Cecil Collins

The Golden Wheel


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Oil paint on board
Support: 914 × 1219 mm
Purchased 1961

Catalogue entry

Oil on hardboard, 914 x 1219 mm (37 x 50 ¾ in) 
Inscribed by the artist in brown oil paint, ‘Cecil Collins 1958’, bottom right 
Inscribed on back in oil paint at right angles to composition ‘2 COATS RVES | 1 COAT RPLN THIN | June 30th 1957’, top right, ‘15’, centre, ‘“THE GOLDEN WHEEL” | BY | cecil Collins | (1958)’ centre, ‘P.O. | VT | bV | T | Und Wht. Rip | DiR.’ b.l., and ‘August 27th 1958 | 15 Selwyn GaRdens | Cambridge | England.’ bottom right 
Inscribed by the artist on three labels on back in blue ball point pen ‘TO: SiR John Rothenstein CBE | DIRECTOR | THE TATE GALLERY | MILLBANK | LONDON SW 1’, ‘PRICE 600 GNS | INSURANCE’, ‘“THE GOLDEN WHEEL” | (1958) | OIL 36 x 48” | Lent by the artist | <For sale> 480 GNS Insurance’ 
Purchased (Grant in Aid) 1961 
The artist 
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Tapestries 1928-1959, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Nov.-Dec. 1959 (140) 
The Prints of Cecil Collins, Tate Gallery, London, Aug.-Nov. 1981 (xvi, repr. p.6) 
Tribute to Cecil Collins, Plymouth Arts Centre, Nov.-Dec. 1983 (8) 
John Russell, ‘Teller of Tales’, Sunday Times, 13 Dec. 1959, p.24 
Tate Gallery Report 1961-62, London 1962, p.20 
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.119 
Sir John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Wood to Hockney, London 1974, p.144 
Richard Morphet, ‘Collins’s Vision’, The Prints of Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1981, pp.7-8 
Sir John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: vol. 3 Hennell to Hockney, London 1984, p.129 
Philip Vann, ‘The Poet’s Vision’, The Artist, vol.101 no.1, Jan. 1986, p.7, repr. 
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.84, 128, pl.88 
Sir John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1962, p.260 
The Golden Wheel was purchased by the Tate Gallery with Hymn, 1953 (Tate T00437) in 1961. Together the two works demonstrate the change that Collins’s technique had undergone in the intervening period. In place of the earlier experimental dragging of colour, he had introduced a loose handling which evolved into a personal automatism. This method, which he termed ‘the Matrix’, involved the urgent working of colour forms from which - as a secondary stage - an image could be recognised and clarified. Its use for The Golden Wheel is confirmed by the artist’s recollection that the painting was one of four completed, ‘in the short period of some six weeks of highly concentrated work’ in the summer of 1958.[1] The Golden Wheel was completed by 27 August, according to the inscription; the other works, shown together with it at his 1959 Whitechapel retrospective, were Sibyl: The Robes of the Day (private collection),[2] Landscape: Autumn (private collection)[3] and The Sibyl (private collection).[4] Like a number of other paintings of that year, the first two of these are the same dimensions as The Golden Wheel, but the differing themes give an idea of the versatility of the process. 
As is the case with Hymn, so the artist noted on the reverse of The Golden Wheel the materials used. In 1988 he interpreted the list of abbreviations as: ‘P.O.’ pure oil, ‘VT’ Venice turpentine, ‘bV’ dammar varnish, ‘T’ turpentine, ‘Und Wht. Rip’ underpainting white Ripolin, ‘DiR.’ ‘painted directly, lyrically over a textured ground’.[5] He expressed some doubt about the inclusion of Ripolin, because ‘It tended to be shiny when applied and created a slimey effect’;[6] but the dated annotations confirm that a thin coat was applied over two coats of Reeves oil based primer. Paradoxically, the later reservations may be exactly the reasons for using it at the time. In the same questionnaire, he noted that the paint was worked with ‘broad brushes’ and ‘was diluted with a lot of turpentine in some areas causing the paint to run as a deliberate consequence.’ The presence of the ‘shiny’ and ‘slimey’ Ripolin layer facilitated the liquid handling essential to the Matrix method. 
The development of the Matrix may be seen as an aspect of Collins’s response to critical neglect in the 1950s. Anderson has shown that what John Berger called his ‘entirely introspective art’ was considered to be out of step with contemporary trends.[7] Berger’s remarks were made in response to Collins’s exhibition at the 1956 Leicester Galleries which the artist shared with Eliot Hodgkin and Terry Frost.[8] ‘Soon after the exhibition,’ Anderson commented, ‘Collins found the new direction for his art ... he pursued the line of introspection even further and discovered the new style of working he called the Matrix.’[9] 
Both artist and biographer have stressed the differences between the Matrix and the gestural abstraction favoured by contemporaries under the stimulus of showings of American painting, such as Modern Art in the United States at the Tate Gallery in early 1956.[10] Anderson has described it as: ‘a means whereby the powerful energies of the psyche can be released and guided into transmitting clear and communicable images’.[11] Collins was more forthright. He wrote in his ‘Notes by the Artist’ in 1959: 
if the idea of pure painting, pure art, is true, and a painting is nothing but an arrangement of colours, forms, textures, lines, and qualities of pigment for their own sake ... then in our civilisation this places the artist as a mere manufacturer of visual confectionery ... I hold the instrumental view of pictures as stations of transmission. In my experience, painting is a metaphysical activity. All my pictures are based on a theme[12] 
