Cecil Collins

The Fall Of Lucifer


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 2730 × 1800 mm
Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the Art Fund 2001

Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 2730 x 1800 mm (107 1/2 x 70 7/8 in)
Inscribed by the artist in red oil paint ‘Cecil Collins 1933’ bottom left
Inscribed by the artist on back in red-maroon oil paint ‘The Holy War, Cecil Collins, 1933’ centre right; and in another hand on label on stretcher ‘Exhibno 54 | The Fall of Lucifer | 1933 | Collins’
Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the National Art Collections Fund 2001

The artist
Elisabeth Collins, the artist’s widow

Exhibition of Paintings by Cecil Collins, Bloomsbury Gallery, London, Oct. 1935 (20)
Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins, The Barn Studio, Dartington Hall, Devon, June 1937 (15)
Recent Paintings by Thelma Hulbert and engravings by other artists, Heffer Gallery, Cambridge, April-May 1950 [no catalogue traced]
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Tapestries 1928-1959, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Nov.-Dec. 1959 (4)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1989, Southampton City Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Sept.-Oct. (4, repr.), repr. in col. p.41
Cecil Collins: Full Circle, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991 (4)

Hugh Gordon Porteus, ‘Art’, New English Weekly, vol.8, no.2, 24 Oct. 1935, p.35
S.J.A., ‘Paintings with the Personal Touch’, Cambridge Daily News, 12 May 1950, p.9
Carol Hogben, ‘Thelma Hulbert: English Lithographs Heffer’s, Cambridge’, Art News and Review, vol.2, no.8, 20 May 1950, p.5
Simon Hodgson, ‘Somebody’s Sister’, Spectator, 18 Dec. 1959, p.910
Iris Conlay, ‘Angels Dance in Whitechapel’, Catholic Herald, 24 Dec. 1959, p.4
F.E.H., ‘The Art of Cecil Collins’, Methodist Recorder, 7 Jan. 1960, p.9
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.36-7, 38, 51, 139, repr. in col. p.43 pl.19
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, pp.13-14, 19, 20, 76
William Feaver, ‘Purple Heart’, Observer, 14 May 1989, p.47
Peter Fuller, ‘Cecil Collins: A New Dawn?’, Modern Painters, vol.2, no.2, Summer 1989, p.30, repr. in col. p.35
John Lane, ‘Cecil Collins in Retrospect’, The Green Book, vol.3, no.2, 1989, p.7, repr. p.8

This unusually large canvas is one of the most important of Collins’s visionary paintings surviving from the years immediately after he left the Royal College of Art. It was painted in a large wooden shed assembled by the artist as a studio at Highwood Bottom just north of Speen, Buckinghamshire. According to Elisabeth Collins the shed was in the field adjoining the garden of Monk’s Cottage and was quite capacious.[1] However, the process of working on the canvas was complicated when the artist was stung by nesting wasps: ‘Although Collins was attempting to live by Buddhist principles and to cause no harm to any living creature, he was compelled . . . to attack the wasps with fumes. He watched as the wasps fell to earth in front of the fall of the rebel angel to hell’.[2] Two humorous poems amongst the artist’s papers bear witness to the execution of the canvas and, as well as using both of the painting’s titles, offer specific dates. One, signed ‘Peg’, is dated 9 December 1933 and called ‘Lucifer Falls yet again; A Doggerel Ditty.’ Bearing the same date, the other is signed ‘John’ and entitled in faux-naive style, ‘At the Unveiling of Cicel’s Picture: “The Holy War”; In Honour of the Occation’.[3] The latter locates the making of the painting in the shed in June and its ‘unveiling’ in the winter - presumably on or just before 9 December 1933. The nature of this unveiling is uncertain and Elisabeth Collins cannot recall a special event, beyond the practice of visitors viewing her husband’s work. However, the presence of these poets suggests that the painting attracted artistic and literary friends, for whom Speen was something of a centre: the composer Edmund Rubbra was a neighbour at Highwood Bottom and Peter Goffin took a house in Lacey Green less than a mile to the west, while the sculptor Angus McDougal (a contemporary at the Royal College of Art) worked in Eric Gill’s community at Piggots, which was a similar distance in the opposite direction.

The Fall of Lucifer was shown in Collins’s solo exhibition at the Bloomsbury Gallery in London in 1935, and was central to his Dartington exhibition in June 1937, as an installation photograph confirms.[4] It appeared as no.27 in his undated manuscript ‘Catalogue of Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins’.[5] It may also have been the subject of Gill’s concern, when he wrote on 5 November 1938: ‘I am sorry that you are so hard up and therefore willing to sell your big picture for so little’.[6] He recommended an approach to the Goupil Gallery, who politely declined, calling it ‘very interesting’.[7] Although its importance was recognised by a few, its size impeded its sale. The canvas remained with the artist, but suffered cracking, losses and tears at the edges as a consequence of being rolled up for storage after his 1959 Whitechapel retrospective. It was restretched in the 1980s and again in 1989.[8]

