Cecil Collins

The Cells of Night


Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 635 mm
frame: 921 × 795 × 80 mm
Purchased 1971

Display caption

This is one of the earliest paintings in which Collins expressed his ideas about the life of the human spirit. The human head in the foreground represents the psyche. The landscape behind, seen in dramatic recession, represents infinity. The distortion of the head symbolises the human psyche’s yearning for infinity. The ‘Cells’ of the title refer to the organisms and natural phenomena that make up the Universe. The breaking of dawn, indicated through the light colour of the sky, signifies the possibility of re-birth. These were all important themes in Collins’s work at the time.

Gallery label, June 2021

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 762 x 635 mm (30 x 25 in)
Inscribed by the artist in black oil paint ‘Cecil Collins 1934’ bottom right
Inscribed by the artist on back in blue paint ‘No.4’ on top canvas return; and in sequence in black oil paint ‘the Cells of Night’, top centre; ‘Cecil Collins | 1934’ centre, ‘Painting 3’ bottom centre. Stamped ‘Winsor & Newton | Student’ centre
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1971

Purchased from the artist through the Hamet Gallery, London 1971

Exhibition of Paintings by Cecil Collins, Bloomsbury Gallery, London, Oct. 1935 (4)
Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins, The Barn Studio, Dartington Hall, Devon, June 1937 (5)
Britain’s Contribution to Surrealism of the 30’s and 40’s, Hamet Gallery, London, Nov. 1971 (22)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des beaux arts, Brussels, 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (10, repr. p.20)
The Prints of Cecil Collins, Tate Gallery, London, Aug.-Nov, 1981 (i, 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. (5, repr. p.42, in col.)
Cecil Collins: Full Circle, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991 (5, repr.)

Tate Gallery Report and Acquisitions 1970-1972, London 1972, pp.93-5, repr.
Simon Wilson, British Art: From Holbein to the Present Day, London 1979, pp.149-51, repr. p.148
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.37-8, 105, 119, 120, 134, 153, 177, repr. p.45, pl.22 (col.)
Frances Spalding, ‘The Eye of the Heart’, RA Magazine, no.22, Spring 1988, pp.34-7, repr. p.37 (col.)
Frances Spalding, ‘Cecil Collins: the Quest for the Great Happiness’ [book review], Burlington Magazine, vol.130, Sept. 1988, p.709
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, pp.14-15, 18, 24, 76, repr. p.42 (col.)
William Feaver, ‘Purple Heart’, Observer, 14 May 1989, p.47

Jeremy Lewison, ‘Aspects de l’art anglais dans les années trente’, Années 30 en Europe: Le Temps menaçant 1929-1939, exh. cat., Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1997, p.80

The handling and surface of The Cells of Night are remarkable, especially in the creation of the lunar craters behind the head. The artist told Judith Collins that his general practice had been to achieve such texture with lead white oil paint, which could take up to six weeks to dry, and, that ‘he used to scratch into it with a needle to further enliven the texture’.[1] This process was used across the whole ground of such paintings as A Song, 1934 (private collection),[2] but on the commercially prepared canvas of The Cells of Night it was confined to this single lunar area and was more exaggerated in handling. In places the accretion of paint is 1/8 inch thick and remains ‘soft’ and ‘rubbery’.[3] It has been worked and coloured in such a way as to emphasise the craters as concentrated pools of white dispersing into the pale-grey needled surface. Collins glazed and scumbled the areas of the head, sky and land, although it is not clear if this process was applied across the whole surface. He recalled that, to achieve the glazes, he diluted his paint in a medium of 1/3 linseed oil : 1/3 Damar or copal resin : 1/3 turpentine.[4] White oil paint was applied and then scraped back with a knife to reveal this preliminary layer, with the process leaving the weave of the canvas exposed in places (especially in the upper left quarter). Red forms are visible in this preliminary layer both at the bridge of the nose - where they have penetrated to the reverse of the ground - and in the sky and land, level with the top of the head. Inspection of the work indicates that the areas of the composition had probably been laid out before the application of the lunar surface but that the orange glazes of the earth, which were applied around the three flowers, encroach on the edges of this impasto. The painting has suffered a number of abrasions, and some distortion was caused by labels (now removed) applied to the back by the artist for the 1971 Hamet Gallery exhibition.[5]

The Cells of Night was painted at the Collinses’ London flat at 52 Redcliffe Road and was of considerable importance to the artist; he showed it in both his solo exhibitions of the 1930s: at the Bloomsbury Gallery, London (1935) and at Dartington Hall (1937). It was no.9 in his undated manuscript ‘Catalogue of Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins’.[6] Although it remained with him until its purchase by the Tate Gallery, letters amongst Collins’s papers indicate that Eardley Knollys of the Storran Gallery sent it on approval to unnamed potential buyers in 1938.[7] That this negotiation was attempted at all is an indication of the artist’s considerable economic difficulty at the time.

