There are two letters from Cecil Collins to Ruth Borchard, both from 1964, sent from his home in Cambridge. In the first, he wrote:
‘I am looking among my things for the self portrait you are interested in. There are two self portraits in private collections. And I think that I have some more in my portfolio in my studio in London… Yes, 20 gns would be alright, but I am afraid it would have to be unframed at that price, would that be alright for you?’
His 1949 self-portrait evokes the gaunt, touchingly sweet and sorrowful look of the frail, humourous, assured man evident in photographs from his student days onwards. The artist, who was born in Plymouth in 1908, was forty-one at the time, and still had a head of thick dark hair and a full beard. The emphatically high forehead, large, painfully sensitive eyes and sunken cheeks give the impression of a keen, unworldly intelligence. The strong contours, binding lines and powerful shadows (cast by cheekbone and nose) conjure up a man with a bold, well-defined presence and outlook. Yet his hair, beard and features generally are described by whirling lines, eddying currents, staccato flourishes: a surreal atmospheric calligraphy flitting across the face of a landscape.
In the painting of The Artist and his Wife (1939; Tate Collection), he portrayed himself as a lean, wan-faced, scarlet-lipped, green-suited sage, and Elisabeth Collins (also a painter) as his serene and beatific partner and muse.
Collins’ mid-1930s paintings show seemingly sexless human figures within radiant cosmic landscapes, surrounded by symbols of mystical transfiguration. His 1944 illustrated text, ‘The Vision of the Fool’, was a prophetic work, a plea for a relaxation of the modern utilitarian work ethic. At the text’s heart is the figure of the ‘The Fool [who] represents that innate, primordial innocence… which perceives directly or clearly.’ In 1970, Cecil and Elisabeth Collins moved to live in London. The figure of the Fool recurs throughout his work. In 1985 he said: ‘I haven’t finished with my Fools yet. After all, their innocence and sorrow are inexhaustible.’ Collins died in 1989, not long after he had managed to see, with much pleasure, his retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery.