Cecil Collins

The Promise


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Oil paint on plywood
Support: 508 × 610 mm
frame: 555 × 660 × 40 mm
Purchased 1972

Display caption

Collins often used light and darkness to symbolise the forces of good and evil. This picture depicts the world at night, and the ‘promise’ of the title refers to the coming dawn, heralding possibilities of birth and growth. It shows a section of seashore, cut open to reveal seeds, shells and chrysalises lying in the earth. Two charges of energy burst forth like radiant flowers from the earth’s surface, their rays energising the dormant forms below. Briefly linked with Surrealism, Collins showed a closely related work at the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Catalogue entry


Oil on plywood panel, 508 x 610 mm (20 x 24 in)
Inscribed by the artist in blue watercolour ‘Cecil Collins | 1936’, bottom left
Inscribed by the artist on back in pencil ‘With Care | the surface of this painting | Bruises and gets scratched’, ‘6D’ and ‘No. | No.’ Inscribed by the artist in black ink on two labels ‘CECIL COLLINS | SWAN COTTAGE | WEIR FIELDS | TOTNES | DEVON’, and ‘THE PROMISE | 1936’. Inscribed in red ball point pen on four labels: ‘“THE PROMISE” (1936) | By | CECIL COLLINS | (OIL ON WOOD) | Size 19 ins x 23 1/2 ins’, ‘To | THE HAMET GALLERY Ltd | 8 CORK STRET | LONDON W1 | Tel GER 3922’, ‘From - CECIL COLLINS | 47 PAULTON’S SQUARE | CHELSEA | lONDON SW3 | Tel 352-4043’, ‘FOR | SALE £800’. Also bears typed label of The Storran Gallery, Albany Court Yard, ‘Cecil Collins Esq., | Swan Cottage | Weir fields | TOTNES, | Devonshire.’
Purchased (Grant in Aid) 1972

Purchased from the artist through the Hamet Gallery, London 1972

Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins, The Barn Studio, Dartington Hall, Devon, June 1937 (24)
Britain’s Contribution to Surrealism of the 30’s and 40’s, Hamet Gallery, London, Nov. 1971 (25)
Cecil Collins: Drawings, Watercolours, Gouaches and Paintings 1936-1968, Hamet Gallery, London, Nov. 1972 (1)
The Prints of Cecil Collins, Tate Gallery, London, Aug.-Nov, 1981 (ii, 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. (10, repr.), col. repr. p.43
Cecil Collins: Full Circle, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991 (8, repr.)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1972-4, London 1974, pp.109-10, repr.
Richard Shone, The Century of Change: British Painting Since 1900, London 1977, pl.134
Richard Morphet, The Prints of Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1981, p.7
The Divine Land’, Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.72
Philip Vann, ‘The Poet’s Vision’, Artist, vol.101, no.1, Jan. 1986, p.7
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.41, 149, 151, repr. p.149, pl.98
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, pp.24, 78

The Promise is one of a group of paintings in which Collins used organic forms. The lower part of the composition resembles diagrams of geological strata and volcanic formations. Cruciform flowers erupt from the earth towards the night sky but they are associated with the potential of the human chrysalis and a number of brightly coloured shell and stone forms. These features appear to proceed from quasi-scientific sources in which Collins became interested at this time.

Painted at Monk’s Cottage in Buckinghamshire,[1] The Promise has a carefully worked surface which reinforces the imagery. Glue size was applied across the whole of the light-weight plywood panel (3 mm, 3 ply). The upper half was then painted in oil (diluted with turpentine and damar), but a thick white lead ground was added to the lower half.[2] This must have been a carefully defined area, and the artist subsequently suggested that underdrawing had been undertaken in charcoal or pencil. He also recalled that, just as in The Cells of Night (Tate T01478), he had scratched into the thick paint with a needle ‘to create the textured effect while the ground was still wet’.[3] The resulting spirals and swirls in the textured area partially erase a criss-cross lattice work in the ground along the lower edge. This texture does not anticipate exactly the forms in the final image, so that few of the shells and stones are accommodated in the resulting folds. The artist partly explained this discrepancy, when he said: ‘By creating the textured layer, I was attempting to describe a spontaneously drawn “spatial structure”, texturising inside the actual paint work’.[4] To augment this carefully conceived surface, the painting was mounted on a larger panel which provided a textured margin of 25 mm (1 in) on all sides. With time both panels became fragile: the upper ply of the painting has moved, to produce linear checking (splits along the grain), and has delaminated; the backboard has been replaced following attack by woodworm.[5]

