William Collins R.A.

(8 September 1788 - 17 February 1847)

Landscape and figure painter was born in Great Titchfield Street, London. His father, a native of Wicklow, came over to England and settled in London, supporting his family by his literary talents. Among other works he wrote a poem on the slave trade, and a memoir of George Morland. Young Collins, when a child, stood by Morland’s easel, and showed so great an aptitude for art, that his father expected ‘to see poor Bill an R.A.’

In 1807, he entered, at the same time with Etty, the schools of the Royal Academy, and sent two small landscapes, both of them views near Millbank. In 1809, he gained a medal in the life school, and exhibited three pictures, viz. ‘Boy at Breakfast,’ ‘Boys with a Bird's-nest’ (purchased by Mr. Lister, his first patron), and a ‘Portrait of Master Lee as he spoke the Prologue at the Haymarket Theatre.’ Collins then resided at 118 Great Portland Street. In 1811, he sold to the Marquis of Stafford for eighty guineas a picture entitled ‘The Young Fifer.’ His father died in pecuniary difficulties early in the following year. In 1812, Collins painted the picture which made his name famous, viz. ‘The Sale of the Pet Lamb,’ sold for a hundred and forty guineas, afterwards engraved by S. W. Reynolds. He now became the chief support of his family, and found some valuable patrons, especiall Sir Thomas Freeman Heathcote, Sir John Leicester, Sir Robert Peel, Sir George Beaumont, and Lord Liverpool.

In 1814, his two pictures, ‘The Blackberry Gatherers,’ purchased by Mrs. Hand, and ‘The Birdcatchers,’ purchased by the Marquis of Lansdowne, gained for him admission as associate of the Royal Academy. This honour increased his industry, and encouraged him to attempt more elaborate subjects. In 1815 he was sketching on the coast near Cromer, and produced the ‘Scene on the Coast of Norfolk,’ acquired by George IV., then prince regent. This picture was engraved for the series of royal pictures, and is now in the corridor at Windsor Castle.

In 1817, Collins visited Paris in company with Leslie and Washington Allston, and painted ‘The Departure of the Diligence from Rouen,’ sold to Sir George Beaumont, and the ‘Scene on the Boulevards,’ bought by the Duke of Newcastle. These were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1818, when Collins resided at 11 New Cavendish Street, Portland Place.

About this period Collins painted several portraits. In 1820, he was elected a Royal Academician, presenting as his diploma picture ‘The Young Anglers.’ Two years later he married Miss Geddes, the daughter of Andrew Geddes, A.R.A., and sister of Margaret Sarah Carpenter, the portrait painter. He now continued to exhibit and to travel in England and Scotland. At this period his art was very popular. In 1826, Collins painted ‘The Fisherman’s Departure,’ engraved by Phelps. In 1828, he made a tour in Holland and Belgium, and lived a short time at Boulogne in 1886. ‘Rustic Popularity’ was executed in 1834, for John Marshall; a replica made for Mr. Hogarth, the art dealer, was engraved in ‘Finden's Gallery of Modern British Art.’ Two years later appeared ‘Sunday Morning,’ scraped in mezzotint by S. W. Reynolds; and ‘As Happy as a King,’ representing children swinging on a gate in a wood, now in the National Gallery, and engraved by G. Finden and C. Cousen. A repetition of the picture, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836, is now in the Vernon Collection, South Kensington Museum.

Mr. Wilkie Collins tells us that the subject of the picture was suggested to his father by the story of the country boy whose ideal of kingly happiness was swinging upon a gate all day long and eating fat bacon. In the month of September 1836, he left London for Italy, remaining there until 1838. During these two years he occupied himself unremittingly in advancing his knowledge of painting, but he caught a severe illness by sketching at Sorrento in the noonday sun. On the advice of his friend Wilkie he returned home and began several pictures from Italian life. The Royal Academy of 1839, contained the first produce of his continental tour, such as ‘Poor Travellers at the door of a Capuchin Convent near Vico, Bay of Naples,’ ‘A Scene near Subiaco,’ etc. These were followed in 1840–1, by two subjects taken from sacred history, ‘Our Saviour with the Doctors in the Temple,’ and ‘The Two Disciples at Emmaus.’ Collins now resided at 85 Oxford Terrace, and removed in 1843, to a larger house, 1 Devonport Street, Hyde Park Gardens.

In 1840, he was appointed librarian to the Royal Academy, but finding its duties more onerous than he could conscientiously discharge, he resigned the office in 1842. In 1840, he visited Germany, and in 1842, the Shetland Islands, his tour in the latter place being productive of a series of illustrations to Sir Walter Scott's Pirate, which were published in the Waverley edition of that fiction. In 1846, his ‘Early Morning’ was exhibited. Mr. Ruskin says of it: ‘I have never seen the oppression of sunlight in a clear, lurid, rainy atmosphere more perfectly or faithfully rendered, and the various portions of reflected and scattered light are all studied with equal truth and solemn feeling.’ Collins sketched in water-colour some of his works; in this style ‘The Rat-catcher’ and ‘Landing Fish’ are in the British Museum, and at the South Kensington Museum ‘A Street in Naples’ and ‘Kentish Peasant Girls.’

He also etched several plates, most of which, presented by Mrs. Collins, are in the Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, besides a folio volume containing choice impressions of engravings after him. Collins died from disease of the heart, terminating in dropsy, in Devonport Street, and was buried in the cemetery of the church of St. Mary, Paddington, where a handsome monument, in the form of a cross, was erected to his memory by his widow. He left two sons, William Wilkie Collins, the novelist, and Charles Allston Collins [q. v.] Collins exhibited altogether 124 pictures at the Royal Academy, and forty-five at the British Institution. One of his last works was commenced at Torquay in 1845.

[Memoirs of the Life of William Collins; R.A., by William Wilkie Collins, 2 vols. London, 1848, 8vo; Athenæum, 20 Feb. 1847, p. 200; Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 11, by Louis Alexander Fagan.]