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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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English painter
born January 27 1850- died April 11 1934

Also known as:
Hon. John Collier, Hon. John Collier, John, Hon. Collier


Student of:

Son of:

Vice-president of:
The Society of Portrait Painters

Biographical Information

Obituary in The Times 12th April 1934.

Stories In Pictures.

The case of the Hon John Collier, who died yesterday at his home at Hampstead at the age of 84, warns us against narrowness in our definition of art. By some schools of opinion he would not be regarded as an artist at all. On the whole it seems wiser to regard him as an extreme instance of an artist for who art is primarily, if not exclusively the accurate - ‘truthful,’ begs the question - representation of the facts. Extremes are always interesting, and it is true that the works of John Collier, with their tacit assertion that what are regarded as artistic qualities do not matter, deserve more respect from those who do not like them, than those of many artists who aim at artistic qualities without achieving them. There is indeed something formidable about the way in which the paintings of Collier reduce the business of painting to accurate presentation. Not that he was entirely deficient in artistic feeling. His occasional paintings of the nude show at least an appreciation of line and a pleasure in the surfaces and textures, and some of his landscapes have charm, but the effects were transferred to, not created on the canvass. Beauty for him was a matter of subject and there the matter ended.

To the larger public Collier was famous mainly for his ‘problem pictures,’ such as The Death Sentence, The Return of the Prodigal, and The Fallen Idol; storytelling compositions that still left something to the ingenuity, rather than the imagination of the spectator. The man who created a description if not a form of picture cannot be called unimportant; and incidentally Collier’s pictures must have meant a small fortune to the Royal Academy when exhibited at Burlington House. He himself disliked the term ’problem picture.’ When in 1913 The Fallen Idol, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, a letter from the artist was read by a Minister in the Congregational Church at Wanstead. The artist wrote:

The weeping woman is the Fallen Idol. It is a young wife confessing to her middle-aged husband. The husband is a studious man, and has probably neglected her. At any rate the first thing that occurs to him is - is it my fault? I imagine he will forgive his wife.

Returning to the subject again in 1920, when he gave The Fallen Idol, to be sold for the benefit of St Dunstan’s, Collier protested again against his paintings being known as problem pictures:

They are nothing of the kind. The ones that have been so-termed merely depict the little tragedies of modern life, and I have always endeavoured to make the meanings perfectly plain. If I ever again paint a picture of modern life, which is doubtful, I shall give it a title a yard long, setting forth the history of the characters, and if necessary their names and addresses.

Collier’s annoyance is understandable, but the truth is that the discussion was itself a criticism of his artistic methods. The criticism took a comical turn when Collier’s picture of Clytemnestra was banned in a Northern City. Apart from the humour of the situation - the champion of orthodoxy in art was called to account as a disturber of public taste - the possible effects of a vivid representation of homicidal violence, but the root of the objection was the representation of Clytemnestra with her bloody dagger in that form of art. But it was not in his ‘problem pictures,’ that Collier made a serious contribution to the art of his time. In portraiture at any rate from a documentary point of view, his very limitations, his insistence on extreme accuracy as distinct from a generalised truth, were an advantage in his portraits of W.K. Clifford, Darwin, Huggins - the astronomer Huxley - George Smith, and Doctor J. Clifford in the National Portrait Gallery are far from being the least valuable in that institution. Collier painted many other eminent persons (Mr Rudyard Kipling and Miss Julia Nielson amongst them). In 1927 he was represented at the Royal Academy by a portrait of Mr Aldous Huxley his nephew - a quaint association in the reflective mind. He contributed paintings, sometimes portraits, sometimes symbolistic compositions such as The Summer Night That Paused Among Her Stars, to the Royal Academy each year with one exception since 1877. In 1931 a one man show of his works was held at the Museum Galleries at the Haymarket, in which his landscape studies were a pleasant surprise.

John Collier, who was born on 27th January 1850, was the second son of the eminent judge who afterwards became Lord Monkswell. After four years at Eton he went abroad to study French and German with the intention of joining the Diplomatic Service, but went instead to the City. His father did not oppose his desire to become a painter, but gave him an introduction to Alma-Tadema [1836-1912], who however could not take him as a pupil, so he went instead to the Slade School, afterwards studying in Paris and Munich. During the war he did good service as a temporary clerk at the Foreign Office. He was Vice-President of the Society of Portrait Painters whose Honorary Treasurer Mr G. Spencer Watson died on the same day. He was also the author of A Manual of Oil Painting, and A Primer of Art. He also gave much time to causes such as ‘Rationalism and Divorce.’ A thin bearded man he gave the impression of polite independence - a sort of quiet ruthlessness in personal intercourse and character which was reflected in his painting. His first marriage was to Marian, daughter of Professor Huxley, she died shortly after the birth of their only daughter Joyce, wife of Mr Drysdale Kilburn. In 1893 he married his first wife’s sister Ethel in Norway, the marrige resulting in two children, Mr Laurance Collier who is in the Diplomatic Service, and Joan the wife of Brigadier General F.A. Buzzard, being regularised in this country after The Deceased Wife’s Sister Act of 1907.

  • Victorian Art in Britan.
  •    Artist Portraits

       Artist Letters

    The Water Nymph

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    127 x 102 cm
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    Private collection

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    The Water Nymph

    Oil on canvas
    91.4 x 71.4 cm
    (35.98" x 28.11")
    Private collection

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    The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson

    Oil on canvas
    214 x 183.5 cm
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    Tate Britain (London, United Kingdom)

    Added: 2012-05-31
    Sleeping Beauty

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    142 x 111 cm
    (55.91" x 43.7")
    Private collection

    Added: 2011-03-22
    The Priestess of Bacchus

    oil on canvas
    147.5 x 112.5 cm
    (58.07" x 44.29")
    Private collection

    Added: 2011-08-31
    May, Agatha, Veronica, and Audrey - The Daughters of Colonel Makins, MP

    Oil on canvas
    182.88 x 213.36 cm
    (72" x 84")
    Private collection

    Added: 2012-05-31
    In the Venusberg Tannhauser

    Oil on canvas
    Private collection

    Added: 2001-12-11
    The Land Baby

    Oil on canvas
    142.2 x 112.4 cm
    (55.98" x 44¼")
    Private collection

    Added: 2002-03-15
    The Land Baby
    The Confession

    Oil on canvas
    112 x 142 cm
    (44.09" x 55.91")
    Private collection

    Added: 2002-07-09
    The Confession

    Oil on canvas
    86 x 46 cm
    (33.86" x 18.11")
    Private collection

    Added: 2002-10-09