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Roland Collins, Artist

June 11, 2013
by the gentle author

Roland Collins

Ninety-four year old artist Roland Collins lives with his wife Connie in a converted sweetshop south of the river that he has crammed with singular confections, both his own works and a lifetime’s collection of ill-considered trifles. Curious that I had come from Spitalfields to see him, Roland reached over to a cabinet and pulled out the relevant file of press cuttings, beginning with his clipping from the Telegraph entitled ‘The Romance of the Weavers,’ dated 1935.

“Some time in the forties, I had a job to design a lamp for a company at 37  Spital Sq” he revealed, as if he had just remembered something that happened last week,“They were clearing out the cellar and they said, ‘Would you like this big old table?’ so I took it to my studio in Percy St and had it there forty years, but I don’t think they ever produced my lamp. I followed that house for a while and I remember when it came up for sale at £70,000, but I didn’t have the money or I’d be living there now.”

As early as the thirties, Roland visited the East End in the footsteps of James McNeill Whistler, drawing the riverside, then, returning after the war, he followed the Hawksmoor churches to paint the scenes below. “I’ve always been interested in that area,” he admitted wistfully, “I remember one of my first excursions to see the French Synagogue in Fournier St.”

Of prodigious talent yet modest demeanour, Roland Collins is an artist who has quietly followed his personal enthusiasms, especially in architecture and all aspects of London lore, creating a significant body of paintings while supporting himself as designer throughout his working life. “I was designing everything,” he assured me, searching his mind and seizing upon a random example, “I did record sleeves, I did the sleeve for Decca for the first Long-Playing record ever produced.”

From his painting accepted at the Royal Academy in 1937 at the age of nineteen, Roland’s pictures have been distinguished by a bold use of colour and dramatic asymmetric compositions that reveal a strong sense of abstract design. Absorbing the diverse currents of British art in the mid-twentieth century, he refined his own distinctive style at his studio in Percy St – at the heart of the artistic and cultural milieu that defined Fitzrovia in the fifties. “I used to take my painting bag and stool, and go down to Bankside.” he recalled fondly, “It was a favourite place to paint, especially the Old Red Lion Brewery and the Shot Tower before it was pulled down for the Festival of Britain – they called it the ‘Shot Tower’ because they used to drop lead shot from the top into water at the bottom to harden them.”

Looking back over his nine decades, surrounded by the evidence of his achievements, Roland is not complacent about the long journey he has undertaken to reach his current point of arrival.

“I come from Kensal Rise and I was brought up through Maida Vale.” he told me, “On my father’s side, they were cheesemakers from Cambridgeshire and he came to London to work as a clerk for the Great Central Railway at Marylebone. Because I was good at Art at Kilburn Grammar School, I went to St Martin’s School of Art in the Charing Cross Rd studying life drawing, modelling, design and lettering. My father was always very supportive. Then I got a job in the studio at the London Press Exchange and I worked there for a number of years, until the war came along and spoiled everything.

I registered as a Conscientious Objector and was given light agricultural work, but I had a doubtful lung so nothing much materialised out of it. Back in London, I was doing a painting of the Nash terraces in Regent’s Park when a policeman came along and I was taken back to the station for questioning. I discovered that there were military people based in those terraces and they wanted to know why I was interested in it.

Eventually, my love of architecture led me to a studio at 29 Percy Studio where I painted for the next forty years, after work and at weekends. I freelanced for a while until I got a job at the Scientific Publicity Agency in Fleet St and that was the beginnings of my career in advertising, I obviously didn’t make much money and it was difficult work to like.”

Yet Roland never let go of his personal work and, once he retired, he devoted himself full-time to his painting, submitting regularly to group shows but reluctant to launch out into solo exhibitions – until reaching the age of ninety.

In the last two years, he has enjoyed a sell-out show at a gallery in Sussex at Mascalls Gallery and an equally successful one in Cork St at Browse & Darby this spring. Suddenly, after a lifetime of tenacious creativity, his long-awaited and well-deserved moment has arrived, and we are witnessing the glorious apotheosis of Roland Collins.

Brushfield St, Spitalfields, 1951-60 (Courtesy of Museum of London)

Columbia Market, Columbia Rd (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St George in the East, Wapping, 1958 (Courtesy of Electric Egg)

Mechanical Path, Deptford (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

Fish Barrow, Canning Town (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St Michael Paternoster Royal, City of London (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St Anne’s, Limehouse (Courtesy of Browse & Darby)

St John, Wapping, 1938

St John, Wapping, 1938

Spark’s Yard, Wapping

Images copyright © Roland Collins

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Roland Collins’ Photographs

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Catherine permalink
    June 11, 2013

    Wonderful drawings, they remind me a bit of Geoffrey Fletcher. Your blog is amazing–you never run out of fascinating and unusual things to write about and interesting people to interview.

