Cecil Collins

The Sleeping Fool


Not on display

Cecil Collins 1908–1989
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 298 × 400 mm
frame: 435 × 534 × 70 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1951

Display caption

Collins used the character of 'The Fool' as an actor in many of his paintings. For him the Fool represented a state of innocence and spiritual purity. In an essay entitled 'The Vision of the Fool' Collins explained that he saw the qualities of the Fool as essential to creativity and inspiration: 'The saint, the artist, and the poet are all one in the Fool, in him they live, in him the poetic imagination of life lives.' In this painting the Fool and his muse are depicted with their eyes closed in reverie, surrounded by flowers.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 301 x 403 mm (11 7/8 x 15 7/8 in)

Inscribed by the artist in red oil paint ‘Cecil Collins 1943’ bottom right
Inscribed by the artist on back in black oil paint ‘Cecil Collins | <...?iED> | <Enchanted> | <Image> | <Painting> <...>’ at right angles with top at right; and in black oil paint ‘“The Sleeping Fool” | 1943 | By | Cecil | Collins’ across top; and in another hand in pencil ‘AR 252’ on bottom return of canvas. Stamped ‘Winsor & Newton’ centre, and ‘STUDENT’ left edge
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, London 1951

Purchased from the artist by the Contemporary Art Society, London 1943

Cecil Collins, Alex. Reid and Lefevre, London, Feb. 1944 (5)
Contemporary British Art, British Council tour, Royal Agricultural Hall, Gezira, Cairo, January 1945 (6), Alexandria, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa, Rome, Algiers, 1945-6 (6) Oran, Rabat, 1946 (no catalogue found for venues after Cairo)
A Selection of Paintings and Drawings acquired by the CAS, Arts Council, London, March 1948 (7)
Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Tapestries 1928-1959, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Nov.-Dec. 1959 (31)
The Prints of Cecil Collins, Tate Gallery, London, Aug.-Nov, 1981 (ix, 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. (24, repr.) repr. in col. p.46
Cecil Collins: Full Circle, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov. 1990-Jan. 1991 (25, repr.)

CAS Report 1942-43, London 1943, p.9
I.C. ‘Art: Cecil Collins’, Catholic Herald, 11 Feb. 1944, p.3
R.H. Wilenski, English Painting, 3rd ed., London 1954, p.294, pl.167a
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, pp.137-8, 144, pl.16
Kathleen Raine, Cecil Collins: Painter of Paradise, Ipswich 1979, p.18
Andy Christian, ‘The Realm Where Fools Are Wise’, Christian Science Monitor, 6 June 1979, p.20, repr.
Richard Morphet, ‘Collins’s Vision’, The Prints of Cecil Collins, Tate Gallery, London 1981, pp.8-9
John Lane, ‘Neglected Monster of Mystic Vision’, Dartington Voice, April 1982 (repr.)
Sir John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: vol. 3 Hennell to Hockney, London 1984, p.124, pl.7 (col.)
Philip Vann, ‘The Poet’s Vision’, The Artist, vol.101, no.1, Jan. 1986, p.7
Robert Rosenblum, ‘British Twentieth Century Art: A Transatlantic View’, British Art in the 20th Century, exh. cat. Royal Academy, London 1987, p.98, fig.11
William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, pp.12-13, 79, 106, repr. p.34, pl.15 (col.)
Charles Pickstone, ‘Cecil Collins: Misguided Vision?’, Apollo, vol.130, Aug. 1989, p.114
Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, pp.22, 83-4

Stephen Spender, ‘The Work and Opinions of Cecil Collins’, Horizon, vol.9, no.50, Feb. 1944, opposite p.117
Alex Comfort, Cecil Collins: Paintings and Drawings 1935-45, Oxford 1946 [p.25]
Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool, London 1947, pl.28
John Russell, From Sickert to 1948: The Achievement of the Contemporary Art Society, London 1948, p.103, pl.94
Painter and Sculptor, vol.1, no.1, Spring 1958, on cover
John Rothenstein, British Art Since 1900, London 1962, pl.105 (col.)
Robert Hewison, Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45, London 1977, pl.25
P.L. Travers, ‘The Younger Brother, Illustrated with the Art of Cecil Collins’, in Parabola: Myth and the Quest for Meaning, vol.4, no.1, 1979, p.40
Alan Bowness, British Contemporary Art 1910-1990: Eighty Years of Collecting by the Contemporary Art Society, London 1991, p.81 (col.)

