"Soar to higher things" - The Late Pre-Raphaelite Art of John Collier

27 January 1850, the English painter John Maler Collier was born in London.

"Imagination is not antagonistic to knowledge. On the contrary, the highest imagination is that which can assimilate all kinds of knowledge and make use of it as a vantage ground from which to soar to higher things." (John Collier)

John Collier: "Lady Godiva" (1898)

Actually, grim Earl Leofric, who ruled Mercia from his seat in Coventry at some time before the Conquest in the 11th century, was hardly a heartless, dry-witted Medieval version of Ebenezer Scrooge. He left the Church and the abbeys in his domains with rich donations and they don’t seem to have been extorted from starving Mercian peasantry either. But there’s the legend of course, one of the best-known from the Middle Ages at least in the English-speaking world, of his wife Godiva, begging for tax deduction lest the poor peasantry starves to death. Grim, dry-witted Leofric, striding through his Gothic halls with the wolfhounds at his side his only friends, as Lord Tennyson lets us believe, cast a cold eye on the countess’ jewellery and retorted with villainous laughter that he would consider an abatement of tax if she would ride naked through Coventry. And Lady Godiva famously did, her nakedness covered only with her long tresses, riding her palfrey “trapt In purple blazon'd with armorial gold” through the streets while the good and obviously well-mannered Mercians kept to their homes, closed their doors and shuttered their windows to spare their advocate the public humiliation her cold hearted hubby had in view. Or the grim earl himself had second thoughts in regards to public opinion and good family repute and ordered the Coventrians inside before any Dick, Tom or Harry might ogle his wife. One Tom did, though, after drilling a hole in his shutters and was promptly struck blind by the wrath of God, the fate of the original “Peeping Tom”. The story is too good to be true, of course, and whether Godiva’s tale is an allusion to the less chaste days of yore, when the pagan Anglo Saxons or even the Celtic Dobunni before them led the May Queen sitting on a horse through their settlements to ensure fertility or if the tale is just a late Medieval old men’s fantasy is still debated. However, the topic became quite popular in 19th century poetry as well as visual arts and it is somewhat unusual that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with their predilection for sensuous sujets, the Middle Ages and social romantics, omitted Lady Godiva until Leighton and Collier looked into the matter during the 1890s.

John Collier: "A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia" (1893)

Ironically enough, the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt et al had virtually dissolved, when Collier was just three years old. “To have genuine ideas to express; To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote; And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues” was their wonderfully quirky manifesto, vivid colours, Romantic exaltation of mental states and a sometimes ruthless realism their trademark, Shakespeare and Keats, medieval history and legends their counterdraft to the infatuation with the narrative of Classical antiquity of Academic art, imagined life captured and mirrored with the craggy bloom of Gothic architecture and symbolic stylization of Medieval and early Renaissance imagery instead of the accommodatingly curved and mannerly coloured creations of the Academics. Two generations after the Brotherhood had split and “every man for himself” became the motto, the seeds for the development of trends coining the mindset of late Victorian and early Edwardian art were sown, Symbolism, Aestheticism, Arts-and-Crafts, Decadence and Art Nouveau and even the so-called “problem pictures”. With depicting “Christ in the House of His Parents” in 1850, sans transfiguration, realistically, almost like slum dwellers with Mary “....so hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England”, at least according to Charles Dickens, Millais had not only caused a scandal but set the pace for depicting realities that existed beyond the walls of the academies and studios or fashionable West End addresses. Nothing too harsh, mind you, but usually everyday drama, contemporary, more often than not, that usually confronted the viewer with a narrative hinting at several possible backgrounds and outcomes of the displayed dilemma. Collier did a few of these, along with portraits of some of the age’s most iconic personages, writers, actors, politicos, soldiery, royalty and besides that, he was one of the last of the Pre-Raphaelites.

John Collier: "The Prodigal Daughter" (1903)

Aside from a personal tragedy or two, Collier led a remarkably uneventful life for a notable 19th century artist. Admittedly, the days, when the artistic approach of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were considered avant-garde and quite shocking were over for at least two decades, but still, marrying first one and then, after her sister’s death, the other daughter of “Darwin’s Bulldog” and grandfather of “Brave New World” Aldous, Thomas Henry Huxley, can be considered as mostly harmless in contrast to, e.g., the exploits of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who, admittedly, was avant-garde during his life and times. A secular morality, more or less Darwinian views on life and death and a general agnosticism from the Huxley mint did not do his popularity as one of England’s foremost painters at the turn of the century any harm either. It had become quite a custom among the brainy types anyway. The Edwardian wilderness of post-war England and the final triumph of the new modernist age sounded the bell for Pre-Raphaelite narratives and imagery along with those of Academic Art. Rossetti and his successors and epigones, Collier among them, were quite forgotten until the postulated New Age of the 1960s and the newly found and yet unbroken infatuation with myths and epics of the following ages to this day resurrected the images of King Arthur and his Knights, Greek priestesses and moribund medieval ladies from the Brotherhood’s canvasses.

John Collier: "The Laboratory" (1895)

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