 (col.)
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.94

In common with many late works, The Artist’s Wife Seated in a Tree was painted on soft fibrous Sundeala board. The pattern of the machining and the vertical strokes used to apply the white ground remain visible through the dominant yellow ochre rubbed into the surface. The artist called this paint a ‘commercially available tempera ... glue being the binder’;[1] conservation notes equate it with gouache.[2] The figure was drawn in pencil, before the ochre forms and white highlights were added. The foliage has a mottled effect as if applied with a sponge. Over this, the details were added in the same green as that used for the tufts of grass. The main counterpoint to the dominant ochre is the vivid blue of the stream and the water in the chalice.

Elisabeth Collins was a perennial source of inspiration for Collins from their marriage in 1931. The familiar names that they used for each other appear in the inscription on the reverse. The composition reworks that of a 1944 print of the same title made on a Roneo office duplicating machine.[3] This complies with Collins’s procedure of re-using his own images or those of others as a source for new works, as discussed in relation to The Golden Wheel (Tate T00431). In the print the figure was slightly larger in relation to the tree, a disproportion that brings out ‘inner meaning’.[4] The print also had clouds - ‘a threshold image’[5] - and birds in the sky; one bird is visible in the underdrawing of the painting but was not painted-in. In the painting, the artist’s wife has longer hair and the ground is given greater solidity. She wears the same dress, has the same bird and chalice.

The image is one of enlightenment. Richard Morphet has identified related prints from the 1940s as equating the flowering of the tree to the spiritual flowering of its occupant.[6] The conjunction may also be associated with the iconography of a man climbing a tree in order to witness Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The grasped chalice, which appears in such works as The Artist and his Wife, 1939 (Tate T07733), may here be filled with waters of inspiration. Together with the pattern of flames and eyes on her dress, they confirm the achievement of this higher goal. Collins favoured strong yellows in this period and, appropriately, the effect of the rubbed surface of The Artist’s Wife Seated in a Tree is to give the impression of light emanating from behind the subject.

Matthew Gale
March 1996

[1] Tate conservation questionnaire, 9 Dec. 1988
[2] Tate conservation files

[3] Repr. Richard Morphet, Cecil Collins Prints, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1981, p.17, no.12
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., p.16

[6] Ibid.

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