Head Study for Convent Thoughts
Charles Allston Collins
1850 (as modified by Fildes)
Watercolour and gouache on paper Signed with monogram
34.20 cm h x 28.60 cm w (13 1/4 in h x 11 1/4 in w)
See commentary below
Commentary by Peter Nahum
Convent Thoughts is a key painting from the early Pre-Raphaelite movement and Charles Allston Collins's most important work. It became the focus for a public debate on the subject of the Pre-Raphaelites religious views — The religious piety of such works by Rossetti and Collinson led many critics to accuse the Pre-Raphaelites of being Roman Catholic sympathizers — and embraces their ideals of 'truth to nature' and complex literary symbolism. The painting, in a frame designed by Millais (Roberts, pp. 157, 168), was shown at the 1851 Royal Academy exhibition.
Charles Collins met Holman Hunt and Millais as a student at the Royal Academy Schools and remained their close friend throughout his life. He was never formally admitted as a Pre-Raphaelite Brother by the group on the grounds that "he was very much of a conventional who would be out of his element with us" (Rose, p. 63), although he was a close associate of the Brotherhood from their formation in 1848 until he gave up painting in 1858. In 1851, he joined Hunt and Millais at Worcester Park Farm in Surrey, where the three of them, according to Millais, "lived as happily together as ancient monastic brethren" (Rose, p. 63). Millais was at the time working on the background foliage for the Woodsman's Daughter. His painstaking rendering of foliage is echoed in Collins's meticulous interpretation of the garden flora in Convent Thoughts.
Frances Farah Ludlow was the beautiful model for the nun who is so delicately portrayed in this drawing. The competition for stunning models was revealed by Millais in a letter to Mrs Combe Collins on 15th January, 1851: "I saw Carlo last night, who has been very lucky in persuading a very beautiful young lady to sit for the head of the nun. She was at his house when I called, and I also endeavored to obtain a seating, but was unfortunate as she leaves London next Saturday" (cited Faberman, p. 66). About the same time Collins wrote to Holman Hunt mentioning that he had been working on the nun's face from 'a friend of a friend' at her own house. Collins had borrowed the same nun's costume that Holman Hunt had used in Claudio and Isabella. Preparatory studies for Convent Thoughts are in the Ashmolean and the British Museum. A later version in pen and ink, dated 1853, is in Tate Britain. [Online catalogue for the exhibition Master Drawings at The London Original Print Fair 2006: 22nd to 26th March 2006.]
Faberman, Hilarie. The Substance or the Shadow; Images of Victorian Womanhood. Exhibition catalogue. London: Yale Center for British Art, 1982.
Roberts, Lynn. Nineteenth Century English Picture Frames, The Pre-Raphaelites, The International Museum of Management and Curatorship, June 1985.
Rose, Andrea. Pre-Raphaelite Portraits Oxford: OUP, 1981
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