The Waters of the Sun is among Cecil Collins’ most developed, lyrical paintings from his late period. The art historian John Rothenstein praised Collins as ‘an artist who has preserved a rare originality, and in spite of his highly sophisticated mind and eye, a moving innocence of spirit.’ These values resonate in The Waters of the Sun, a work composed of fluid lines and drawing from the fantastic imagery of Collins’ imagination. From his formative years, Collins sought to reveal a hidden world that lies beyond the visible. The subject here is a vast celestial body, circled in black and gold paint and emitting broad sweeps of black paint – the eponymous waters, perhaps.
The theme of water is further elaborated in the thinness of Collins’ paint. There are several areas of rich impasto, notably around the two orbs – the larger one at centre left and the smaller at upper right. The image is predominantly constructed, however, from large areas of thinned-out paint applied in a wash. The board was prepared with a pale blue colour, still visible in an amorphous area at the lower right of the picture. Onto this ground Collins began improvising his mystic landscape, filled with planet-like bodies, wide sweeps of the brush, unfinished outlines, and loaded, esoteric applications of paint.
This work is one of Collins’ ‘matricular’ paintings, a series of works based on pure imagination and driven by an improvisatory approach to execution. It was in the late nineteen-fifties that Collins resolved to make a change in his work. He discarded his previous manner of exacting outlines, turning instead to a less inhibited practice. As Judith Collins wrote for the Tate Gallery retrospective of Collins’ work in 1989,
This consisted of beginning with a loaded brush with a different colour in each hand, the eyes shut, and a gestural attack with the pigment on to the support. With the opening of the eyes, an image or idea emerged from the working of the paint. A fluid and creative collaboration between materials and manipulator ensued… The ‘matricular’ procedure was for Collins equivalent to the execution of a rite and it also performed for him a rite of passage.
In line with his other work from the early nineteen-sixties, such as the closely related Lyric Landscape (1962, Tate Collection), the brushwork in The Waters of the Sun is gestural and the composition conceived and developed on the board itself. Collins did not make preparatory studies for these works, preferring to let his imagination flow freely.
This uninhibited style of working relates to a number of Collins’ early influences. He was associated with surrealism for a short time in his formative years in the late 1930s, exhibiting two works in the International Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936. He later rejected surrealism and instead pursued his own, highly individual artistic themes – a mixture of mystic, Christian, neo-romantic and Far Eastern ideas. Nevertheless, the early connection with surrealism opened for Collins a world beyond the senses, a world of dreams and ancient magic. It is this world that he was reaching for in The Waters of the Sun. The ‘automatic’ practice at work in his ‘matricular’ paintings also indicates an admiration for the work of Paul Klee, an artist that Collins discovered in the nineteen-twenties as a student at the Royal College of Art. Collins’ work is also related to the visionary approach of Samuel Palmer and William Blake.
Reaching intuitively for that world beyond, Collins was not in the business of ‘explaining’ his work. He insisted that the meaning of his paintings could not be verbalised; the extra-sensory world of his imagination could not be contained by a neat summary. In an essay of 1943 to accompany an early cycle of work, The Vision of the Fool, Collins asserted that ‘Paintings and drawings cannot be explained. Like life, they are unexplainable.’
The Waters of the Sun was owned by Stephen Keynes, a discerning patron of art and a notable collector of Collins’ work with a personal connection to the artist. Keynes acquired the work from Collins in 1970. On 14 March 1970, Collins wrote to Keynes after he had visited the artist. ‘I felt strongly when you were here looking at the paintings that you were very much on the beam of the inner creativity of my painting, and that your intuition was in the flow of it. It is also a joy for me to be able to communicate that experience.’ He went on to ask Keynes ‘what distance your usual chair is from [the work].’ Following the purchase, Collins and his wife Elisabeth became friends with Keynes and his wife, and they visited one another on a regular basis.
Stephen and Elisabeth Keynes, acquired directly from the artist, 1970 Private Collection, by descent
1965, London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, Cecil Collins: Recent Paintings, 23 Feb. - 13 March 1965, cat. no. 21