Interview

This is the published interview given by JEREMY GALE for ‘In Celebration of Cecil Collins – Visionary Artist and Educator’ compiled and edited by Nomi Rowe. 

         During one of John Allitt’s [1] history of art lectures at the Central School of Art, he showed slides of various artists and I remember being drawn to several which had a very different quality. I was looking at them, still trying to listen to the lecture, when I found myself absorbed in one particular painting which turned out to be my Cecil Collins consciousness was suspended. There was something quite mysterious about his work, which was beyond analysis.         
         Then, in my final year, I remember seeing a sign on the Central’s stairway saying, CECIL COLLINS LIFE DRAWING, ALL WELCOME.  It was an all day class and I thought, I’m going to that. I had been to various life drawing classes at the college and in most of them the students were very much left to themselves. On seeing the notice and recalling Cecil’s picture I decided to go along the next week, feeling he might have a different approach.
         The life drawing room was on the fifth floor and I found my way up, walked in and was immediately struck by a person slumped in a battered old chair in the corner and realized this must be Cecil Collins. He had this incredibly potent presence and I had the strange experience of an inner voice saying, ‘This man has something to teach.’
         The first class was a revelation. I loved the use of the different instruments: Chinese brushes with bamboo handles, stick ink, reed pens, conté crayon, charcoal and quills. We listened to music and moved to it, as well as being silent before drawing the model. Cecil’s instructions to kneel or lie on the floor, to use the left or both hands together seemed most strange to me and often very awkward. In the initial term, I was struggling with the technique, although I was enjoying it because they were so different. I hadn’t really got the hang of it, but the over-riding feeling was a longing for the next week’s class. With hindsight, I can understand how affected I was; it was as if Cecil was speaking directly to my soul. It was like water to a dried up river-bed.
         He often made us always made us go through the experience of centering at the beginning of the class. He talked about silence being our natural state, about getting underneath the surface into this deeper part of our mind where there’s stillness and silence and who we really are.
         Even though it was a class of about twenty, he could pick up what was happening in each of us. He could tune into the students, into another person in a very extraordinary way. I’ve since discovered from my own teaching that this ability comes from an intuitive sense about people which I’ve learnt to trust. I can appreciate Cecil’s accuracy even more now.
         It was so rare for him to look at the students’ work, so when the first time he came round remains in my memory. Once, at the end of the class, I was looking at the drawing I’d done. Suddenly, I could feel him behind me. I don’t know how he got there so quickly. He seemed to have flown. He pointed to my drawing and said, ‘Shakers and Quakers.’
         In surprise I said, ‘Yes, I went to a Quaker school.’ ‘Ha!’ said Cecil. Now, when I look at that drawing of a figure with arms raised, outstretched like branches waving and shaking in the wind, I understand what he picked up on. I hadn’t realized that this side of me was coming into the drawing class. I had been at a Quaker boarding school for seven years and their form of worship is silence and in Cecil’s classes we orientated in silence before drawing. The tradition of Quakerism I’d been brought up in at school had started to come through and continued to influence and support me in my drawing.
          The first term contained the seed experiences of my relationship with Cecil; everything else followed on from that. There was an acknowledgement of the contemplative tradition which was the root of Cecil’s own vision, and also of the Quakers, and of the importance silent reflection was to become in my life. Cecil thought the imaginary world, especially in early childhood, was being eroded as a result of formal education starting too young. For me, his teaching was an affirmation of what is real and indicated, ‘This is the direction to go in and if you shake a bit, that’s great.’ You’re in touch with something which happens through that silence. 

         When Cecil was teaching, he would be aligning the group mind of the class so the stillness and centeredness was the place from where you related to everything: the instruments, the paper, each other and to him. In this place of oneness there was a feeling of love towards everything. It allowed you to let go of so much unnecessary mind chatter and conceptualized ideas and gave you the connection with your inner guidance and that was freeing. You had the sensational experience of the flow coming through you and the brush, or whatever you were using, doing what it wanted. You were the instrument for the instrument. That freedom is also a sense of love.
         Once, I remember registering at the beginning of the class that he hadn’t said anything and at the point when we’d stopped talking, he’d started the lesson. I think his presence had an effect energetically on the group mind. It was both an energetic field and also his conscious awareness of the effect of his energy. Through his attitude and his experience, he was like a tuning fork. We were being pitched up, when suddenly there was a point where he had a connection with the class and he would begin as soon as we were silent.
         I had that experience myself when I began to teach. I walked into a particularly lively group happily chatting away. I didn’t want to disrupt their enjoyment of each other. I noticed that as I tuned in and centered myself, they slowly became quiet. It’s like the Hawaiian Islands. They’re all different islands, but when you drop below the surface of the sea, it’s all one land mass. It’s rather like that when you teach. You make the choice to go under the surface to where we’re all one. At the moment when the students became quiet and you’re centered, there is a moment of intimacy with the group as a whole that is both terrifying and astounding in its possibilities. When you have that point of contact, teaching can begin.