The Promise was completed in the same year as the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London and the year after Collins’s solo exhibition at the Bloomsbury Gallery. It was an important period, in which he was anxious to establish a wider reputation as he sought a personal means of expression. Evidence for this is found in a letter from the critic Hugh Gordon Porteus, offering a direct assessment of Collins’s work:

what I miss in your work is: sense of precise contour, attention to exact relations between shape & shape. I find in your work a fine tactile sense, organic vitality, empathy (as in Van Gogh), a too dramatic use of colour and form, which you will grow out of during the next 5 years, and a general untidiness which I regard as a simple reaction from fashionable preoccupations with structural form.[6]

These criticisms must have given the painter pause for thought. The simple structure of The Promise may show a response to Porteus’s emphasis on clearer contours and compositional relationships. In his review in the New English Weekly, which considered the artist ‘superior to Dalí and Burra though not to Blake,’ Porteus repeated some of these criticisms, identifying in the works a ‘fear of form’ and ‘an air of wilful untidiness and . . . diffuseness’.[7]

The letter from Porteus also provides circumstantial evidence for dating another document to around 1935. Collins drew up a list headed ‘Study the Masters’, on the back of a sheet of paper on which the critic had written his address.[8] The list opens with the artist’s abbreviation for the Old Masters, and continues with references to books at home and in the Victoria and Albert Museum library:

O.M. | El Greco (in flat) | Spanish Primitives | Leonardo da Vinci | Italian Primitives | Byzantine | S. Rosa | Gothic painting (Prague Seminarium, Kondakov 1928, 66.D) (English Medieval Painting, F.W. Tristram S.E.13) | Giotto (flat) | Ingres | Claude | Piccaso [sic] (Zervos 38.G, Griser [sic] 94.A.185, A Level 41.G.G.) | Klee (in flat) | Rousseau (flat) | Durer (in flat) | Russian ikons | Delacroix | Astronomical photos | Plant form photos (Blossfeld K vol.1 S.C.16) | Rock formations | Hieronymous Bosch | Gustave Doré

This curious mixture offers an insight into Collins’s search for sources in the development of his art. Besides the prevalence of Medieval references, a number of observations may be made. First, that only three of those listed are 20th century artists - Picasso, Klee and Rousseau; this indicates Collins’s independence from his contemporaries. Second, that he owned books on Klee and Rousseau, together with El Greco and Dürer. Third, it may be noted in support of the dating, that all the books pre-date 1933; those on Picasso are: Christian Zervos, Picasso Oeuvre Catalogue (Paris, 1926 or 1932), Bernard Geiser, Picasso peintre graveur (Bern, 1933) and André Level, Picasso (Paris, 1928).

If this list is of wide-reaching relevance to Collins’s work, it is the inclusion of the three scientific topics towards the end that is of particular relevance to The Promise. The relationship of the lower area to ‘rock formations’ has already been noted, and Collins’s manipulation of plant forms is shown in the two flowers above. Of especial interest, however, is the choice of the photographs of Karl Blossfeld, which isolated and magnified plants in such a way as to achieve a non-botanical presence. No direct transcriptions from these sources are evident among the flowers and shells of The Promise or the near contemporary painting A Song, 1934 (private collection)[9] but, as Judith Collins has suggested, the artist, ‘eagerly read of macrocosmic and microcosmic forms, cells, stars, nuclei and atmospheric electricity.’ She added: ‘A book still in his possession is “The World Beneath the Microscope” by H. Watson-Baker’.[10] Confirmation of this inclination is found in Collins’s list of eight paintings as ‘Microcosms 1936-38’[11] and in his contemporary text ‘The Sceptred Bone and Flower’. This 1936 manuscript evokes a ‘mystical sexuality’ through parallels with forces in nature which are signalled in an epigraph close in atmosphere to The Promise: ‘Begun in the Age of Death when the hard seeds cry out for the light’.[12]