  2. June 11, 2013

    I first discovered Collins’ boldly coloured gouaches lined with black ink – composed with the confidence of a designer, full of textures, and vested with an insistent rhythm – in a group show at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne last June. Soon after, I much enjoyed his solo show at Mascalls Gallery in Paddock Wood; Collins has the liberated drawing skills of Geoffrey Fletcher and the sophisticated colour sense of John Piper. Linear forms such as flagpoles, masts, derricks, chimneys, ropes, fences, signposts and telephone wires are used to lend tautness and vigour to his compositions. Outside London he has painted many robust views of buildings, industry and harbours on the Thames estuary and Kent and Sussex coasts. ‘Found Landscapes’, a book of his superb work with an essay by Andrew Lambirth, was published last year.

  3. David Buckman permalink
    June 11, 2013

    So glad you are featuring Roland’s work. He is a nice man and underrated artist and has been for years.

  4. Linda permalink
    June 11, 2013

    Your blog is so choc full of goodies, better than any sweetshop !!

    Wonderful art work THANKS!!!

  5. James permalink
    June 11, 2013

    Most interesting to see Roland Collins on this favourite blog.A wonderful painter indeed with such interesting viewpoints.A real shame you have left out the enthusiastic Michael Parkin out of this article as he has been promoting and showing Roland Collins for many years where I recall a brilliant solo show which I went to and bought from.I first discovered his painting at the gallery and have been a great fan ever since.
    I own a couple myself and they have been much admired by all.

  6. June 11, 2013

    Fabulous work by a lovely man.

  7. Cherub permalink
    June 11, 2013

    I love the painting of Columbia Market for it’s vibrancy. There is nothing like a wonderful painting or drawing on a wall to cheer you up. I once worked at Bankside Gallery in London for a time back in the 90s and collected watercolours and prints by some of the artists exhibiting there. They are a fine memory of my life in London.

  8. June 12, 2013

    Sadly, I missed the exhibition at the Towner in Eastbourne but I shall be tracking down the book “Found Images”. Looking forward to seeing the Sussex works in particular. Great post!

  9. jeannette permalink
    June 13, 2013

    lovely, thank you so much.

  10. Anne Marriage permalink
    May 11, 2014

    Had been meaning to research Roland Collins for a while. Back in 1965 a family friend was renting a room in Percy Street and I had the privilege, as a 7 year old, of sitting for Roland. The drawing took pride of place in my parents house for many years and my father still loves it 50 years on.
    A joy to see the artist alive and well and view examples of his work.

  11. October 2, 2014

    In about 1998 when I set up my bookshop, for the first time steering my own course not confidently, I passed by Michael Parkin’s gallery in Motcomb Street London and was attracted to go in by a wonderful painting of a London street scene in the window. This was part of Roland Collin’s show at eighty. I bought a watercolour which I could ill afford at the time but which I never regretted. What a surprise to find his photographs in Random Spectacular 2 today. (St Jude’s). My only regret is that the gallery owner was trying to also sell a fabulous book of Roland Collin’s photographs which I just had no money left to buy. That seems to have vanished without trace. Any leads toward getting one appreciated.

  12. Ray Powell permalink
    October 1, 2015

    I read of Roland Collins’s passing in the Daily Telegraph 2 days ago. I worked in the Fleet Street advertising agency Scientific Publicity in the early sixties where Roland was the art director. I knew him as a gentle and permanently well mannered person who had this infuriating habit of being nice to everyone. I eventually left the agency, migrated to Australia and never met him again but he will always remain in my mind as one of the earth’s good people. If only there could be more Rolands and if only just a tiny bit of him could have rubbed off on me. R.I.P.

  13. Vaughan Melzer permalink
    October 14, 2015

    This is a very beautiful photographic portrait of Roland Collins but I am shocked (as a photographer myself) that you have not credited it to anyone. Who’s is the photographer?

  14. the gentle author permalink*
    October 14, 2015

    It is my photograph – I never credit my own photography. Credits relate to guest photographers and archive images only.

  15. Lucy permalink
    November 6, 2015

    A lovely piece. I have seen admired his work over the years at the 20/21 British Art Fair on the Parkin Gallery stand.
    Sorry to hear he has died.He sounds as if he had a good life and his work will live on.

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