        I wanted to share what I was experiencing with my art-student friends who were not attending his classes, but their reaction was, ‘You’re kneeling and you’re doing what on the floor?’ They were a bit challenged by it. Entering Cecil’s classroom was like walking through a psychic doorway, opening the student into a whole other world and that can be daunting. I understood that it would have been a huge step for them to walk into Cecil’s class-room. They asked me, ‘Is he religious? Is he a religious man?’ I hadn’t made the connection between what he was doing with us, having us kneel, as being something religious, so I was taken aback by the question. In the next class I asked him point blank, ‘Cecil, are you religious?’ There was total silence. No answer whatsoever. I didn’t know if I shouldn’t have asked or whether I’d asked in the wrong way. Part of me shriveled up, pretended it hadn’t happened. I thought, I’ll just get on with my drawing.
          He didn’t behave according to one’s expectations of a teacher. He didn’t respond to make you feel comfortable or to fit in socially with you. There was none of that. I was left with this question from my peers that I felt was important. Some months later, he started to talk about what it meant to be religious to the whole class. He made it into a teaching. He’d taken the question in, listened to it, saw where it was coming from and reflected on what was required as an answer. I was so moved by that. No one had considered a question that deeply and with such care and attention before. He would not be pressured into having to give an answer or to play the role of a teacher. Allowing the question to rest, to let it be and to sit with it had a huge effect on me. It was a teaching in itself, not only the answer, but how one can be in relationship to oneself and to each other and have a non-pressured relationship which can be shared. Through this experience with him, I learned that to contemplate something was acceptable and appropriate; a deep question deserves consideration.
        All he said was, ‘To be religious is to see clearly.’ It took me years to begin to understand what he meant by that and I still don’t get it completely. Without my being aware of it, clarity was the focus all the time, how to articulate something you can’t see. The ultimate irony is to paint something that’s invisible and to create a bridge to that reality.
        From my experience with Cecil as a student, I learnt how art can help orientate people to the possibility of change, to open their hearts. The atmosphere created in Cecil’s classes helped my consciousness to become more reflective and contemplative. There was a mixed show at the Tate which included a lightly-drawn painting by Cecil of a golden head. I remember centering myself, then having an experience of going into the painting. It seemed the most natural thing to enter into the world or space he was coming from. His work always invited you to be in that place with him. In front of his painting, contemplating and entering into it, I could feel a shift in my awareness, my consciousness expanding in tune with the image. I discovered that art can actually facilitate such a change.
         That shift in consciousness was embodied in the materials of the painting. I felt that the materials held the vibration of his state of consciousness. It is magic when consciousness and material become one. Cecil only painted when he felt like it, but they were intense times and he would have periods when he didn’t. His work and his consciousness were one. That’s also the magic of icons where the artist’s meditate and purify themselves before beginning to paint. Cecil really brought that whole tradition into a more contemporary idiom.
        As an artist, he had an absolute inner knowledge of what was required as his special contribution. To paint anything and to bring it to any kind of conclusion, there’s an element of organizing the line, the colour, the composition and then the framing. I can understand very well how Cecil could apply that to worldly things. He seemed to know exactly what would allow him to operate effectively. Cecil was very discriminating and knew to interact with people at their own level because he had inner vision.
        I experienced his discrimination when I asked him if I could show him some of my work that I wanted to exhibit in the school where I was teaching. He looked at my series of prints and said, ‘What is the level you want to pitch it at?’ The prints, which were diffuse and ethereal wouldn’t be understood, he said. ‘So, probably best not to show those this time.’ I learnt it’s not about exhibiting just because you want to show your work; it’s about understanding your audience and finding the correct level on which to communicate with them.
         So many students wanted to be I Cecil’s class that he came to interview them personally. At the beginning of the autumn term in 1988, I was the last person to be interviewed and Cecil barely spoke a word; he got up and walked away. I discovered later the reason for this was that Cecil felt the classes were becoming unhelpful for me; I needed grounding. I began to understand the idea was for me to integrate what I’d learnt. This was an important teaching, although very painful at that time.

         I remember having tea with Cecil and Elisabeth at Paultons Square and after we’d look at one of Elisabeth’s painting’s Cecil took me aside and said, ‘You know Elisabeth’s the real painter.’ I had to digest that idea because for me Cecil was the greatest. I certainly understood that she was his muse, but this seemed to go beyond that. She wasn’t just his muse; she was like the fountain of life for him. He knew that it’s the feminine side that holds the secret. Elisabeth embodied the feminine side of Cecil’s vision and he never seemed to lose sight of what we are all here for and what direction we’re supposed to be going He lived through the worst times of the twentieth century and that’s an astounding quality to maintain through eighty years.
         Elisabeth held the more human level of relationships. It was always so wonderful to meet her. There was this easy and loving relationship that comes from the feminine side. Cecil and Elisabeth had this amazing vision together which was extraordinary.
         One time, I collected Elisabeth at Paultons Square. We met downstairs and she stepped into my car as if it were a Rolls Royce. She was so elegant, my driving changed. I felt she was a crystal goblet I could not jar in any way. I didn’t want to go round bends too fast because she’d tilt. It was like driving the Queen. She lived on the fourth floor and it was as if she was coming down from another level and I felt responsible while driving, not to bring any harm to this exceptional being.
         I felt you could talk to Elisabeth about anything. Even when she was ninety-four, there was no age divide. She was an amazing listener, absolutely open and responsive with an undying curiosity about life. It was very refreshing. At the Jane England Gallery where Elisabeth had an exhibition, I later bought one of her gouache paintings because I was so drawn to it. It’s definitely visionary and, for me, this painting has a quality of an archetype, that of a queen. Her sense of colour and her use of brush-mark are quintessentially her own.
         When Elisabeth spoke about something significant, it was always in the flow of a conversation so it would be said in passing, but her observations stuck with you. One time when she talked about angels she mentioned, ‘They pop in at odd times.’
         
