Cecil Collins

The Poet


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 760 × 506 mm
frame: 915 × 660 × 63 mm
Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the Art Fund 2001


In 1940, shortly before he painted The Poet, Collins’s native city of Plymouth was bombed by the German air force. This assault on his home town recalled to Collins a dream that he had had as a child, sometime before the outbreak of World War I (1914-18). He had dreamed that Plymouth was on fire and the air was dense with falling ashes, which had led to the destruction of his mother’s house and many of his first paintings (Anderson, p.170). His recollection of this nightmare inspired the burning city in the background of this painting, the flames of which stretch out across the horizon. A network of straight red lines links the flames with the tree springing to life and the figure of the poet in the foreground. Despite his efforts to break free, the poet, dressed in a blue robe, is caught in the geometric construction which surrounds him. At the same time he is being blinded by the sun, a force from which he is unable to escape (Anderson, p.170).

William Anderson has suggested that ‘The effect of the sun on his face is like the hot fiery coal the seraph laid in Isaiah’s mouth to arouse the spirit of prophecy. The doomed city from which the evil influence of reductionist and cold analytical thought has stretched out to imprison him recalls the kings, the merchants and the shipmasters at the fall of the Babylon of Revelation’ (Anderson, p.170). Collins began writing his essay The Vision of the Fool in 1942. Published in 1947, this was a testament to the artist’s beliefs following the destruction and inhumanity caused by the war. He stated his concerns about the freedom of the arts from entrapment: ‘History shows that you cannot so easily exploit the artist and the poet. The artist and the poet should be an unexploitable element in society’ (quoted in Keeble, p.72).

Judith Collins has compared The Poet with two drawings of The Pilgrim from 1935 which depict muscular figures attempting to break free from the scaffolding which surrounds them (Collins, p.99). These images, terrifying in their intensity, prophesy an age described by the artist as ‘the mechanised society of modern life, with its vanity of knowledge, its cruel respectability, and its inhuman rejection of poetic consciousness’ (quoted in Keeble, p.80).

Further reading:
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.58, 149, 170-1, reproduced in colour pl.115
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1989, reproduced p.81
Brian Keeble (ed.), The Vision of the Fool and other writings, Ipswich 1994

Heather Birchall
September 2002

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Display caption

Throughout his life, Collins pursued his vision of a lost paradise, destroyed by the mechanisation of the modern world. Using archetypal figures, such as the Fool, the Angel and the Poet, he attempted to reveal our innermost selves.

In this terrifying image the Poet tries to break free from the geometric construction which surrounds him. At the same time he is being blinded by the sun. The burning city in the background is a reference to Collin’s native city of Plymouth which was bombed in 1940, one year before this painting.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

‘The Saint, the Artist, the Poet, and the Fool, are one’, wrote Cecil Collins (1908-1989), ‘They are the eternal virginity of spirit, which in the dark winter of the world, continually proclaims the existence of a new life... the coming of light’ (in Cecil Collins: A Retrospective, Tate Gallery, London, 1989, p.36). The figure of the poet recurs in Collins’ work, representing a force of positive energy in the darkness of the material world.

The Poet, (1941) is painted in oil paint on linen canvas stretched on a wooden stretcher. The canvas is composed of fine threads with an open weave. This provides a matrix for the application of ground, but does not provide much physical support for the layers of paint. A few threads have some damages and the canvas is embrittled and discoloured. As well, the presence of three handwritten labels glued to the reverse of the canvas have caused some distortions on the front. The linen canvas was prepared commercially with gesso, but may have been mounted on its stretcher by the artist. There is a pencil line along the reverse cut edges indicating the size of the desired canvas piece, however, the cut edges are uneven.

The commercial preparation layers on the canvas include a thick layer of animal glue size which fills many of the canvas thread interstices. This layer, combined with the thin canvas and uneven paint layers, will make the painting extremely susceptible to changes in relative humidity. The priming layer is a thick, even layer of lead white oil paint. This light grey layer is well bound and in good condition. There are a few minor cracks along the tacking edges.

The paint covers the priming entirely. The texture of the canvas is apparent where the paint is thin. Complex layers of paint are built up over flat, initial, paint layers. These are covered with areas of low impasto and scumbles of thin colour (glazes, scumbles, body colour and detailing). For example, in the sky, a layer of thin paint is covered with thicker streaks of white paint. The white paint forms areas of low impasto with a soft, rounded profile. The paint appears to have been brushed on and then textured with a brush and a blunt point. A blue scumble lies over the thin paint and has built up in the interstices, leaving the thread junctions bare.

Layer structure can occasionally be distinguished by the paint thickness. For example, the legs were painted first, then the grey cloth covers them, with the leg profile visible underneath due to its thickness and crisp edge.

The red lines appear to have graphite underdrawing – this is a potential candidate for infrared analysis.

The paint contains isolated agglomerates that form lumps on the surface. There are a few minor drying defects in the paint including one area of wrinkling paint and two patches of drying cracks. There are several small damages and losses to the paint layer, but it is in good condition overall.

The surface has a satin finish, with regions of lower saturation. There is no complete layer of varnish across the surface, however, there appears to be local areas where a transparent surface coating (possibly glair) was applied. These areas will be analysed.

Patricia Smithen
April 2001


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