The Sleeping Fool belongs to Cecil Collins’s cycle of works on the theme of the Fool. He began the series around 1939, originally calling them ‘The Holy Fools’. By 1960, when he was still adding to the series, he had changed the general title to ‘The Vision of the Fool’ to accord with his book of that name.[1] Often accompanied by other figures, the compositions always included a fool, whom Collins saw as a symbolic innocent amid modern corruption and materialism, especially during World War II. The Sleeping Fool was the first of Collins’s works to enter the Tate Gallery collection (in 1951). Soon after completion, it was bought for the Contemporary Art Society by John Rothenstein, then director of the Tate, who visited Collins at a studio he had borrowed in Carlton House Mews.[2]

The small commercially prepared canvas went through a number of vicissitudes. Both the heavy surface and the partially obscured inscription on the reverse indicate the presence of an underlying composition. In reusing the canvas - an action which may reflect wartime shortages of materials as well as his dissatisfaction with the result - the artist applied a layer of white lead oil paint. Although this has hampered investigation, an x-ray has been achieved which exposes the general pattern of underlying forms:[3] underneath the flowering branch lies a large circle (more than a third of the height of the canvas), while lines radiate from a point in the opposite corner. These two features are linked by parabolic curves which cross the composition to enclose a central diamond area. All seem to have been incised into the original ground and, once recognised, they are discernible to the naked eye in the surface of The Sleeping Fool. The legible part of the first inscription on the reverse indicates that the obliterated work was Enchanted Image, 1934; Collins exhibited a small painting of this title (modestly priced 11 guineas) at the Bloomsbury Gallery, London in 1935 and the Barn Studio, Dartington two years later (with the price reduced to 6 guineas).[4] The orientation of the inscription would suggest that the circle was in the bottom right of this composition. Possibly a sun opposed by a radiating star, these residual images suggest that Enchanted Image displayed cosmological forms comparable to The Cells of Night (Tate T01478), while the fluid lines may be related to The Eternal Journey, 1934 (private collection).[5]

In making The Sleeping Fool over the earlier work, the artist achieved his characteristic rough impasto surface, perhaps applied with a knife. Over this, the fine details of the composition were laid in his usual oil/turpentine mix, apart from the mauve jacket of the fool which is in a water soluble medium.[6] The painting was amongst those blown off the wall when a German bomb fell near the Lefevre Galleries during Collins’s exhibition there in February 1944. It does not seem to have suffered. However, cleavage has occurred between the first and second layers of priming, resulting in the irregular craquelure of the surface and its general fragility. It remains in the original frame, which, according to the artist, was made by a friend.[7]

The composition of The Sleeping Fool is determined by the relationship between the three horizontal elements: the fool, the branch and the serpentine horizon in between. These are balanced by the uprights of the girl, the tree and the fool’s hat. The landscape setting is far from naturalistic: the sky is opaque, while the cruciform tree combines two contrasting forms of foliage. Some of the smaller details - especially the grading of the brushstrokes for the grass and the lighting of the hills - give a sense of recession but the resolution of the composition as a design dominates. This treatment of the grass and the tree appeared in the same relationship in the contemporary painting, The Secret, 1943 (private collection),[8] where they are partially masked from a reader at a table by a crumbled brick wall. The flowery meadow in both compositions recalls paintings of ten years earlier, such as Scene in Paradise, 1932 (whereabouts unknown),[9] in which it takes on a visionary significance. Stephen Spender identified the fictive nature of Collins’s landscapes in a passage published opposite a reproduction of The Sleeping Fool. He wrote: ‘The landscapes in Collins’ pictures are almost naïvely humanized, or perhaps I should say feminized, because the natural scenery, flowers, breast-like mountains and hills, thick foliage, nearly always suggests the feminine.’[10]

A concern with the picture surface is evident in the colouring and language of signs. The colour is largely determined by a purple / green polarity, with the figures, flowers and pink sky set against the rest of nature. This scheme is enlivened by the fool’s yellow trousers and dashes of red (in the trousers, shoes, and the girl’s cheek). The peculiarity of the tree is further exaggerated by the graining of its bark which, in common with Collins’s other trees, has the appearance of an animal pelt. This graining is part of the overall detailing found in the veins of the leaves and the blades of grass. Richard Morphet has remarked that the painting is ‘composed of elementary forms - the line, the dot, the disc, the star, the cone, the arc - and of equally “elementary” images - fold, hat, chair, flower, tree, hill.’[11] This reflects the artist’s personal vocabulary of form.