The key difference from the concerns of many of his contemporaries was Collins’s emphasis on and choice of themes. These remained consistent with his personal symbolism, even if transmitted through the new spontaneity of the Matrix technique. The contrast to ‘action painting’ was taken up by Kathleen Raine in early 1958. Identifying Collins as a lone ‘metaphysical’ painter working from ‘the imaginative image’, she added that for him ‘The form is the transmission of an intelligible essence’.[13] 
In the first stage, The Golden Wheel was painted and washed predominantly in orange and purple, a polarity much favoured by the artist at the time. The gold of the title is found in Landscape: Autumn and may be related to a seasonal and cyclical theme as Collins identified it with the colour of autumn leaves and as ‘signifying ecstasy, a sign is given of renewal’.[14] Prussian blue and white were used in the second stage of The Golden Wheel to add the details to the emergent image which extend this theme of natural cycles. It conflated the sun - ‘a white lead paint glazed over with thin yellows’[15] - with the sunflower, following the latter’s traditional cosmic symbolism. Informed by the artist, Richard Morphet has remarked upon its dynamic sense ‘that the whole cosmos is alive with an inner energy’.[16] He has also identified the uncertain form to the right as ‘woman as priestess, calling the sun out of the cave of darkness’. A pencil sketch,[17] which may be related to the painting, shows a figure (possibly with wings) striding along a skyline with three flaming wheels which closely resemble the sunflower with its folded back petals. 
The artist’s use of this symbolism may be associated with Paul Nash, who had infused sunflowers with a cosmic significance a decade earlier. Nash’s article ‘Aerial Flowers’ had appeared in Counterpoint[18] alongside Peter Goffin’s article on Collins, and he later urged the younger artist to see the sunflower paintings at Tooth’s Gallery.[19] The rotation implied by the petals and spoke lines of the flower in Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)[20] is comparable to that in The Golden Wheel. Anthony Bertram, who reviewed Collins’s work favourably in 1954,[21] published a new monograph on Nash in 1955. In the same year, George Wingfield Digby published Meaning and Symbol in Three Modern Artists: Edvard Munch, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, which posited a general orientation ‘away from the conscious side of man’s personality’ in contemporary art.[22] Informed by Jungian theory and Chinese mystical texts including The Secret of the Golden Flower, Digby analysed the mystical associations of the sunflower, noting its recurrence ‘as a symbol of the soul or self, the inner reality which is obscured by the ego’.[23] Its heliotropic nature suggested re-birth and ‘a re-orientation of consciousness’, a cycle embodied in the circular form.[24] Nash seemed to confirm this when he wrote of Solstice of the Sunflower: ‘The sun appears to be whipping the sunflower like a top. The sunflower wheel tears over the hill ... bounding into the air as it gathers momentum. This is the blessing of the Midsummer Fire’.[25] The optimism of this view was made poignant by Nash’s death in 1946. 
Collins may have been independently aware of some of the mystical texts cited by Digby. He was certainly familiar with Nash’s paintings, and may have used them as a means of resolution for The Golden Wheel. Alongside his own ‘Theme Book’ and what he called ‘non thematic, instinctively’ produced sketches, Collins’s notes reveal that he also drew upon sources ‘From O.M., M.M. (Photos) Details Books as a start’.[26] These are his abbreviations for Old and Modern Masters. 
Matthew Gale 
March 1996 
[1] Cecil Collins, letter to the Tate Gallery, 15 July 1961, Tate catalogue files 
[2] Cecil Collins, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1959 (141) 
[3] Repr. Judith Collins, Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.51, no.38 (col.) 
[4] Repr. ibid., p.89, no.39 
[5] Questionnaire, 9 Dec. 1988, Tate conservation files 
[6] Ibid. 
[7] William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, p.84 
[8] Cecil Collins, Eliot Hodgkin, Terry Frost, Leicester Galleries, London, Feb.-March 1956 
[9] Anderson 1988, p.84 
[10] Modern Art in the United States, Tate Gallery, London, Jan.-Feb. 1956 
[11] Anderson 1988, p.84 
[12] ‘Notes by the Artist’, Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1959, p.5 
[13] Kathleen Raine, ‘Cecil Collins - a Platonic Painter’, Painter and Sculptor, vol.1, no.1, Spring 1958 
[14] Judith Collins 1989, p.88 
[15] Questionnaire, 9 Dec. 1988, Tate conservation files 
[16] Richard Morphet, ‘Collins’s Vision’, The Prints of Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1981, p.8 
[17] Tate Archive TGA 923.1.2.22 
[18] Counterpoint, vol.I, no.1, 1944 
[19] Paul Nash, letter to Cecil Collins, [?Feb. 1946], Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.1289 
[20] Repr. Margot Eates, Paul Nash, London 1973, fig.129 
[21] Studio, vol.147, no.730, Jan. 1954, pp.20-23 
[22] George Wingfield Digby, Meaning and Symbol in Three Modern Artists: Edvard Munch, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, London 1955, p.111 
[23] Ibid., p.182 
[24] Ibid., p.184 
[25] Paul Nash, letter to Dudley Tooth, quoted in Eates 1973, p.87 
[26] Tate Archive TGA 923.2.2.173 

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