The Promise has only been identified in one exhibition in the 1930s, as the Storran Gallery label on the reverse has not been linked to a particular event. Collins was in contact with the gallery in 1937-8, at a time when he was anxious to sell his work; they showed unspecified works and held The Cells of Night for a (failed) private sale. This may have been the case with The Promise, which remained in the artist’s possession until 1972.

Following the acquisition of The Promise by the Tate Gallery, the artist was interviewed in 1974 and his comments on some of these issues formed the basis of a detailed discussion of the work.[13] The relation of The Promise to The Cells of Night was drawn out there, but its underlying theme was identified as being ‘concerned with the first intimation of a dawning consciousness or spiritual awakening,’ and, ‘the moment of birth, a moment filled with promise because of the fuller growth to which it will lead’. The section through the earth was identified by the artist as the sea shore and he emphasised the role of the sea - more obviously present in the related painting Virgin Images in the Magical Processes of Time, 1935 (private collection)[14] - as a place of divinely-inspired rebirth. This was associated with two ‘great archetypes’ which were identified as: ‘God breathing on the waters to create life, and God walking on the waters.’

In the 1974 reading, the forms in the lower section were seen as potentially fruitful, ‘to be read equally as seeds, shells or chrysalises’ and being both on and in the shore. In particular, the swaddled form - comparable to that in Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict 1933 (Tate T06457) - embodied the idea of a human spiritual regeneration: ‘we witness in this picture the very split-second moment of rebirth’.[15] This source is echoed in symbolic terms by the regenerative spring of water to the left, while the ‘sky is painted to resemble a moment of unveiling, the drawing apart of veils.’ The artist’s views on the significance of the upper section were paraphrased: ‘The flowers are communicating with the world of light, symbolised by the Morning Star which can be seen in the sky . . . [and which] indicates that our fundamental nature existed before we started our worldly life.’ These flowers - ‘symbolising the flowering of consciousness’ - are linked to his childhood memories of ‘watching a lighthouse at night’; Judith Collins has added that this was the Eddystone Lighthouse off the Devon coast.[16] The 1974 account concluded by reporting the artist’s own ‘metaphysical’ view of The Promise as ‘a landscape of the psyche’, in which the forms embedded in the earth represent a ‘primitive stage of evolution’ aspiring to the potential rebirth heralded in the flowers erupting into the night sky.

At the time of the painting’s conception the scientific sources and the way in which they were combined exemplified Collins’s closest approach to Surrealism. This convergence has been touched upon in relation to Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict, 1933, which was shown in the International Exhibition of Surrealism of 1936 accompanied by Virgin Images in the Magical Processes of Time, 1935. The latter relates to The Promise in placing amoeboid forms against a carefully rendered seascape.

The extent of Collins’s interest in Surrealism remains rather obscure. The beginnings seem to go back to the exhibitions at the Mayor Gallery in 1933 and to his friendship with Julian Trevelyan (whose work appeared alongside his in the 1936 exhibition). Collins is reported to have been attracted by the Surrealists’ dedication to the world of the imagination and their disgust (as he saw it) at technology, and to have considered their work as prophetic of the coming war.[17] His contact with the movement was facilitated by Herbert Read, the major spokesman in England, who emphasised a continuity from the visionary works of Blake, Coleridge and Carroll. It was Read who visited Collins in his London flat, in his capacity as one of the selectors of the 1936 exhibition, and chose the two works included. Collins shared the Surrealists’ interest in the visionary and the extra-rational, but was divided from them over approaches to politics and religion. That problematic relationship was confirmed at the 1936 Exhibition by the artist’s eleven miniature inscriptions of ‘RESURRECTION’ on Virgin Images in the Magical Processes of Time, an act of defiance against the Surrealists’ anti-religious position which ensured an official break between the artist and the movement.[18]

