John Collier

(27 January 1850 - 11 April 1934)


Portrait painter, was born at 18 Gloucester Road, Paddington, Middlesex, the second son of Robert Porrett Collier, first Baron Monkswell, a distinguished lawyer and judge, and Isabella Rose. Collier was educated at Eton College and then at Heidelberg. Deciding against his intended career in the diplomatic service, he returned to England, where he worked in the city office of Sir John Pender of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. With the encouragement of his father, Collier then studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, under Edward John Poynter. He remained there for three years after which he went to study in Munich and then in Paris under Jean Paul Laurens. His father also introduced him to Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John Everett Millais, from whom he received guidance and encouragement.

Collier first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, sending a study of a head. His portraits of Major and Mrs Forster, exhibited in 1877, attracted attention and helped establish him as a society portrait painter. Thereafter he exhibited annually, sending a total of 140 pictures-until his death. He also exhibited works at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters of which he later became vice-president. His sitters included Anthony Ashley-Cooper, seventh earl of Shaftesbury, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Oswald Mosley, Henry Irving, Rudyard Kipling, first Earl Kitchener, and Ellen Terry.

John Collier's First Wife, Marian Huxley, 1882

Collier's methodical and faithful rendering of his subjects led to comparisons with the work of Frank Holl, but some of his more imposing portraits are clearly reminiscent of Millais's statesmen. Collier also produced dramatic depictions of classical and historical scenes such as "Priestess of Delphi", (1891) and "A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia", (1893. During his own lifetime Collier's reputation also rested, in part, on his so-called 'problem pictures'. Intended simply to be depictions of moments of domestic tragedy, contrary to his efforts, their interpretation was felt by many to be unclear; conundrums to be unravelled by the viewer. Of these, two examples are "The Prodigal Daughter", (1903; Usher Gallery, Lincoln) and "A Confession", (1902).

Collier married Marian, daughter of Professor Thomas Henry Huxley. She too had studied at the Slade and exhibited three works at the Royal Academy between 1880 and 1884. Having suffered from mental illness since the birth of their daughter Joyce in 1884, she was taken by Collier to Paris in 1887, in the hope of finding a cure. Tragically she died of pneumonia on November 18, 1887. In 1889 Collier married, Marian's youngest sister, Ethel Gladys. Their marriage was not warmly accepted by everyone; Collier's sister-in-law, Lady Monkswell, broke off all contact. With Ethel, Collier moved to North House, Eton Avenue, a building he had commissioned from his brother-in-law, Frederick Waller. They had two children, Laurence Collier and Joan.

Collier had various one-man exhibitions during his lifetime. He published various treatises on painting: A Primer of Art, (1882), A Manual of Oil Painting, (1886), and The Art of Portrait Painting, (1905). His writings encouraged a strict, practical, accurate approach, thoroughness and attention to detail being rated above artistic flair.

The obituary in The Times described him as 'a thin, bearded man, he gave the impression of polite independence, a sort of quiet ruthlessness in personal intercourse, a character which was undoubtedly reflected in his painting. Collier was one of the few rationalists of the Victorian establishment. He published his views on religion, morality, and citizenship in The Religion of an Artist, (1926).'

Collier died at his home, North House, in Eton Avenue. He had suffered from paralysis for years but worked right up until his death installing a lift in North House so that he could get to his studio, from where he worked from his wheelchair using brushes tied to bamboo staves.

Collier, who has no fewer than thirteen works in the National Portrait Gallery, London, is also represented in numerous other collections including the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Brighton Art Gallery, Southampton City Art Gallery, the Tate collection, and the Guildhall Art Gallery, London.