The relationship between the two figures is central to the painting. Their difference in size sets up a plunging space which contrasts with the slight diminution in the grass and flowers, but they are linked by the fact that they have their eyes closed. In proposing that ‘it is a picture about love’, Morphet has observed that the closed eyes, ‘denote the inwardness of their relationship and of the reality which they share’.[12] In keeping with the title, the artist raised the possibility of the scene being dream-like. He referred to Alice’s encounter with Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, in which the girl’s existence was predicated upon the vision of the dreamer: ‘“If that King was to wake” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out - bang - just like a candle!”’[13] The position of the fool and the gesture of his right hand raised to his brow tend to reinforce the possibility that the image is a glimpse of his dream. In using this device Collins was not alone. In the year preceding the conception of The Sleeping Fool, the Tate Gallery purchased Marc Chagall’s Le Poète allongé, 1915 (Tate N05390). Like Collins, Chagall stretched out the poet (an alter-ego) across the base of a bucolic scene, topped by a lilac sky. Collins could have seen the work in London in 1942 as it was bought from an exhibition at the Leicester Galleries[14] and shown amongst the Tate Gallery’s Wartime Acquisitions at the National Gallery (April-May) and then at the Royal Exchange (July-August).[15] Rothenstein was responsible for the purchase of both the Chagall (as Director of the Tate) and The Sleeping Fool (as advisor to the Contemporary Art Society).

Just as the fool is a symbolic figure in this painting, so is the girl. It is significant that she is not given the features of the artist’s wife, but has the generalised appearance of the invented figures of the 1930s, such as the triangular-faced figures in The Fall of Lucifer (Tate T07731). This suggests her archetypal role. Her long hair identifies her with the innocent child dressing in green in The Pilgrim Fool, 1943 (private collection).[16] This is certainly closely related to The Sleeping Fool in theme and conception (even in size), and shows the two innocents walking hand in hand from a burning city. Judith Collins has associated that scene with the blitz of Plymouth, which was visible from Dartington;[17] the bombing had enforced the evacuation of Collins’s mother from the city and, although he had severed all contact, her death in 1943 brought a important break with his past. In considering the companions in The Pilgrim Fool, Judith Collins has added that ‘the female child is his soul, his anima, the most valuable of his possessions which he is saving from the destruction’.[18] This role of the spirit of innocence in the midst of destruction had also been allotted to a girl by Picasso in his etching, Minotauromachia, 1935 (Musée Picasso, Paris).

The Sleeping Fool, The Pilgrim Fool and The Return, 1943 (collection Mary Fedden)[19] were shown in the Lefevre Galleries exhibition in early 1944. In them, the identifying headgear of the fool undergoes a series of changes. The two-pointed crown in The Pilgrim Fool is made more complex in The Return, and both, as David Mellor has intimated,[20] appear to derive from the design for the crowned prince in the Ballet Jooss’s A Spring Tale, 1939. Mellor added that Collins may have been interested in the production, as the story was based on ‘another kind of pilgrimage to spiritual consummation and ecstasy; the myth of Die Brautfahrt, the bridal quest’. Collins’s series was versatile enough to encompass both the joyful quest of the ballet, comparable to the ‘pantomime costume’ of The Sleeping Fool, and the post-apocalyptic image of The Pilgrim Fool.[21]

In 1944 Stephen Spender (who owned The Pilgrim Fool and visited Dartington) called Collins ‘a traditionalist who has lived deeply into part of the English tradition.’ He compared the series to Keats’s idea of poetic being, and to Elizabethan and Restoration fools.[22] Anderson has also noted that Enid Welsford’s The Fool: His Social and Literary History (1935) had already appeared,[23] although the painter did not come across the author or the study until he moved to Cambridge after the war. Spender’s emphasis may have been predicated on wartime conditions, as, in 1946, Alex Comfort could write: ‘The series strikes deeply into the peasant tradition of thought and conduct which is certainly not English - they come from the same stem that produced puppet shows and much Russian ballet.’[24] As well as Zoschenko and Schweik, whom Comfort named, he presumably meant Kaspar (the German equivalent of Punch) and Petruschka. As symbols of liberation he distinguishes these from what he called the ‘perplexed intellectual’ exemplified by Picasso’s Harlequins.

