Cecil Collins

The Quest


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Oil paint on board
Support: 1104 × 1473 × 6 mm
Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the Art Fund 2001

Display caption

In a small red boat, equipped with neither sails nor oars, six people with white, staring faces float among treacherous, blackened icebergs. This mysterious painting has been interpreted in different ways; in particular, it has been linked to TS Eliot's poem The Waste Land, and its references to Arthurian legend and the search for the Holy Grail. In general, Collins seems to have been concerned with the corrupting influence of the material world. This concern was gathering strength at the time he was working on this painting, in the autumn on 1938, on the eve of the Second World War.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry


Oil on hardboard, 1092 x 1448 mm (43 x 57 in)
Inscribed by the artist in red oil paint ‘Cecil Collins | 1938’ bottom right
Bequeathed by Elisabeth Collins, the artist's widow, through the National Art Collections Fund 2001

The artist
Elisabeth Collins, the artist’s widow

New Paintings by Francis Rose, Cecil Collins and Merlyn Evans, Heffer Gallery, Cambridge, Jan.-Feb. 1950 (20)
Recent Pictures by Mary Potter, New Paintings by Cecil Collins, Leicester Galleries, London, Nov. 1951 (20)
The Mirror and the Square: An Exhibition of Recent Work by Young Contemporary Painters, organised by the Artists International Association, New Burlington Galleries, London, Dec. 1952 (245)
Yorkshire Artists’ Exhibition, Leeds City Art Gallery, 1955 (187)
AIA 25, Royal Society British Artists’ Galleries, London, March-April 1958 (28)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Tapestries 1928-1959, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Nov.-Dec. 1959 (17, pl.1)
The Thirties: British Art and Design Before the War, Hayward Gallery, London, Oct. 1979-Jan.1980 (6.14)
A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, Barbican Art Gallery, London, May-July 1987 (45, repr. in col. on front cover)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1989, Southampton City Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Mostyn Art Gallery, Llandudno, Sept.-Oct. (14, repr.)
Cecil Collins: Full Circle, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991 (13, repr.)

Carol Hogben, ‘Cecil Collins, Merlyn Evans, Francis Rose; Heffer’s, Cambridge’, Art News and Review, vol.1, no.26, 28 Jan. 1950, p.5
Carol Hogben, ‘Art: The Heffer Gallery’, Cambridge Review, vol.71, no.1731, 4 Feb. 1950, p.298
John Russell, ‘Indoor Fireworks’, Sunday Times, 4 Nov. 1951, p.6
A.C.S., ‘Yorkshire Artists Exhibition: Some Interesting Work’, Manchester Guardian, 31 Jan. 1955, p.4
Sir John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Wood to Hockney, London 1974, p.136
Sir John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: vol. 3 Hennell to Hockney, London 1984, p.123
William Anderson, ‘A View of Paradise’, Resurgence, no. 124, Sept.-Oct. 1987, p.21
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp. 49, 115-16, pl.92 (col.)
William Anderson, ‘Cecil Collins and the Singing Sea’, Resurgence, no. 128, May-June 1988, p.31
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, pp.16, 18, 80
Peter Fuller, ‘The Search for Beauty in a Fallen World’, Sunday Telegraph, 21 May 1989, p.22
Peter Fuller, ‘Cecil Collins: A New Dawn?’, Modern Painters, vol.2, no.2, Summer 1989, p.30
Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, London 1991, p.343, repr.

The Quest was made on the eve of World War II during the Collinses’ period at Totnes in Devon, prior to their transfer to Dartington. However, it was painted - unusually quickly for such a large panel - during a three week holiday in the autumn of 1938 not far away at Torcross, overlooking Slapton Sands.[1] Judith Collins has remarked: ‘The landscape is inspired both by the inland lake trapped by the sea at Slapton Sands and by lantern slides of Arctic wastes, from a lecture given at Dartington during which Collins fell asleep and awoke to find himself looking at an iceberg.’[2] This helps to account for the treacherous blackened icebergs, the highlighted ridges of which are comparable to the rocky landscapes of such paintings as The Fall of Lucifer (Tate T07731) and Dawn, 1939 (private collection).[3] Likewise the theme of exploration, indicated by the six people in the red boat, had many resonances and underpinned earlier works such as The Eternal Journey, 1934 (private collection).[4] Judith Collins has related the journey to that of the pilgrim and, more broadly, to the spiritual journey of life, citing by way of comparison T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding and Augustine’s Confessions.[5] Where the artist had suggested this spiritual search in the 1934 painting by using a combination of crystalline and figurative symbols (including the chrysalis figure), the message was more direct in The Quest and more obviously perilous. The earlier scheme had been evolutionary in showing the development of the spirit, whereas The Quest suggests a search by the survivors of a catastrophe. This change is implicit in the painting’s change of title from The Voyage. It appears under that title as no.12 in the artist’s undated manuscript ‘Catalogue of Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins’;[6] another entry substitutes the new title and, ‘not yet exhibited by 1948’.

The composition is simply divided by the horizon. The icebergs change from green-grey at the left, to grey above and blue grey to the right. The sea is similarly graded by changes in the underlying colour (which reaches back to yellow at the horizon) and in the wave-crests (pale blue in the foreground, through yellow to pink). The handling of the paint surface is consistent with the intense three week campaign of work. The only inconsistent passage is the ochre wash of the sky, which was very liquid when carefully rubbed in around the sun and the icebergs. This technique is not found in other paintings of the period, but is typical of those of the 1950s, such as Hymn, 1953 (Tate T00437), suggesting that it was added then. The Quest was exhibited frequently in the 1950s, when Collins regarded it as one on his five ‘Chief works’,[7] but no photograph earlier than 1959 has been found to confirm this change.

Amongst the icebergs, the small red boat is unpowered by sail or oar, but breaks through clear water with its prow. It moves away from the pale green and red-ringed sun which, whether rising or setting, does not suggest warmth. The six white occupants are strangely mesmerised, with blank eyes and harshly lit faces. The stiff postures of the foremost pair - clenched fist drawn up to the chest - mirror each other. The dominant figure is crowned, but the rudimentary nature of the crown anticipates the emergence of the Fool in the later images. The heavy black outlining of the figures in The Quest is unprecedented for Collins but is comparable to the work of Georges Rouault, who exhibited regularly in London in the late 1930s and of whom, as Anderson has suggested, he must have been aware.[8] The fact that the Frenchman was also concerned with humanity and spirituality – The Three Judges, c.1936 (Tate N05146) was included (as Les Trois juges) in The Tragic Painters at the Lefevre Gallery in June 1938 - may have attracted Collins’s attention.

The pivotal detail of The Quest is the crowned figure, whose presence triggers narrative associations. In this detail Anderson has seen Arthurian overtones, particularly resonant in the West Country.[9] He has compared the strange shape of the boat to that of ‘the top of one of Collins’s chalices’ and suggested links with Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.[10] It is worth noting that such an interest coincided with that explored by Collins’s friend David Jones in such watercolours as Illustration to the Arthurian Legend: Guenever, 1938-40 (Tate N05315). Collins was interested in these themes; a copy of the Morte d’Arthur remains in his library but, it should be noted, inscribed ‘1941’.

Judith Collins has also identified The Quest with ‘the search for the grail’ and with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land,[11] which was indebted to the legend as elucidated in Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance.[12] Collins read the poet’s works in the 1930s; in early 1939 the painter’s own poems were sent by Peter Goffin to Eliot, in his capacity as an editor at Faber and Faber.[13] Drawing on information from the artist, Judith Collins has specifically linked the details of The Quest to the poem, stating: ‘The crowned figure in the boat is the solitary king of Eliot’s Waste Land ... It is this King’s quest. The two men with sticks are his guardians.’[14] Although the explorers in The Waste Land pass through a mountainous desert, Eliot’s understanding of the rigours of the journey matches the isolation of the crew in The Quest. However, by sending them to sea, Collins may also have been referring to the tradition of the Ship of Fools. Sebastian Brant’s original Narrenschiff (1494) included ‘knaves’ who had bought temporal pleasure at the price of eternal damnation. Collins’s later interest in the Fool, demonstrated in The Sleeping Fool, 1943 (Tate N06036), is well known, but he is recorded by Richard Burnett as having discussed it as a student of nineteen,[15] and The Quest may be evidence of the emerging theme.

As well as such literary sources, some details of the painting indicate that Collins was aware of the work of Max Beckmann. Although The Quest was made in the autumn of 1938 in Devon, Collins had spent the summer in London and Buckinghamshire.[16] This gave him the opportunity to see the Exhibition of 20th Century German Art at the New Burlington Galleries (July 1938), to which Hein Heckroth, his colleague at Dartington, was a contributor. The exhibition had been organised as a response to the Nazis’ attack on contemporary art. Beckmann’s works were hung in the main gallery, and they included his Versuchung Triptychon (Temptation Triptych), 1936-7 (Munich, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst),[17] on the theme of the temptation of the ascetic St Anthony. In the right-hand panel, the Devil’s sensual and material pleasures include a hotel bell-boy delivering a four-pointed crown, in front of a caged woman in a boat. In Der König (The King), 1937 (St Louis Art Museum),[18] which was also in the exhibition, the central figure bears a similar crown. Closely hemmed-in by two companions - one in a small pointed hat, another in a cowl - the King holds his left hand across his chest.

The attribute and pose of Beckmann’s Der König are those used by Collins for the King in The Quest. The two artists shared a concern with the corrupting influence of the material world, and circumstances may have allowed Collins’s spiritual quest to be equated with political reality. He was better informed than most of the situation in Germany through the presence at Dartington of German exiles. Furthermore, the cultural protest represented by the Exhibition of 20th Century German Art turned to the threat of war in September 1938 with the Munich Crisis. Diplomatic compromise resulted in the appeasement of Hitler and the German annexation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. The Quest was painted at this moment; in such circumstances the allegorical was particularly appropriate.

Mathtew Gale

July 1996

[1] Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1989, p.80.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Repr. ibid., p.81
[4] Repr. ibid. p.77
[5] Ibid. pp.17-18
[6] Tate Gallery Archive 923.2.1.1

[7] Tate Gallery questionnaire, 12 Dec. 1951

[8] William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London, 1988, p.53

[9] Ibid., p.49
[10] Ibid., p.115

[11] Judith Collins 1989, p.80
[12] T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems, London, 1940 and 1972, p.44
[13] Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.546
[14] Judith Collins 1989, p.80
[15] Anderson 1988, p.52

[16] Peter Goffin to Cecil Collins, letter 20 Sept. 1938; Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.538.
[17] Repr. Erhard and Barbara Göpel, Max Beckmann, Katalog der Gemälde, Bern 1976, vol.2, no.439, pls.150-2
[18] Repr. ibid. no.470, pl.163

You might like