CHARLES JOHN COLLINGS (1848-1931)
By Portia Priegert
Few people today have heard of Charles John Collings, but in his time the reclusive British-born painter had a considerable reputation. Vancouver art dealer Uno Langmann, who has collected Collings’ work for 40 years, believes the artist has been sadly overlooked by history. So Langmann is pleased much of his collection is included in the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition, Hope at Dawn: Watercolours by Emily Carr and Charles John Collings, which continues to May 26. While the styles and techniques of the two artists are quite different, both used watercolour to capture spiritually infused impressions of the Canadian landscape.
An avid outdoorsman, Collings was already an established, albeit largely self-taught, artist in Britain when he moved Canada in 1910 at age 62 and settled near Shuswap Lake in the B.C. Interior with his wife and two sons. His relative isolation meant he could follow his own creative muse, and he mixed little with the province’s artistic circles. He had only one show in Vancouver and typically sold his work through his London dealer.
Collings was heavily influenced by the British watercolour tradition and is remarkable for his technical facility as well as his sensitive explorations of colour. Ian Thom, a curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, notes that Collings was brilliant and highly individualistic. “ What is striking about the work is the almost complete absence of line and Collings’ willingness to exploit the vagaries of colours blending, combined with what is, at times, a steely control of this most unforgiving medium and his highly developed sense of composition.” Indeed, Home in Trees, Canada, an undated work, ably demonstrates Thom’s assertion. Trees and foreground are watery and ethereal, yet pictorial space remains convincing. Like many Collings works, little is known about it – even where it was painted.
Collings died at 83 in 1931, and the era’s economic hardships may help explain why his work fell from view. Langmann, who has promised a gift of 36 paintings to the Vancouver Art Gallery, says he wants to fulfill a vow he made when he first encountered Collings. “The importance of his work was very undervalued,” says Langmann. “I promised him, within myself, to make sure that I would do something to boost his artistic talent.”