The composition places the roughly triangular female head in the foreground against the three-part division behind. These areas may be understood as a night sky (with comets), moon and earth (with flowers). The colour of each of these areas is echoed in the head: the blue-purple appears in the lines of the pupils of the eyes, the white determines the complexion and orange provides the shading of the features and the colouring of the hair. The triangles of orange and blue together roughly equate to the area of white between. The strong diagonals of the composition that result, are stabilised by the flat top of the head and by the concentration of detail in the lower half of the canvas.

Amongst these details a number are especially striking. In the largest flower nests an orange striped insect or chrysalis with a miniature face. Although reminiscent of sixteenth and seventeenth-century memento mori, in which worms inhabit fruit and flowers as symbols of transience, the association of a chrysalis for Collins was with regeneration and self-realisation. Judith Collins has commented upon his elaboration of this symbolism during 1934, noting Christological parallels for the three stages of the insect - from ‘mundane caterpillar’ to ‘carapaced chrysalis, and the brightly coloured winged butterfly’.[8] As well as this suggestion of redemption, the insect with human face within a flower in The Cells of Night may be associated with William Blake’s frontispiece for For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, 1793.[9] This shows a swaddled child on a oak leaf; it is made to appear cocoon-like, and the life-cycle - hinted at by the conjunction with the title What is Man? - is indicated by the presence of a caterpillar above. Thus, whether consciously or not, Collins’s use of the chrysalis symbol continued an established iconography.

The same may be said of another detail in The Cells of Night: the head’s up-turned eyes. The head is based upon Elisabeth Collins’s features, as she has confirmed in noting that it was ‘Cecil’s idea of me at the moment’.[10] Comparison with the white line drawing, Portrait of Elisabeth, 1935 (Dartington Hall Trust)[11] substantiates this in the repetition of the long elegant nose and the central parting of her hair. It also shows the eyes rolled up. These signal introspection, as they follow the traditional sign of inner vision found in late classical sculpture and medieval icons. While claiming this capacity of concentration upon an inner life for his own work, Collins invested his wife and muse with this privileged vision. Significantly, another drawing of Elisabeth’s head was reproduced on the cover of the catalogues of both of Collins’s exhibitions (October 1935 and June 1937). Its triangular distortion is extremely close to that found in The Cells of Night, although it is reversed (probably in making the block for the print); the eyes are blank and, as confirmation of her inspired status, rays spring from the parting in her hair. Furthermore, the raised up eyes recurred in the final state of Collins’s important double portrait, The Artist and His Wife, 1939 (Tate T07733) and, significantly, the earlier state of the painting illustrated by Alex Comfort shows both sitters with blank eyes.[12] These examples confirm an important consistency of imagery associating the key attribute of vision to Collins’s personal source of inspiration.

A complex interaction of such ideas underlies these details in The Cells of Night, linking the female with the cosmic, with nature and the liberation of night. William Anderson has observed that in it Collins, ‘brings together his love for Elisabeth and his cosmic preoccupations’.[13] As the title itself suggests, a balance was achieved between microcosm and macrocosm - between the constituent ‘cells’ and the cosmic ‘night’. This is particularly the case with the details in the upper section, which may be seen either as active microscopic cells or as meteors seen at night. Collins called an ensuing series of paintings Microcosms (1936-8), listing them together as a group.[14]

In the year after the completion of The Cells of Night Collins outlined a number of these ideas in the catalogue of his first exhibition (Bloomsbury Gallery, 1935), in which the painting was included. In stating there that, ‘My works are visual music of the kingdoms of the imagination’, he established parallels between music and painting. He also went on to combine his visionary intentions with suggestions of an underlying spiritual sympathy between individuals: ‘There is in all human beings a secret, personal life ... of which all public life is the enemy. It is this sensitive life which my art is created to feed and sustain, this real life deep in each person. Thus my art is truly functional.’[15] In a further passage Collins linked this contemplative vision to a deliberately cosmic analogy for painting: ‘art is not a rocket - it is a star that can be looked at through a telescope and be measured, talked about, and yet still live in inviolate eternity.’