Despite this development, The Promise seems to reflect a response to the work of others included in the 1936 Surrealist exhibition. The form and earthy conception of both the shells and the swaddled chrysalis parallel that of Henry Moore’s abstracted reclining figures (two of which were shown). The two artists were in contact by this stage as, significantly, Collins later claimed that Moore had ‘thought a lot of’ his solo exhibition in 1935.[19] Amongst the painters in the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition, the twelve works by Yves Tanguy displayed a characteristic arrangement of stone-like objects in an endless space; amongst these, I am Waiting for You, 1934 (collection Mr and Mrs Jerome L Stern, New York)[20] was also reproduced by David Gascoyne in A Short Survey of Surrealism (London 1935, p.158), the first English language introduction to the movement. In addition, Anderson has posited Collins’s interest in Max Ernst’s work.[21] This is most pertinent as, since the 1920s, Ernst had been using comparable textured surfaces achieved through scraping and rubbing oil paint, a technique which he termed grattage. Some of his paintings shown in the 1936 exhibition made specific landscape references. They included Landscape of Tactile Effects 1934 (private collection)[22] and Landscape with Sprouts of Corn, 1936 (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf).[23] While the latter included seed forms embedded in the earth, the former features a horizontally striated landscape closely comparable to the volcanic forms in The Promise.

Collins’s disengagement from Surrealism was rather extended. In 1937, he made The Joys of the World (private collection)[24] which combined cellular motifs, close to The Promise, with a divine figure. During his period at Dartington he made other works comparable to the illusionism of Dalí, especially Landscape: The Approach, 1940 (private collection)[25] and The Poet, 1941 (Tate T07734).[26] This may have been encouraged by his contact with Hein Heckroth, whose Surrealist paintings included the ironically titled Free Love (in nature under the special weather conditions of 1939), 1939 (private collection)[27] and Nina no hay mas remedio Gustavo Durán, 1939 (Historisches Museum, Frankfurt).[28] Even in The Vision of The Fool, written in 1944, Collins still saw the need to measure himself against Surrealism. ‘I do not believe in surrealism,’ he wrote, ‘precisely because I do believe in a surreality, universal and eternal, above and beyond the world of the intellect and the senses; but not beyond the reach of the humility and hunger of the human heart.’[29]

Mathtew Gale

July 1998

[1] Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.78
[2] Tate conservation files
[3] Tate conservation questionnaire, 9 Dec. 1988
[4] Ibid.
[5] Tate conservation files

[6] Hugh Gordon Porteus, letter to Cecil Collins, 14 May 1935, Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.1442

[7] New English Weekly, 24 Oct. 1935, pp.34-5

[8] Tate Archive TGA 923.2.2.231

[9] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.77, no.6
[10] Ibid., p.16
[11] Tate Archive TGA 923.1.4.66
[12] Cecil Collins: Meditations, Poems, Pages from a Sketchbook, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich 1997, p.16

[13] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1972-4, London 1974, pp.109-110, interview held on 28 Feb. 1974
[14] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.78, no.9

[15] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1972-4, London 1974, p.110
[16] Judith Collins 1989, p.78

[17] William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, p.42
[18] Ibid.

[19] ‘Cecil Collins, Theatre of the Soul. A Conversation with Brian Keeble,’ Temenos, no.1, 1981, p.64
[20] Repr. Yves Tanguy, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1982, no.58, p.111
[21] Anderson 1988, p.31
[22] Repr. Werner Spies, Sigrid and Günter Metken, Max Ernst Werke 1929-1938, Houston and Cologne 1979, p.299, no.1566
[23] Repr. ibid. p.362, no.2252

[24] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.79, no.12
[25] Repr. ibid. p.81, no.17
[26] Repr. ibid., no.18
[27] Repr. Hein Heckroth, 1901-1970, exh. cat., Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel 1977, no.18, pl.II
[28] Repr. ibid. no.19, pl.III
[29] Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich, 1994, p.81

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