John Collier

The Honourable John Maler Collier OBE RP ROI (27 January 1850 – 11 April 1934) was a leading English artist, and an author. He painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, and was one of the most prominent portrait painters of his generation. Both his marriages were to daughters of Thomas Henry Huxley. He studied painting at the Munich Academy where he enrolled on 14 April 1875 (Register: 3145) at the age of 25.

Collier's range of portrait subjects was broad. In 1893, for example, his subjects included the Bishop of Shrewsbury (Sir Lovelace Stamer); Sir John Lubbock FRS; A N Hornby (Captain of the Lancashire Eleven); Sir Edward Augustus Inglefield (Admiral and Arctic explorer). His commissioned portrait of the future King George V as Master of Trinity House in 1901 when Duke of York, and the Duke of Windsor when Prince of Wales were his major royal portraits. The latter work was hung in Durbar Hall, Jodhpur, Rajputana. Other subjects included two Lord Chancellors (the Earl of Selborne in 1882 and the Earl of Halsbury) in 1897; The Speaker of the House of Commons, William Gully, (1897); senior legal figures the Lord Chief Justice Lord Alverstone (1912) and the Master of the Rolls Sir George Jessel (1881).

Rudyard Kipling (1891); the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1884); the actors J.L. Toole (1887) and Madge Kendal, Ellen Terry and Herbert Beerbohm Tree (in The Merry Wives of Windsor) (1904); heads of educational institutions such as the Master of Balliol Edward Caird (1904), the Warden of Wadham G.E. Thorley (1889) and the Provost of Eton (1897). Soldiers such as Field Marshal Lord Kitchener of Khartoum (1911) and Field Marshal Sir Frederick Haines (1891); two Indian maharajahs, including the Maharajah of Nepal (1910); and scientists including Charles Darwin (1882), the artist's father-in-law Professor Huxley (1891), William Kingdom Clifford, James Prescott Joule and Sir Michael Foster (1907). Clark reports a total of thirty-two Huxley family portraits during the half-century after his first marriage.

A photocopy of John Collier's Sitters Book (made in 1962 from the original in the possession of the artist's son) can be consulted in the National Portrait Gallery Heinz Archive and Library. This is the artist's own handwritten record of all his portraits, including name of subject, date, fee charged, and details of any major exhibitions of the picture in question. Collier died in 1934. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (volume for 1931–40, published 1949) compares his work to that of Frank Holl because of its solemnity. This is only true, however, of his many portraits of distinguished old men — his portraits of younger men, women and children, and his so-called "problem pictures", covering scenes of ordinary life, are often very bright and fresh.

His entry in the Dictionary of Art (1996 vol 7, p569), by Geoffrey Ashton, refers to the invisibility of his brush strokes as a "rather unexciting and flat use of paint" but contrasts that with "Collier's strong and surprising sense of colour" which "created a disconcerting verisimilitude in both mood and appearance". The Dictionary of Portrait Painters in Britain up to 1920 (1997) describes his portraits as "painterly works with a fresh use of light and colour".

Collier's views on religion and ethics are interesting for their comparison with the views of Thomas and Julian Huxley, both of whom gave Romanes lectures on that subject. In The religion of an artist (1926) Collier explains "It [the book] is mostly concerned with ethics apart from religion... I am looking forward to a time when ethics will have taken the place of religion... My religion is really negative. [The benefits of religion] can be attained by other means which are less conducive to strife and which put less strain on upon the reasoning faculties." On secular morality: "My standard is frankly utilitarian. As far as morality is intuitive, I think it may be reduced to an inherent impulse of kindliness towards our fellow citizens." His views on ethics, then, were very close to the agnosticism of T.H. Huxley and the humanism of Julian Huxley.

On the idea of God: "People may claim without much exaggeration that the belief in God is universal. They omit to add that superstition, often of the most degraded kind, is just as universal." And "An omnipotent Deity who sentences even the vilest of his creatures to eternal torture is infinitely more cruel than the cruellest man." And on the Church: "To me, as to most Englishmen, the triumph of Roman Catholicism would mean an unspeakable disaster to the cause of civilization." And on non-conformists: "They have a superstitious belief in the actual words of the Bible which is very dangerous".

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