        I knew Cecil mainly as a student and for relatively short time, but it felt so intense, as if I knew him through an inner connection. I experienced this symbolically in a dream I had after his last class at the central School two weeks before he died. In the dream, all his students were gathered round him in the life-room at the Central, but Cecil was there in the middle of the room as a solid shaft of golden light. That’s what he was like, a pillar of light. Through his attention on that reality, it became real for him and for everyone in the room. His presence was colossal and so evident during his life and poignantly absent after he died except for the memories he left with us all and in his paintings such as the large, mainly blue, Head of an Angel [198]l.[2]
         I have a slide of this painting to show my students because, for me, it is the self-portrait of his spiritual being with that total clarity and blue of the eyes. It is the most extraordinary painting. Those late paintings are the fruition of his life’s work, everything that he’d learnt, experienced, accomplished and attained. For me, the Head of an Angel is the pictorial answer to my question about whether he was a religious man. He described the painting as ‘An icon of a cleansed mirror, which has been wiped free of dust to give a clear image.'

         It has been important for me to differentiate between Blake and Cecil as they are so often considered similar. What they share is that they’re both mystics, but certainly their work is utterly different. Blake was rooted in the eighteenth century and the figures were from his imagination, yet they’re basically academic forms which was completely difference from Cecil. He always said his work had no object; there’s no objective reference point. Cecil’s figures grow out of rhythm and energy, nothing to do with the outer form, yet they cascade into a form that looks like a figure.
         Where I think people misunderstood Cecil is that he was unequivocal about what he wanted to paint and what his vision was. His apparent lack of interest in anyone else’s vision was because of the need to maintain his own vision. If you ran against the tide as he did, I can see why he had to be totally focused on that. By giving it his whole attention, it exists at a metaphysical level outside the vested interests of the ego. As people began to appreciate what he was doing, then he could relax into that exchange, recognition and influence of like-minded people.
         Cecil had two sides. He was like a church father going through the desert of his time and not wasting any energy and yet he was also incredibly tender. There is a photograph of Cecil with his class and in it his expression I believe is that of an enlightened being. Cecil loved those drawing classes; it was his highlight of the week. I know from my own experience that being a painter is very solitary, working alone in a studio, while teaching is an opportunity to serve and connect with people. You teach what you need to know, what you need to learn and it is a way of reinforcing the vision by sharing it, because in sharing it, you open up to it.
         

          I can understand why teaching was so important for Cecil, because it was another way to remember that divine reality he’d experienced from his earliest childhood and a way to share it and awaken other people to it. Lots of people talk about oneness now, but for him it was the vision of universality. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to go against the stream. For him to paint fools and angels, finding those images to communicate his vision, speaks of his specific task as an artist to bridge the universality of spirit with symbols that orientate us through a particular dark period in the world. When enormous changes occur in the world, there are usually great teachers around and I think Cecil and Elisabeth were among them. I’m enormously grateful to them for shinning their light.

         Cecil said in one of his essays that Christ was the greatest Fool and I think Cecil was the greatest Fool of the twentieth century. He embodied the Fool: the quick-wittedness, the spontaneity, playfulness and the wisdom. For me, he was the archetype of the wise old man and you can’t be the wise old man without also being the wise child. 
         I would say that his whole life was focused on the inner life and for him painting was a way of communing with that world. When that other realm is awakened, as it was for me in his classes, it was such a highly-charged experience. All my values were turned upside down and part of my awareness shifted to and remains in that other dimension which is extraordinarily vivid, iridescent and full of magic. This change in my perceptions led to me dressing very colourfully as a student, twenty years ago, and Cecil made a comment to me about dress code, ‘Quiet on the outside and colourful on the inside,’ he said. I felt this was to help me bring the outer and the inner into balance. I understood that he meant it was important to keep the colour on the inside, that through your attention on the inner life, you give colour to it and keep that alive. It wasn’t a big deal, but it expressed his point of view because he did take great care about how he dressed.
         His clothes were of a certain quality and tradition and it didn’t matter if they were full of holes or patched. His wife, Elisabeth, gave him the nickname, ‘Parce,’ short for a loosely wrapped up parcel, which was how he appeared sometimes. He really was focused more on the inner world. My most lasting impression of him was his total commitment to and embodiment of the divine reality.

[1] John Allitt (b. 1934 Calais d. 2007 Coventry) Musicologist and cultural historian, Senior Lecturer in Art History, Central College of Art.

[2] Head of an Angel, 1987.