Portrait of Charles Allston Collins
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)
Graphite on paper
235 x 210 mm (9 1/4 x 8 1/4 inches)
Signed lower left: "July 1852."
Provenance: by descent in the family of the artist to Diana Holman Hunt, his grand-daughter. With The Maas Gallery, London. Bought as Lot 132, Christie's, 5th December 2013.
Exhibited: Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, and London, Victoria & Albert Museum, "William Holman Hunt," 1969, no. 126. King's Lynn, Fermoy Art Gallery, "The Pre-Raphaelites as Painters and Draughtsmen," 1971, no. 42.
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Commentary by Paul Crowther
It was very much the practice amongst the PRB and their friends to give "friendship portraits" to one another (for examples, see Barringer et al. 38-40). The present drawing is an example of such a work. Charles Allston Collins (1828–1873) attended the Royal Academy Schools and became a close associate of the PRB. He was actually proposed for membership after Collinson resigned, but William Michael Rossetti and Thomas Woolner voted against him. Holman Hunt later observed that apart from not being known by some of the members, "they suspected he was very much of a conventional man who would be out of his element with us" (Hunt 268; see also Fredeman 78).
It seems, however, that Collins was more sensitive and insecure than he was "conventional." Holman Hunt notes of him also that "Changes in his views of life and art were part of a nature which yielded itself to the sway of the current, and he only ultimately found out how this had led him into unanticipated perplexities" (Hunt 271). Even when rejected for PRB membership, Collins remained close to both Millais and Holman Hunt, socializing with them quite extensively in the early 1850s. He exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition every year from 1847 to 1855 inclusive, but, by the end of the 1850s had given up painting in favour of writing.
A well-known pencil drawing of Collins by Millais from 1850 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) presents him looking insecure and slightly neurotic. Holman Hunt's image shows a different aspect—perhaps the aspect that found security through "swimming with the current." The picture might, indeed, be usefully related to Holman Hunt's recollection of Collins from the early 1840s when both were doing studies at the British Museum:
He was then a remarkable looking boy with statuesquely formed features, of aquiline type, and strong blue eyes. The characteristic that marked him out to casual observers was his brilliant bushy red hair, which was not of golden splendour, but yet had an attractive beauty in it. . . While still a youth he imparted to me his discomfort at the striking character of his locks, and was anxious to find out any means of lessening their vividness. (Hunt 271)
Interestingly, an entry in Millais's diary for October 19th 1851, shows how far Collins—even when a few years older—would go to control the vividness of his "locks." We are told that "Collins returned with his hair cut as close as a man in a House of Correction" (Millais 126).
Now, how one's hair appears might not seem a matter of great existential consequence at first sight. But it is. The body-image through which we negotiate the world, has to be one that satisfies us. If something feels lacking or excessive about our appearance, then our body image suffers. And if that suffers, then it will tend to link also to other forms of insecurity that we harbour.
Holman Hunt's picture offers a positive expression of body-image. The drawing clearly emphasizes the lushness of Collins's hair, but in a way that presents it as styled and elegantly coiffured rather than "vivid." A body-image feature that Collins himself wanted to control, in other words, is here presented as aesthetically secured.
However, there is still an insecurity in Collins's expression. He may seem fine at this moment, but he appears self-conscious, nevertheless, about how the viewer regards him—in terms of both looks, and as a person. Hunt represents this self-consciousness using a visually risky strategy. Collins is shown with his mouth slightly open—a feature that can easily make a portrait seem awkward. However, in this case, the strategy is a success. For, as well as making Collins's expression more active and directed, the mouth opening is also an event—something manifestly transient. Holman Hunt, in other words, renders both Collins's moment of self-consciousness and also its instability—in both general and specific terms. When such moments come, they preoccupy us, but then pass in the flow of experience, and are replaced by other concerns. Holman Hunt's picture hints at this, but also emphasizes Collins as a particular case—as a man whose sense of self is particularly changeable through the pressure of circumstances, and the challenge of his personal insecurities.
The fine psychological balances here are exquisitely sustained by Holman Hunt's broader treatment. He was able to invest painted surfaces with a gentle lustre through fine tonal gradations. This effect is found in some of his more finished drawings also. The present work is a case in point. Its lustre emerges through the quiet play of light across Collins's clothing (especially the bow-tie) and across his face and eyes, as well as his hair. Insofar, therefore, as the overall composition is sustained by these transient light effects, they formally underwrite, also, the impression that Collins's moment of introspection is one caught in passing—something fragile and liable to be changed by circumstances.
Holman Hunt has, then, pictorially intervened on his friend's appearance in a positive but truthful way. He presents Collins in a moment of self-questioning whilst emphasizing also the fragility of this state. Of course, whether the picture records actual visual fact or just a possible appearance cannot be determined. Whatever the case, as we have seen, Collins's own confidence in his art did not last. And, sadly, it was left to Hunt to do a death-bed study of his friend in 1873.
You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.
Barringer, Tim, Jason Rosenfeld, and Alison Smith, eds. Pre-Raphaelites. Victorian Avant-Garde. Exhibition catalogue. London: Tate Publishing, 2013.
Bronkhurst, J. William Holman Hunt. A Catalogue Raisonné. Vol. 2. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. p. 40, no. D 63, illustrated.
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 59.
Fredeman, William E, ed. The P.R.B. Journal: William Michael Rossetti's Diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1849–1853 together with other Pre-Raphaelite documents. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Hunt, William Holman. Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Vol. 1. London: Macmillan and Co., 1905.
Millais, J. G. The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais. Vol. 1. London: Methuen and Co., 1899.
Reynolds, G. "The Pre-Raphaelites and their Circle." Apollo June 1971. p. 498, fig. 11.
W. Holman Hunt
Last modified 11 December 2014