The exploration of these theories in 1934-5 came at a moment of especial fluidity in Collins’s outlook. As The Fall of Lucifer and Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict (Tate T06457) demonstrate, he explored a personal visionary art at the same time as being open to the influence of Surrealism. In formulating his own ideas he was also drawn to other sources. Although on a number of occasions Collins rejected any comparison with William Blake,[16] the nineteenth century artist’s position outside the orthodoxy of materialism seemed prophetic of the decay into which many felt Europe had fallen in the turbulent 1930s. This view was held by Eric Gill, who introduced Collins to the Catholic revivalism of Jacques Maritain’s influential book Art and Scholasticism.[17] Collins also explored the mysticism of the seventeenth-century poets like Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne.[18]

Beyond the European tradition lay the alternative offered by Indian and Chinese philosophy. In 1935, Peter Goffin called the painter ‘a guardian of the spirit’,[19] and at the outbreak of war, he wrote to Collins about re-reading the contemporary commentaries of Lin Yutang: ‘His two books “The Importance of Living” & “My Country & My People” make me feel that the Chinese are the only mature civilised people.’ He remarked that Collins had read the first of these.[20] Ancient texts of the East were also being translated by such scholars as Arthur Waley of the British Museum, whom Collins met at Dartington in the late 1930s. However, perhaps most influential on the artist was Mark Tobey. Collins was impressed by the American artist’s 1934 exhibition; Tobey stayed at Springhill (the Collinses’ second Speen cottage) in 1935 and they followed him to Devon in the following year. At the time of The Cells of Night their friendship was just beginning, but the older artist’s encounter with the art and philosophy of China and Japan must have been of particular interest. The Bahá’í faith, to which Tobey adhered, is based upon the unity of all faiths as manifestations of a single creative power (thus considering Buddha, Mohammed and Christ, as prophets of the same God). Bahá’íism opened up the sort of unity of vision which Collins was seeking and, although he does not appear to have converted officially, Elisabeth Collins has confirmed that her husband kept a book of Bahá’í prayers in his studio.[21]

The details and associated personal theories were considerably enlarged upon in a discussion of The Cells of Night published by the Tate Gallery and based upon conversations with the artist in the first half of 1972.[22] There Collins was reported as having observed of the above passages from his 1935 catalogue that ‘this sensitive inner life is sustained by cosmic life. While each individual’s life has its own personal colour, the archaic primary life deep within . . ., with which his art is concerned, is common to all who apprehend it’. The ‘music of the kingdoms of the imagination’, also discussed in 1935, may have led to the later reference to his reading of Plato and interest in the ‘concept of the music of the spheres’.

In the same account of 1972 the head was identified as, ‘the human anima or psyche which . . . recurs throughout his work,’ and its distortion, ‘indicates the longing of the psyche for infinity/eternity,’ suggested by the dramatic recession behind.[23] The importance of night, signalled in the title, was discussed, ‘as the time when, while the world sleeps and mundane reality disappears in darkness, the psyche awakes, assuming a heightened consciousness, in which aspects of spiritual reality that are not normally perceived can be identified’. The artist recognised in the painting’s night sky ‘an intimation of dawn’ which, as a ‘metaphor for ... a new consciousness’, was a theme particularly prevalent in later works such as The Angel of the Flowing Light, 1968 (Tate T03971). Related associations for The Cells of Night included Collins’s interest in alchemy:

This picture is in the realm of silver which, as the strange luminous ambience suggests, is that of the moon. It is the realm in which ... curious powers of magnetism of all kinds are at work ... it is a time of metamorphosis ... in which the soul is reborn, as a new self emerges from within the old.

Above all, Collins saw the painting as part of the establishment of a new consciousness with which he had been concerned in the 1930s. Paraphrasing the artist’s view of the ‘inexorability of change’, the same article concludes: ‘The Cells of Night proposes a visionary approach to painting centred on spiritual states to the exclusion of any particular concern with the visually observed world. Collins emphasises that this concern is not social or psychological, but cosmic.’[24]

Matthew Gale
July 1998

[1] Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.15
[2] Repr. ibid., p.77, no.6
[3] Tate conservation files
[4] Ibid.

[5] Tate conservation files; Britain’s Contribution to Surrealism of the 30’s and 40’s, Hamet Gallery, London, Nov. 1971

[6] Tate Archive TGA 923.2.1.1
[7] Eardley Knollys, letters to Cecil Collins, 13 Sept. and 10 Dec. 1938, Tate Archive TGA 923.4.3.482-3

[8] Judith Collins 1989, p.13
[9] Republished in The Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Nonesuch Press, 1925, I, p.338

[10] Elisabeth Collins, interview with the author, 26 Feb. 1996
[11] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.63, no.75 (col.)
[12] Alex Comfort, Cecil Collins, Oxford 1946 [p.22]

[13] William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, p.37
[14] Tate Archive TGA 923.1.2.66
[15] Exhibition of Paintings by Cecil Collins, Bloomsbury Gallery, London, Oct. 1935

[16] Anderson 1988, p.38
[17] Ibid. p.40
[18] Ibid. p.30

[19] Peter Goffin, letter to Cecil Collins, 10 July 1935, Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.535
[20] Peter Goffin, letter to Cecil Collins, 11 Sept. 1939, Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.551
[21] Elisabeth Collins, interview, 26 Feb. 1996

[22] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1970-1972, London 1972, pp.93-5; the interviews were held on 24 Feb., 21 April and 28 June 1972

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

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