Friday, 27 April 2012

Long Term Memory: Roland Collins' Found Landscapes

Rye Harbour, 1958
There can't be too many living artists who exhibited in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition of 1937, but painter Roland Collins did just that. He was eighteen that year, and his drawing 'Riverside, Chiswick' shows the vision and talent that would sustain him through a long career; the current retrospective at Mascall's Gallery in Kent features a painting from 2005, which means he must have been painting for seven decades.

If there's one word I would use to describe Collins' paintings, most of which combine gouache with pen and ink, it's 'jaunty'. Here is an artist who is enjoying himself thoroughly, seeking out interesting sights and scenes and painting them in a style that mixes carefree brushwork with detailed architectural drawing. Sometimes it seems as though a topographical drawing has collided with a colourful abstract painting, creating a highly individual picture that is strangely compelling.

Newhaven Harbour, 1962
Mascall's is one of those small, idiosyncratic galleries (like the Fry Art Gallery and Kettles Yard) that have done so much to maintain and reawaken interest in 20th century British art. Last year curator Nathaniel Hepburn gave us 'John Piper in Kent and Sussex', a fascinating survey which went on to the Towner; two of the paintings were then bought by the Eastbourne gallery and will, I believe, be on display this summer alongside work by Ravilious, Bawden and Collins himself, in Towner's exhibition 'A Point of Departure'.

It was as a result of the Piper show that Hepburn discovered Collins. As he told me, "A chance remark was made by Andrew Lambirth about Collins' work being in a similar romantic topographic tradition and I leapt at the opportunity to meet an artist still working in this genre. Once I saw the works in his studio it was obvious that this was an artist who deserved wider recognition and would be loved by our visitors."

Lambirth wrote an essay for the unpretentious and rather beautiful catalogue accompanying 'Found Landscapes', in which his enthusiasm for Collins and his work comes through strongly.

Gunnersbury Park, 1990
Growing up in London between the wars, Collins evidently took notice of the exhibitions at Tooth's, the Zwemmer Gallery and other venues in the capital. Look at his pictures and you see echoes of Ravilious and Bawden, Piper and Paul Nash. There's a similarity to Kenneth Rowntree's work in some of the paintings, but Collins is a good enough artist to have absorbed powerful influences and created a body of work that stands on its own and which is still fresh and exciting today.

Fans of Ravilious and co. will recognise many of the scenes and subjects chosen by Collins. Rye Harbour features in one picture, Newhaven in another. There's a lovely painting of Beachy Head painted from within Belle Tout Lighthouse, which is a wonderful foil to Ravilious's painting of the same view. Whereas the earlier watercolour captures the lantern room in all its interwar glory, Collins shows the old lighthouse after being used as target practice by Canadian troops.

Beachy Head from Belle Tout, 1958
Did the two artists ever meet? I suspect not, since there is no mention of a meeting in the catalogue. However, Collins did get to know many other artists and writers of the time. In 1940 he moved to 29 Percy Street in Fitzrovia, an address shared by publisher Noel Carrington (Dora's brother and editor of Penguin's Picture Puffins), and a haunt of creative types like the poet Kathleen Raine. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant had a flat next door during the late 1950s, a connection which takes us back into the Victorian age.

The Old Neptune, Whitstable, 1986
But though there is inevitably something nostalgic about these paintings and about the exhibition, I don't feel as though I'm looking respectfully at a collection of past art. In fact, given the recent rediscovery of Bawden, Ravilious and their peers by younger artists and illustrators, you could - if you knew nothing about Roland Collins - easily mistake this for an exhibition by an up-and-coming young painter who is looking at interwar paintings of place through the filter of Pop Art. Fabulous.

'Roland Collins: Found Landscapes' is at Mascall's Gallery, Paddock Wood until 30 June.
The accompanying catalogue is available from the gallery, price £10 plus p&p.

Paintings featured are all by Roland Collins and remain his copyright.


  1. Oh I don't know where to start -- there's so much to enjoy here. A new artist to explore. Fascinating to see those influences clearly at play and yet, as you say, his own person too. Terrific colours. And a new gallery that I'm now dying to visit. Finally, that beautiful view of Whitstable, which I love. Thank you for a brilliant post.

  2. Thanks Jane, and thanks for your '50 Members' package, which arrived today. A lovely surprise, especially the cards!

  3. Just caught up with this. How exciting. Thank you for this. I love coming across the work of artists I had never heard about before and who "chime" with me.
    That makes two this morning after I was pointed in the direction of Dr Thomas Pole and have just been revelling in his wonderful eighteeth century w/colours on the Bristol City Museum site. Distinct early echoes of Rav ...

  4. Lovely!Interesting piece.However he is not completely unknown!!

    I discovered Roland Collins years ago at the Parkin Gallery where I bought a Dieppe painting which I love.I love his work.

  5. Sent me to search my books and rediscover the catalogue of an exhibition Mascalls held in 2012 - lovely work and great he is still around to enjoy ….. very inspiring

  6. Thanks, northoneartist - that catalogue is good, isn't it?