In composition, subject and drawing The Fall of Lucifer relates to medieval religious images. It is painted over a light grey ground, which established a tone appropriate to the subject, and is divided into three distinct fields. Below, the battle of The Holy Wars (the first title) takes place between ten warriors; their pale flesh is worked more heavily in impasto and sgraffitto (possibly with the handle of the brush) than the rest of the surface. Three of the naked figures are winged, and probably represent the faithful angels; it is possible that Lucifer appears as the red haired heroic figure dressed in green.. By contrast to the flowered field of combat, the middle section of the composition is strewn with black rocks and fissures which converge towards the horizon. The circular domed building, reminiscent of the Royal Albert Hall in London but identified as ‘Byzantine domes’ by William Anderson,[9] appears to represent the entrance to Hell as it is licked by blood-red flames. Perched on the outcrops to either side are more naked figures, each group protected by an angel. They incline towards the centre, giving the impression that they are ascending. The seven to the left are accompanied by a lamb; amongst the four to the right, one in a diaphanous white robe is lifted off the rock by two companions. The higher group on the left counterbalances the red figure of Lucifer plunging vertically towards the flaming building. As the steely clouds disperse, the light around his body is outshone by the red sun and trumpeting figures burst from two celestial buildings, as if blasting the descending figure on its way. To the left a naked couple ascend towards these triumphant buildings.

William Anderson’s reading of the painting, though couched in tentative terms, seems to have been informed by the painter himself in the 1980s. The writer suggested that the image addressed the ‘dominant feature of his paintings ... the loss of Paradise’.[10] Thus the conflict in the painting is embodied in the force of gravity, the irresistible attribute that draws Lucifer to his flaming building, identified as ‘the Citadel of Dis’. The attendant figures on either side, whose features may be based on those of Elisabeth and - for the bearded figure - the painter himself,[11] are described by Anderson as:

creatures who may be angels or pre-existent human forms, all with characteristic clear eyes and noses drawn to a point. The lamb beside the group on the left indicates their innocence; they seem to be above the Fall. They form an audience or chorus for the ritual battle of angels in the flowered meadow ... These are fighting not one another but the invisible forces of evil or of gravity about them; one garlanded angel falls in the battle[12]

This conflict with the invisible forces is difficult to read, not least because winged and unwinged figures (such as the three on the left) appear to be ranged against each other. Nevertheless, the loss of Paradise seems to be embodied in the collapse of the garlanded and winged figure. Anderson linked this ‘spiritual warfare’ to ‘Orthodox mysticism’ and observed that the plain of Hell ‘is seen between the two mountains which symbolize the way of ascent and of return to God; beyond it rise the summits of the Delectable Mountains, and the realm of Earth which extends from it is full of the flowers that the forces of evil and of limited thought would wish to see shrivelled’.[13]

It is clear that, whatever the meaning of specific details, Collins has brought together imagery relating to both of the painting’s titles: The Fall of Lucifer in the upper part and The Holy War below. Although religious themes were among those set for examination at the Royal College of Art, they were also explored as part of a wider search for a moral art by artists such as Eric Gill, and Stanley and Gilbert Spencer (who became Professor of Painting at the Royal College in 1930). Collins, as well as making religious and anti-religious works himself - including one called There is no God (whereabouts unknown) - is also reported to have been impressed by a Supper at Emmaus by his fellow student Albert Houthuesen; he recalled it as ‘a manifestation of a higher form of consciousness.’[14]

In The Fall of Lucifer Collins seems to echo Mediaeval conventions in showing the same character more than once, in progressive episodes of a story. Anderson has suggested parallels in Byzantine art,[15] and examples of such paintings and manuscripts were available to Collins as a student in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and through reproductions in the Library. The limited colouring and the anti-naturalistic drawing in The Fall of Lucifer suggest this interest, while the rising of the figures on the left follows the iconography of the resurrected at the Last Judgement, who rise up at Christ’s right hand. Contemporary evidence for Collins’s interest is found in a letter from Edmund Rubbra, who wrote from London on 29 May 1934: ‘I have got the medieval books Cecil saw at Schott’s - they are very interesting. One in particular is unbelievable in its modernity.’[16]

Although these books were not identified, Judith Collins has traced potential pictorial sources for the unusual subject.[17] In particular she has suggested Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts, such as the eleventh century Junius II (Bodleian Library, Oxford) and Cotton Claudius B IV (British Library). To these may be added the apocalyptic frescos of the Black Death and the Last Judgement, from Traini in the Campo Santo in Pisa to Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Of the Biblical sources, Judith Collins has cited the fall of angels in Genesis (6, 1-5) as interpreted in the Apocryphal books of Jubilees and Enoch, and the battle of angelic armies described in Revelations 12, 7-9. She has also noted Isaiah 14, 12, ‘How art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning,’ and that St Augustine represented the fall of rebel angels, ‘as a symbolic separation of the darkness from the light’, in his De Civitate Dei (book XI, chapter 19).

