Cecil Collins

The Music of Dawn


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Gouache and paint on fibreboard
Support: 708 × 840 mm
Presented by a group of donors and an anonymous trust through the Contemporary Art Society in memory of the artist 1990

Display caption

'The Music of Dawn' depicts a golden priestess dressed in flowing drapery and holding a pilgrim's staff, standing on the seashore. Collins believed that we are all pilgrims on a journey back to the Paradise that we once knew, and that one of the functions of art was to help us on this journey. From the 1960s onwards Collins painted grand images of angels as spiritual messengers of light and love. Here a golden light suffuses the scene as the dawn approaches. As well as being one of the last pictures that Collins painted, 'The Music of Dawn' was also one of the largest canvases of his last years.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

The medium density wood fibre board, panel was prepared by the artist with a white acrylic gesso type primer on the smooth face.

Described as 'tempera' by the artist, the paints are commercially prepared glue or gum bound paints rather than egg tempera paints. The image is developed in many delicately superimposed layers of colour. Thinly scumbled in the broad translucent areas, where the horizontal brush strokes of the priming remain clearly visible, the paint is more densely applied and opaque in the development of the linear elements of the composition.

The unvarnished and water sensitive surface is protected by a gilded frame fitted with glass. The painting is in good condition, and required only minor treatment to small damages around the edges of the panel and improvements to its fitting in the frame, on acquisition.

Roy Perry

Catalogue entry


Tempera on board, 708 x 840 mm (22 7/8 x 33 1/16 in)
Inscribed by the artist in umber tempera ‘Cecil Collins 1988’, bottom right
Inscribed by the artist on back in blue paint, ‘“Figure and Landscape, Dawn”. (1988). | By | Cecil Collins | March 27th 1988’, centre; ‘47 PaulTon’s SQUaRe, | Chelsea | LONDON. S.W.3’; and ‘size 28ins high 33ins long’.
Inscribed by the artist on label ‘KEEP IN | AN AIR | CONDITIONED | STORE’, centre top.
Presented through the Contemporary Art Society, London in memory of the artist 1990

Acquired from the artist by the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1988
From whom purchased by a group of donors and an anonymous trust, 1990

The Music of Dawn: Recent Paintings by Cecil Collins, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, June 1988 (32, col. repr.)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1989, Southampton City Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Sept.-Oct. (65, repr., col. repr. p.60)

Andrew Lambirth, ‘Cecil Collins: The World of the Heart’, Artists and Illustrators, no.24, Sept. 1988, p.15, repr. (col.)
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, pp.21, 97
William Feaver, ‘Purple Heart’, Observer, 14 May 1989, p.47
Boris Ford, ‘Painting and Music’, Modern Painters, vol.4, no.3, Autumn 1991, p.75, repr.

John Russell Taylor, ‘According to Collins’, Times, 14 June 1988, p.12 (as Dawn)
Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich, 1994, p.168, pl.24

The Music of the Dawn was painted on soft fibrous Sundeala board. As with other late works on this support, such as The Artist’s Wife Seated in a Tree (Tate T07737), the pattern of the machining of the board and the horizontal brushstrokes of the priming are discernible through the overall yellow ochre. It was the artist’s practice to mix gum with gouache to create what he called a ‘glue tempera’.[1] This water soluble medium was applied in a series of thin fluid coats, some of which were rubbed-in. The effect in the sky is dry, while the sea and sun were thickly worked, with the waves - like the leaves on the trees - being meticulously painted. The body is carefully outlined to separate it from the rest of the composition; it may have been drawn in pencil, as some traces may be seen on the right shoulder and forearm. The painting was originally signed in a contrasting cool colour, but then carefully traced over in umber.

The title was revised by the artist, after completion, from Figure and Landscape, Dawn, inscribed on the reverse, to the more evocative The Music of Dawn. This change is confirmed in a 1990 questionnaire, presumably answered by the artist’s widow.[2] The new title, instituted by the time of its first exhibition, places more emphasis on dawn, a crucial moment of renewal and transformation explored by Collins in works such as The Divine Land, 1979 (Tate T03322). The allusion to music - the harmonies of which are also evoked in this transformatory process - follows that in the titles of such paintings as Hymn, 1953 (Tate T00437).

The date inscribed on the back indicates that the painting was completed five days after Collins’s eightieth birthday. The warmth created by the dominance of yellow and ochre convey its optimism. The rising sun is anticipated in the orb at the end of the figure’s staff, which Judith Collins has identified as that of a pilgrim and held by a ‘golden priestess’.[3] The figure may be based upon Elisabeth Collins, who remained the artist’s muse. The simplicity and optimism of the composition made The Music of Dawn an especially appropriate choice as a memorial to the artist from his admirers. In 1990, the year of its gift to the Tate Gallery, it inspired an orchestral piece by the composer David Matthews.

Matthew Gale
March 1996

[1] Tate conservation questionnaire, 9 Dec. 1988

[2] Tate conservation questionnaire, 31 July 1990

[3] Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.97


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