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Roland Collins, Artist

August 18, 2023
by the gentle author

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My portrait of Roland Collins

At ninety-seven years 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 myself 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 © Estate of Roland Collins

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. August 18, 2023

    I love this man’s work, it evokes the spirit of the city beautifully. Many of these corners have changed beyond recognition, these paintings are honest and faithfully represent a forgotten London. He has combined his professional experience with his painting skills and produced a significant and impressive body of work.

  2. Linda Granfield permalink
    August 18, 2023

    Such wonderful, spirited art!
    I had to learn more about Roland Collins and given his age in this article I feared what I found–he passed away in 2015.
    Terrific ‘portraits’ of him both here and in The Guardian:

  3. Christine permalink
    August 18, 2023

    What beautiful paintings and drawings! I love the Brushfield Street as I love snow paintings. What a shame he didn’t exhibit till late in life!

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    August 18, 2023

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks so much for reviewing the wonderful paintings of Roland Collins. My favorite is “Brushfield St, Spitalfields” with the market wagon and enduring Christ Church in the dead of night framed by falling snow. It would make a great Christmas card.

  5. August 18, 2023

    Roland Collins captured power and poetry in such simple structures; I love the barrows contrasted with the grandeur of the churches! (Are they all Hawksmoor churches? They all evoke a similar feeling.) His empathy — and perhaps that isn’t a strong enough word — with architecture is glorious.
    I’m so glad he shared these with the world!

  6. Saba permalink
    August 18, 2023

    I think these are water colors but cannot tell for sure. Water or oil, they are terrific. But, they seem to have the freshness of watercolor.

  7. Jo N permalink
    August 18, 2023

    What a great talent! Is he no longer around?

  8. August 18, 2023

    We’ve all heard the dictum: “Never share the stage with children or animals.” Right?

    Today I realized that it is also difficult to appear in a photograph with a toy theater and be noticed.
    Those darn (wonderful!) things are so bossy, and capture all the interest. After I had time to study the theaters, I so enjoyed seeing more work by Mr. Collins. Dare I say, there is (perhaps) such a thing as a “British artist” and I see kindred similarities to David Gentleman, Mark Hearld, Ed Kluz and others. And by the way, that is a great compliment to all the artists mentioned.

    Your artistic legacy is highly admired, over on this side of the world.
    Thank you for shining a light, GA.

  9. August 24, 2023

    I just love these. So evocative of past times.

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