Thursday 18 February 2016

Roland Collins: Enjoy

Yesterday I dropped in on my favourite commercial gallery, Browse & Darby, to enjoy a retrospective exhibition of gouaches and drawings by Roland Collins. 'Enjoy' is the operative word; these are pictures that exude enjoyment - the direct sweet pleasures of colour, line and design. Think Eric Ravilious working in (opaque) gouache rather than (transparent) watercolour, with the linear vigour of Edward Bawden, and you have some idea of what a Roland Collins picture is like. Collins was born in 1918, fifteen years after Ravilious and Bawden, but worked in the same English landscape/townscape/seascape tradition, with a similar eye for the overlooked details - odd bits of old machinery and signage, fences and gates, fishing boats and old carts, irregularly shaped buildings, neglected corners of town and country and (in particular) quayside.

This tradition, carrying on through the postwar decades regardless of artistic fashion, only began to be rediscovered in the early years of this century, and is now hugely popular - witness the runaway success of recent Ravilious exhibitions and the ubiquity of the Bawden style in graphic design, on everything from fabrics to greetings cards. Roland Collins, happily, lived long enough to benefit from this revival of interest. An exhibition of his work in 2012 at Mascalls Gallery in Kent was a big popular and critical success, and suddenly Collins found fame - at the age of 94! Happily he lived three more years - in good health and spirits - to enjoy it, dying last September at the age of 97.
 There are forty-odd gouaches and some early drawings (very accomplished, but dry compared to the paintings) in the Browse & Darby exhibition. Many of the best paintings are of corners of Whitstable, where Collins lived for many years, in a cottage in which, before the war, a young Brian Sewell and his mother had taken refuge when they had nowhere else to go (his father, the composer known as Peter Warlock, had, according to Sewell, abandoned his mother when she refused to abort him - but that's another, grimmer story). Sadly, there are no pictures of Dieppe in this Collins exhibition, though he painted and drew there every year, following in the footsteps of Walter Sickert. (There's one below, from another exhibition.)
 There really should be a bigger, wider-ranging retrospective of Collins' work in a major gallery - Dulwich would be a good fit. I'm sure it would be a success - what's not to like? His colours sing, his line is springy and sure, his eye for a picture is sharp and distinctive... Meanwhile, if you're interested, I'd urge you to get along to Browse & Darby on Cork Street (before the 26th) and give your eyes a treat. This is the kind of exhibition that you leave with a spring in your step and a song in your heart - the perfect antidote to a dreary London February. And afterwards you can stroll round the corner and admire the long-suffering queues outside the Royal Academy's latest blockbuster, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse.


  1. ooh these are right up my street!!!

  2. And many another I suspect - bring on the big exhibition!

  3. The use of reverse perspective gives his pictures a kind of rose tinted view, the sort that we have when donning our remembering heads. Thanks for the intro Nige and I was trying, unsuccessfully, to remember if the enfant terrible Sewell mentions the future occupier of his mums refuge in either Sleeping with Dogs or Outsider. Unfortunately both are out, on what appears to be, permanent loan. I shall insist upon their immediate return.