This source for the Fool in Central European folklore as transmitted through the circle of the Ballet Jooss, is confirmed by Elisabeth Collins. She has written: ‘I had made a drawing of a Fool, Heckroth saw it and was enchanted. He eagerly talked about the Fool and its implications, about the need of its magic in our time, and from that day Cecil’s Fool work started’.[25] She recently enlarged upon this account, saying that, on seeing her drawing, Heckroth, ‘fired Cecil, who had seen it before and thought nothing. But then Heckroth had great powers of illuminating things and he just said, “Marvellous” ... that was the first thing we had heard about the Fool in that connection’.[26] The drawing in question, The First Fool, 1939 (private collection),[27] shows a fool, in a spotted and striped costume and pointed hat, falling with an arrow in his chest. Two figures salute from behind a wall, while the presence of a crowned girl may suggest that he has been struck down by a cupid’s arrow. Whether this scenario reflects the Ballet Jooss’s A Spring Tale, as seems likely, the impetus given by Heckroth - the ballet company’s designer - was crucial. Anderson, presumably informed by Collins himself, indicates that Heckroth ‘began to talk about the importance of the theme in European art and folklore’.[28] There is no account of these specific links, but asked if Heckroth saw her drawing in a particular way, Elisabeth Collins replied: ‘The way he talked about it was the way that Cecil talks about it later - same thing exactly, in a more German, more positive [way].’[29]

The first of Collins’s drawings on the theme, The Meeting of Fools, 1939 (private collection),[30] was satirical and stylistically indebted to Picasso. This gave way to the more measured mood of the small canvases of 1943. In the intervening period, he began to write The Vision of the Fool, published in 1947. There the theories were worked out as part of the artist’s personal philosophy, of which the Fool was the central character and - as a poetic spirit - an alter-ego. It was a plea for individualism and pacifism, the visionary and the poetic in a modern world dominated by materialist notions of the ‘useful’ determined by the restrictive power of politicians and scientists. Collins felt the artist to be set apart, and, in drawing a parallel between the Fool and Christ,[31] believed that position to be privileged and deserving of recognition outside established religion. Stressing the innocence of the Fool and the corrupting influence of society, he wrote:

modern society has succeeded very well in rendering poetic imagination, Art, and Religion, the three magical representatives of life, an heresy; the living symbol of that heresy is the Fool. The Fool is the poetic imagination of life, as inexplicable as the essence of life itself. This poetic life, born in all human beings, lives in them while they are children, but it is killed in them when they grow up in the abstract mechanisation of contemporary society[32]

Lamenting society’s marginalising of art as ‘something odd’ and an ‘uneasy amusement’, Collins also proposed that civilisation only existed where ‘there also exists some degree of reverence for the Fool in men’.[33] The innocence and humility attributed to the artist / Fool made him a charitable as well as a poetic figure, ‘whose careless empirical gaiety and overflowing mercy, embraces life ... he is the sorrow of life’.[34] Further on Collins asserted that ‘all lovers are one with the Fool’,[35] but this is the tragic love of a generous innocent saviour, who, ‘wearing his fantastic garments of love, makes his wild painful gestures of tenderness before the suffering of all the living ones in the Universe’.[36] It is in this conjunction of the artist / Fool as innocent lover that the text most closely coincides with the image of The Sleeping Fool.

