HON. JOHN COLLIER, R. A.
(1850 – London – 1934)
Signed and dated lower left: John Collier / 95
Oil on canvas
33 x 49 inches (83.8 x 124.5 cm)
Sale, House & Son, Bournemouth, Dorset, 21 March 2017, lot 20.
W. H. Pollock, The Hon. John Collier, The Art Annual, London, 1914, ill. p 6.
This psychologically probing work by John Collier may be considered an early example of the artist’s popular “problem paintings.” Although this term was personally disliked by the artist and negated by critics alike, the public found great fascination with Collier’s depictions of mysterious domestic psychodramas. At a time when literary subjects were quickly going out of style, the artist continued to depict enigmatic narratives that left his viewer delightfully confounded and speculative as to what made up the greater story. The impact of many of Collier’s “problem paintings” lies in the tension between what can be seen and what cannot. In the current painting a young woman clad in a nightgown and holding a lit candlestick looks wide-eyed into the darkness behind her. Is she frightened or intrigued by what she sees? Collier breaks the barrier between her world and our reality by suggesting that the source of her shock is standing behind us. He employs darkness as an additional psychological mechanism, manipulating us to believe that if we look at the painting for a while longer our eyes will adjust and the secret will be revealed. Of course, it is most likely that Collier himself does not know the source of the drama.
While this painting may evoke the feeling of a candlelit George de la Tour Penitent Magdalene, the title, All Hallowe’en, moves us away from the art historical cannon and towards a folkloric lens. Bloody Mary, named for the infamously brutal Queen Mary I, was a popular ritual practiced by young women at the turn of the 20th century. Through catoptromancy, or divination using a mirror, it was believed one could conjure the image of her future husband by summoning Bloody Mary. However, should a skull appear in the mirror behind her, she was doomed to die before she could marry. The ritual became so popularized that seasonal greeting cards depicted images of women looking into mirrors with candles, reading inscriptions such as, “On Halloween look in the glass, your future husband’s face will pass.” Collier painted a number of supernatural subjects, most frequently taking the form of witches or other tropes taking the female form.
John Collier was the younger son of Sir Robert Collier, an amateur painter himself, but more notably an important lawyer and judge who went on to become the first Lord of Monkswell. After briefly considering a professional path of diplomacy, Collier made the decision to pursue painting and what would become his remarkably prolific and varied oeuvre. He was initially taken with the style of the Pre-Raphaelites and, due to his family connections, had the opportunity to work closely with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John Everett Millais. A talented portraitist, Collier was a popular option to capture the likenesses of wealthy patrons including Victorian nobility and Edwardian celebrities. He produced well over 1,100 paintings in his lifetime and was a frequent contributor to the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the latter for which he served as vice-president.