The idea of angelic conflict was a fertile one for Collins, as the contemporary drawing Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict (Tate T06457) confirms. In both drawing and painting, it is associated with the Augustinian division of light and dark found in the emergence of the sun. Besides the lamb, a traditional symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, the sun makes up for the absence of the image of God. In The Fall of Lucifer this symbolic separation allows for a process of redemption and ascension to be combined with condemnation. Thus the fall becomes a defining moment both in the origin of hell and the securing of heaven, which are iconographically linked in the painting through the adaptation of the domed building for both locations. Such a view coincides with that in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the first book of which is set in the aftermath of the defeat of the rebel angels. Collins’s painting in general, and especially the image of Lucifer falling towards the burning structure, may be compared with Milton’s identification of Lucifer with the Serpent:

... his pride

Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host

Of rebel Angels, by whose aid, aspiring

To set himself in glory above his peers,

He trusted to have equalled the Most High,

If he opposed; and, with ambitious aim

Against the throne and monarchy of God,

Raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud,

With vain attempt. Him th’ Almighty Power

Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,

With hideous ruin and combustion, down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In adamantine chains and penal fire[18]

In addition to the power of Milton’s writing, it is significant that his Lucifer is defiantly attractive in a way comparable to the ambiguous foreground figures in Collins’s painting.

The concern with spiritual transformation addressed in The Fall of Lucifer seems to have been central to a number of works in which Collins explored his personal interpretations of religious themes. Elisabeth Collins has recalled a beautiful Betrayal of Christ, painted in the same shed at Monk’s Cottage and so large that it could not be brought into the house.[19] Although now lost, its title indicates that it addressed the same moral dilemma of power and faith. Anderson has interpreted such debates as embodied in The Fall of Lucifer as a reflection of the artist’s own psychic struggle: ‘by making the enormous effort of painting this work, he defied Lucifer for a time by showing how small a part of his total nature Lucifer was’.[20] Certainly, the subjects of Collins’s paintings of 1933-4 suggest the conjunction of visionary and moralist which evokes Milton and Dante, as well as Blake’s illustration of and commentaries on both. It is worth noting that a watercolour of a Scene from Dante’s Purgatory, 1932, was listed in the manuscript ‘Catalogue of Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins’[21] and that Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’ were noted as a subject on another undated list.[22]

Amongst Collins’s lost works from this period are a Resurrection and The Transformation of Hell both of 1934. However, Judith Collins recorded the artist’s recollection of the latter as ‘close in time to The Fall of Lucifer’, and ‘having a black grid through which flames were visible and above which the souls of the dead rose’.[23] This has close parallels with the central passage of The Fall of Lucifer where the flaming building is flanked by ascending figures. These scenes use a vocabulary of forms and arrangements found in related watercolours. Souls Singing in the Evening, 1933 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut)[24] places seven naked and singing figures within a wall to the left, in a grouping comparable to that in the monumental oil painting. The watercolour also shows a pair of figures in the foreground and two angels swooping between clouds towards a ray-emitting red sun. Scene in Paradise survives in reproduction.[25] Although stylistically close to The Fall of Lucifer, it displays an idyllic optimism, in its scene of eating and dancing winged figures (accompanied by a spotted pig). Their setting in a flowered meadow indicates that the similar field in The Fall of Lucifer should be regarded as the paradise over which the angels fight.

This setting coincides with Milton’s image of the ‘dubious battle on the plains of Heaven’,[26] but may also reflect the painter’s reading of other mystical poets of the seventeenth century, such as Traherne and Vaughan. His copy of the poems of Thomas Traherne, which remains in his library, was given to him by Elisabeth Collins in 1933, according to the inscription. Vaughan’s poems were listed alongside those of Spenser - as well as ‘Genisis’ and ‘Ecclesastics’ - on the painter’s undated list of subjects.[27] The works of these poets were optimistic in their display of religious conviction and the bountifulness of God’s creation and, despite the conflict in images such as The Fall of Lucifer, this seems to have struck a cord with Collins’s experience of rural isolation at Monk’s Cottage.

Mathtew Gale

July 1998

[1] Elisabeth Collins, interview with the author, 26 Feb. 1996
[2] Judith Collins, Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.76
[3] Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.1377 and 923.4.2.812

[4] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.28
[5] Tate Archive TGA 923.2.1.1
[6] Eric Gill, letter to Cecil Collins, 5 Nov. 1938, Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.531
[7] Goupil Gallery, letter to Cecil Collins, Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.303
[8] Tate conservation files

[9] William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, p.36

[10] Ibid.
[11] Elisabeth Collins, interview with the author, 17 Oct. 1997

[12] Anderson 1988, p.37

[13] Ibid.

[14] John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, III, London 1974, p.131

[15] Anderson 1988, p.36
[16] Edmund Rubbra, letter to Cecil Collins, 29 May 1934 Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.1662

[17] Judith Collins 1989, p.12

[18] Paradise Lost: I, 36-48

[19] Elisabeth Collins, interview, 26 Feb. 1996
[20] Anderson 1988, p.37
[21] Drawing no.17; Tate Archive TGA 923.2.1.1
[22] Tate Archive TGA 923.2.2.363

[23] Judith Collins 1989, p.13
[24] Repr. in col., Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich 1994, p.145, no.1
[25] Anderson 1988, p.35, fig.17

[26] Paradise Lost: I, 104
[27] Tate Archive TGA 923.2.2.363

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