The Vision of the Fool became much more than the introduction to the series of ‘The Holy Fools’ it purported to be. In its visionary - even pessimistic - language it constituted a personal manifesto which, though written during the war, proposed a revision of values for the post-war world. Collins’s text reflected Herbert Read’s view of the poet as an isolated innocent. The artist had introduced the critic’s lecture ‘The ABC of Art’ at Dartington in 1941 and, according to Peter Goffin,[37] had read Read’s Poetry and Anarchism. The Vision of the Fool also reflected Collins’s association with the ‘apocalyptic’ poets, including Stefan Shimanski and Henry Treece - editors of Transformation where the preliminary text ‘The Anatomy of the Fool’ was published[38] - and Alex Comfort (the author of the 1946 monograph on the artist). Another member of this circle, Wray Gardiner published the volume itself through his Grey Walls Press.

The artist came to be identified with the series of paintings. Comfort called them: ‘Collins’ chief claim to importance as a painter ... relevant where the vast bulk of imaginative work has become irrelevant’.[39] This focus had been encouraged by John Piper, who had advised Collins to concentrate on selecting the Fools for the exhibition at Lefevre’s in February 1944.[40] As well as favourable reviews (by Piper amongst others) the peculiar circumstances of the exhibition - curtailed by the nearby bomb and re-opened on a different site - helped to bring Collins renewed attention. He later regarded The Sleeping Fool, which was shown there, as one on his five ‘Chief works’.[41]

Matthew Gale
March 1996

[1] Cecil Collins, letter to Tate Gallery, 5 March 1960, Tate catalogue files
[2] Sir John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Wood to Hockney, London 1974, pp.137-8

[3] Tate photographic files, April 1996
[4] Cecil Collins, Bloomsbury Gallery, London, Oct. 1935 (8) and Paintings and Drawings by Cecil Collins, The Barn Studio, Dartington Hall, Devon, June 1937 (1)
[5] Repr. Judith Collins, Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1989, p.77, no.7

[6] Tate conservation files
[7] Ibid.

[8] Repr., Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings, ed. Brian Keeble, Ipswich 1994, p.147, pl.3 (col.)
[9] Repr. William Anderson, Cecil Collins: The Quest for the Great Happiness, London 1988, p.35, fig.17
[10] Stephen Spender, ‘The Work and Opinions of Cecil Collins’, Horizon, vol.9, no.50, Feb. 1944, p.117

[11] Richard Morphet, ‘Collins’s Vision’ in The Prints of Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1981, p.8

[12] Ibid.
[13] Judith Collins 1989, p.84
[14] New Year Exhibition, Leicester Galleries, London, Jan. 1942
[15] Tate Gallery’s Wartime Acquisitions, National Gallery, London, April-May, Royal Exchange, London, July-Aug. 1942

[16] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.82, no.19
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.

[19] Repr. Judith Collins 1989, p.82, no.20
[20] David Mellor, ‘The Body and the Land’, in David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, p.20
[21] Judith Collins 1989, p.82

[22] Spender 1944, pp.117-18
[23] Anderson 1988, p.53
[24] Alex Comfort, Cecil Collins: Paintings and Drawings 1935-45, Oxford 1946, p.10

[25] Elisabeth Collins, ‘Cecil Collins: A Memoir’ in The Vision of the Fool; Early Drawings by Cecil Collins, exh. cat., Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1991, pp.9-10
[26] Elisabeth Collins, interview with the author, 26 Feb. 1996
[27] Repr. Elisabeth Collins, Gouaches, Drawings and Sculptures, exh. cat., Albemarle Gallery, London 1989, p.5
[28] Anderson 1988, p.52
[29] Interview, 26 Feb. 1996

[30] Repr. Anderson 1988, p.54, no.28
[31] Cecil Collins, The Vision of the Fool, London 1947, p.18

[32] Ibid. p.17

[33] Ibid., p.20
[34] Ibid., p.19
[35] Ibid., p.22
[36] Ibid., p.23

[37] Peter Goffin, letter to Cecil Collins, 30 Oct. 1938, Tate Gallery Archive 923.4.2.539
[38] ‘The Anatomy of the Fool’, Transformation, no.3, 1945

[39] Alex Comfort, Cecil Collins: Paintings and Drawings 1935-45, Oxford 1946, p.11
[40] John Piper, letter to Cecil Collins, 7 Nov. 1943, Tate Archive TGA 923.4.2.1396
[41] Tate Questionnaire, 12 Dec. 1951, Tate catalogue files


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