Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Sunday 21 February 2016

John Collier - 'Sacred and Profane Love' and other images of women

'Sacred and Profane Love' (1919), John Collier, Northampton Museum and Art Galleries

The name of the painter John Collier (1850-1934) isn't widely known eighty years after his death. Probably only specialists in British art of the period would recognise it, and there doesn't ever seem to have been a book devoted to him. Yet there are no fewer than 182 oil paintings by him in British public collections (see here), (two thirds of them portraits), he has a reasonably substantial Wikipedia entry, and at least three of his pictures would be familiar to most dabblers in the arts ('Godiva', 'Lilith', and his 1881 portrait of Charles Darwin*).

His 'Sacred and Profane Love' is in the collection of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, but is rarely on display.** (I've visited the gallery half a dozen times or more over the years, but I've only seen the picture once.) It shows two women seated on a sofa in a grand Georgian room; the one on the left, evidently representing 'sacred love', sits in sedate though relaxed style, her left arm propped up on a cushion and her gaze demurely directed away from that of the viewer. She is holding a furled fan in her lap, perhaps suggesting reticence, and is wearing a fairly modest (though probably expensive) full-length dress. Her dark hair is neatly coiffed. 

The other woman ('profane love'), who is blonde, is perched on the sofa's arm, as if she's ready to spring up and into the arms of the viewer, whose eyes she meets with an uncompromisingly direct gaze. She flourishes an extravagant fan in the form of a feather with tipsy abandon, and is wearing a shimmering emerald dress (a prototype of the flapper dresses of the Roaring Twenties) which leaves plenty of flesh exposed. (Collier's painting of the dress is literally and metaphorically brilliant.) She hasn't got her feet on the ground, or hardly - merely a toe-tip, unlike her more grounded, down-to-earth and reliable companion. The tassel of the bright red cushion on which she leans hangs, lustrous and free.

In the round mirror on the wall behind them (though Collier allows only a little more than a half of it to feature in his composition) we see the reflection of a man who has presumably just entered the room to find the two women awaiting him. He's a soldier; he seems to be wearing campaign or medal ribbons. I can't make out his rank, but given the high social status of his surroundings I assume he's an officer. 

The date of the painting adds poignancy: 1919. We can guess that the soldier has recently returned from the war, and will perhaps soon be demobilised, and is considering which path to choose. Will he pick the steady, serious first woman, and the steady, serious life that she'll bring, or the fun, frivolous life that will come with the second? He might well think that he deserves some light-hearted pleasure after the terrors he's escaped. 

Are the two women in the picture painted from the same model (though with different hair)? If so, then perhaps we're justified in interpreting the picture as not being about the soldier's choice between two mutually exclusive opposites, but instead seeing it as implying that women, and men, and indeed life itself, should be simultaneously sacred and profane, serious and frivolous. The soldier hasn't got to choose between two women and two lifestyles: he can live a life combining both. The brunette and the blonde are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same personality. 

Intriguingly, Collier had two wives, who were sisters, daughters of Thomas Huxley (who was extremely important in making Darwin's theories widely accepted). He first married Marian or Marion (known as Mady) Huxley (1859-1887) in 1879. She was a painter, studying like her husband at the Slade, and exhibiting at the RA and elsewhere. There are unfortunately only two oil paintings by her in British public collections, portraits of her father and husband, both very accomplished.

'John Collier' (1882-3), Marion Collier, National Portrait Gallery
In the portrait of her husband she depicts him painting her (a version of his portrait of her seen below) in what looks like their home, rather than a studio, and dressed in everyday clothes, rather than an overall or apron. He's caught very much in the act, palette knife in hand and, slightly comically, paint brush between his teeth. The foreshortened and diminished picture of her on the easel regards her husband steadfastly as she, the painter, examines him clinically, though not without affection.

Very sadly, after the birth of their only daughter, Joyce, she suffered from severe post-natal depression (mental health problems ran in the Huxley family) and was taken to Paris for treatment, where however she died of pneumonia aged only 28. 

'Marion Collier, nee Huxley' (1883), John Collier, National Portrait Gallery
It's tempting to think that one can see evidence of this distress in Collier's portrait of Marion: the downcast eyes, the sombre expression, the black clothes, the bleak background.

Joyce Collier went on to become a successful portrait miniaturist (as Joyce Crawshay-Williams, and from 1918 as Joyce Kilburn), and lived until 1972.

