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So Long, Roland Collins

September 29, 2015
by the gentle author

Today I publish my interview with Roland Collins as a tribute to the late-blooming artist who drew Spitalfields and the East End in the fifties and died on Sunday at the fine old age of ninety-seven years

Roland Collins

Ninety-seven year old artist Roland Collins lived with his wife Connie in a converted sweetshop south of the river that he 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 was an artist who 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 were distinguished by a bold use of colour and dramatic asymmetric compositions that revealed 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 was not complacent about the long journey he had undertaken to reach his point of arrival – the glorious equilibrium of his life when I met him.

“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 next two years, he enjoyed a sell-out show at a gallery in Sussex at Mascalls Gallery and an equally successful one in Cork St at Browse & Darby. Suddenly, after a lifetime of tenacious creativity, his long-awaited and well-deserved moment arrived, and I consider my self privileged to have witnessed 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, Limehouse

Images copyright © Roland Collins

12 Responses leave one →
  1. September 29, 2015

    An amazing artist who leaves a rich legacy of work.

  2. September 29, 2015

    I first came across Collins’ paintings in a group show at the Towner in Eastbourne in 2012 and was immediately struck by his unusual subjects, bold designs, and finely tuned sense of colour. Was it his parallel career as an illustrator that denied him the wide recognition received by Nash, Piper and Ravilious? His sole book, the splendid ‘Found Landscapes’, is out of print and hard to find; perhaps now is the time for a comprehensive retrospective on one of Britain’s most talented artists of the twentieth century.

  3. September 29, 2015

    Roland Collins was a great painter, and his work remains to delight many for generations to come. Valerie

  4. September 29, 2015

    Well deserved, albeit late, success. The paintings really ‘have something’.

  5. September 29, 2015

    beautiful and uplifting drawings and paintings capturing the spirit of the times if not the people thank you

  6. September 29, 2015

    Priceless! Thank you.

    As a very old artist myself, albeit less tallented ,who likes architecture; I really appreciate you telling us about such a worthy gentleman

  7. Jill permalink
    September 29, 2015

    Wonderful commentary, wholly giving justice to one more of our great natural talents. What a life fulfilled. May he rest in peace after his long life full of ongoing contribution and enrichment to our world. Thankyou spitalfields life for this – as always heartfelt and characterful passage.

  8. September 29, 2015

    Mr Roland Collins — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  9. Ros permalink
    September 29, 2015

    I really liked these selections from his work the first time round and am doing so all over again. I love the life in them with their glowing colour and strong composition.

  10. September 29, 2015

    Wonderful portraits, in photograph and words, of a wise and talented man. Love the vibrancy of his paintings. The inanimate comes alive! Thank you, Mr. Collins.

  11. September 29, 2015

    Personally I prefer these to the work of Paul Nash and Piper, what a shame this man never seems to have got the recognition that he deserved. A beautiful use of colour which, to me, makes them outstanding. Thanks for sharing some of them with us, I shall try to discover more as a result.

  12. Will permalink
    October 2, 2015

    Lovely article on Roland Collins.I first discovered him about twenty years ago in the Parkin Gallery in Belgravia .Mr Parkin talked so well of him.He was showing in an exhibition along with Walter Sickert!I first bought one of Dieppe which hangs above my fireplace and is admired by all my friends.I have followed him since.

    I shall raise a glass to him.

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