In the mid-1980s, when he had belatedly gained widespread acceptance as an artist, Patrick Collins’s work changed direction quite dramatically and set opinion almost universally against him
IN LAST Daylightin the RHA's Dr Tony Ryan Gallery, we get a chance to revisit the late works of Patrick Collins. Born in Dromore West, Co Sligo, in 1911, Collins died in Dublin in 1994. He is not exactly a forgotten figure in the history of Irish art of the 20th century. But he remains, as he was during his life, elusive, something of an enigma and probably underestimated to a greater or lesser extent.
That is partly because of his prickly, rebarbative nature and his disdain for the niceties of social and indeed any convention. But it’s more than likely that it also has to do with the fact that, in the mid-1980s, when he had belatedly gained widespread acceptance as an artist, his work changed direction quite dramatically, not so much dividing opinion as setting it almost unanimously against him. A notable exception was the collector Vincent Ferguson, a longterm supporter of the artist.
In any case, in the mid-1980s, admired for the muscular lyricism of his beautiful landscape paintings, which are built up slowly from layered expanses of muted colour, Collins abruptly switched to a different way of seeing and painting. Rather than working in a rectangular format, he took a scissors and cut irregular outlines into pieces of canvases. Within these outlines, he made staccato linear patterns interspersed with washes of colour. You could see some connection with his earlier work, but not enough to reassure his habitual audience that he wasn’t just being contrary, even perverse. Which, to be fair, he was quite capable of being.
It took Collins some time to come around to being a painter. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, he worked for 20 years as an insurance clerk in Dublin. While he attended some night classes in the National College of Art and Design, he was pretty much self-taught as an artist. Initially his real passion was literature, and he harboured dreams of becoming a writer. Bowled over by Ulysses, he idolised James Joyce. Writer Aidan Higgins was a friend.
Like Jack B. Yeats, Collins was haunted by idyllic aspects of his boyhood in Sligo. The early years he spent running wild there made him an acute and fond observer of nature and subtle natural detail, and also helped to form the dreamy, solitary aspects of his character. But his Sligo idyll was shadowed by tragedy. His mother struggled to cope after the death of his father, an RIC constable, from TB, and at the age of 11 Patrick was dispatched as a boarder to St Vincent’s orphanage in Dublin.
Little wonder that ever afterwards in any restrictive setting, even the ordinary routine of domestic life, he felt like a caged bird, and valued his freedom above anything. He always liked to feel, he remarked once, that he could just walk out the door and keep going and, on more than one occasion, he did. He lived in a tower in the grounds of Howth Castle for a time in the 1940s, slowly learning how to paint, or more accurately perhaps, how he wanted to paint. His tower became a base for literary gatherings. Money was short, though, and that remained the case for most of his life.
From 1950 he began to exhibit annually with the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, but it was 1956 before he had his first solo show at the Ritchie Hendriks Gallery. It was well-received and he benefitted from as much official support and encouragement as was available at the time, which wasn’t a great deal.
He was a handsome man, dark-complexioned and charming, with an instinctive flair for style. When he and Patricia Ryan, the dancer and choreographer, fell in love, their romance broke up her marriage to writer and publisher John Ryan. She and Collins later married, and they had a daughter, Penelope, but Collins, pervasively restless and un-domestic, was a very difficult and at times an impossible person to live with.
Having been inspired by a prior visit to Brittany, he spent most of the 1970s in France, moving around, settling in a few different places, mostly living in real poverty, sometimes not even eating adequately, often drinking excessively. By the end of the decade he was back in Ireland. The quality of his work was generally recognised. In time he received an honorary doctorate from Trinity, he was elected to the RHA and Aosdána yet he was by no stretch of the imagination an establishment figure. There was always something untamed and vulnerable about him.
Then, in the mid-1980s, he embarked on his final artistic adventure. He had, he said, been looking at classical Chinese painting, especially at the way Chinese artists dealt with space. That led him to take a scissors to the compositional rectangle, so that he could open up the space. He had previously tended to paint a frame within a frame in his paintings, reinforcing the rectangular format, and now he dispensed with that entirely.
As Frances Ruane, who wrote a monograph on Collins, described his earlier approach: “He takes the intimate furniture of the landscape, all those sheep and sheds, and obscures them with mist and light. They become forgotten images that have been lost through time . . .” Collins himself noted that what interested him about a subject was not so much its appearance but its aura, the sense one has of there being something more beyond what is seen. “It is this something more that I try to paint.”
There are several of his more conventional paintings in Last Daylight, and it is interesting to note that they wear incredibly well. They combine architectonic solidity with extraordinary delicacy of touch and really look as if they will endure as outstanding 20th-century works.
What of the cut-outs? Surprisingly, they still look very fresh, even a little raw. There’s nothing safe or twee or elegiac about them at all. It’s worth going to see the exhibition more than once. First time around, you may not even find your way into the paintings, you may tend to look at the outlines. At some point, though, you will find that you suddenly get the rhythm of Collins’s vision. Still challenging us all these years later, rather than inviting us to look at the pictorial space from the outside, he boldly sets out to walk us through it.
Last DaylightPaintings by Patrick Collins. Dr Tony Ryan Gallery, Royal Hibernian Academy, Gallagher Gallery, 15 Ely Place
Until March 27