Two years after Mady's death, Collier married Huxley's youngest daughter (there were five in all), Ethel (1866-1941), in 1889. The wedding had to take place in Norway, as at the time it was illegal in Britain to marry one's wife's sister, even if the former were deceased. John and Ethel had a son and a daughter; their son, Laurence (1890-1976) became a diplomat and kept up the family's Norwegian connection by becoming Britain's ambassador to that country from 1939-50.

It is merely the wildest speculation to suppose that when Collier was painting 'Sacred and Profane Love' he was thinking of Mady and Ethel. (You'll notice, however, that by simultaneously mentioning and discounting this possibility I'm having my cake and eating it.)

Nudes aren't common in early Victorian art (Etty is one of the few painters who broke this convention), but in the later Victorian and Edwardian periods artists such as Alma Tadema, Waterhouse and Poynter painted unclothed females, usually in historical or mythological settings (so they're not strictly nudes), and Collier joined this trend.

'Lilith' (1889), John Collier, Atkinson Art Gallery Collection, Southport
Collier painted this picture of Lilith (Adam's first wife, according to Jewish folklore) in 1889, the year he married Ethel.*** This appears to be among his earliest nudes, and it's certainly one of his most striking. Lilith is depicted as a dangerously desirable sexy succubus; she's evidently on more than good terms with the snake. Any love one gets from her is going to be as profane as profane can be.

'Maenads' (1886), John Collier, Southwark Art Collection
More dangerous women are seen in 'Maenads' (the 'raving ones' of Greek mythology); I wouldn't put much money on the safety of the animal (deer? goat?) on the bottom left, or indeed on the safety of anything or anyone who happens to cross their path.

'Clytemnestra' (c.1914), John Collier, Worcester City Museums
Clytemnestra is the most fatale of all Collier's femmes; she strides towards us, blood dripping from the sword with which she's just murdered her husband, Agamemnon, and the Trojan princess Cassandra. Collier was drawn to this subject; this is his second version.

'Clytemnestra' (1882), John Collier, City of London Corporation
I prefer the second version: she looks defiant (rather than stunned, as in the first) but her bare breasts make her look vulnerably human, and the drip of blood on the stone floor is a superbly dramatic touch.

'Godiva' (1898), John Collier, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry
'Godiva' is perhaps Collier's best-loved painting. Sacred love is evident in her youth, beauty and innocence. Her lack of clothing is quite unlike the defiant nudity of Lilith. She is sacrificing her dignity to help the citizens of Coventry; her downcast eyes reveal her acute embarrassment, and perhaps also relate her to his first wife.

'The Sinner' (1904), John Collier, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath
Sacred and profane love co-exist in the story implied by 'The Sinner'. The woman, beautiful and luxuriously clothed but wringing her hands in despair and distress, presses herself urgently against a confessional in a Catholic or Anglo-Catholic church. She has committed a sin - most viewers would guess it to have been adultery - and is now repentant and begging for absolution.

I've merely touched on one aspect of Collier's oeuvre, but he was prolific (many provincial galleries have examples) and worked in a wide range of genres - landscapes, problem paintings (a term he rejected), genre paintings, history paintings, as well as of course portraits, which presumably provided his staple income. He wrote manuals about how to paint, one of which seems to be still in print. He must have seemed terribly old-fashioned in the last few decades of his life, but with the perspective of history we can perhaps judge him more fairly, and, like many of the subjects I choose for these posts, I think he's been unjustly underrated.

I've written previously about another, even more obscure, Victorian artist, Eric Forbes-Robertson - see here.

* His portrait of Darwin at the end of his life is instantly recognisable, though there's nothing in it alluding to his scientific career. He has doffed his hat to the viewer, revealing a splendidly domed bald head, echoing that of the Pantheon (though I don't know if he, as a secularist, would have welcomed such a comparison).

'Charles Darwin' (1881), John Collier, Linnaen Society, Burlington House

** I believe that it's currently hanging in Northampton's Guildhall, opposite the Museum and Art Gallery, so at least it's seen by some, but I don't think you can just walk in off the street to see it.

*** Doctor Google can't make up his or her mind about when this picture was painted; dates range from 1886 to 1892. It's possible Collier painted more than one version, hence the confusion. 1889 is the date assigned to it by Your Paintings, which I assume is reliable.

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