Margaret Collyer (1872-1945)
Lord of the Isles
signed and dated ‘Margaret Collyer/ 1901’ (lower right),
and further indistinctly signed and inscribed ‘Margaret Collyer/ Tedworth Studios, Smith’s Terrace/ Chelsea/ London’
(on the artist’s label, on the reverse)
oil on canvas
76 x 50 in. (193.1 x 127 cm.)
frame 88 ¼ x 62 ¾ in. (224.2 x 159.4 cm.)
Private Collection, U.K.
Close to the sun, in lonely lands, Collyer’s highland bull stands astride a rock, his coat blustering in the wind, a stream of spittle emanating from his mouth. He is a vision of strength, dominance, vitality and masculinity; an untameable spirit, unchallengeable, unconquerable, and ruler of all he surveys. If Sir Edwin Landseer created The Monarch of the Glen, then surely this should be The Emperor.
Executed in 1901, and titled by the artist, Lord of the Isles was until recently - despite it’s impressive size - lost, it’s whereabouts subject to speculation. Arguably Collyer’s masterpiece, the painting has a distinctly cinematic feel to it, anticipating films that came along in the 20th Century and later. With a compositional intensity comparable to a scene from a Peter Jackson epic, one could almost be looking at a mountain-scape in Mordor, from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; similarly, it has the hyper-reality of a Zac Snyder film, such as 300, the bull being an anthropomorphic incarnation of the Spartan King, Leonidas. The tempestuous sky, the sublime snowy Highland peaks, and the barren rocks merge together, creating a melodramatic backdrop to the bull: in unison they represent the formidable power of nature.
Margaret Collyer (1) travelled to Scotland on several occasions, and records in her autobiography, A vivid canvas, visiting the Ardtornish Estate on the west coast, having been commissioned by the owner of the estate to paint some of his stock. She was singularly impressed by the highland cattle, who were growing winter coats. One particularly formidable looking prize-winning bull, believed to be Victor VII (2), caught the artist’s eye. ‘Entirely black, with a marvellous spread of horns’(3), Victor VII was (with the help of six or seven men) taken up every morning to high ground, where he stood on a rock, his silhouette dramatically accentuated by the sky, while Collyer captured him with her paints. The artist was particularly surprised that he never charged at her, and managed to keep him pliant by feeding him handfuls of salt throughout each day. The canvas-study produced was used for the present work.
Lord of the Isles was never exhibited in London, as it sold privately whilst still on the artist’s easel. However, had the painting been displayed at the Royal Academy (where Collyer graduated in 1898, and exhibited each year from 1897-1903), one could be assured that it would have attracted considerable interest - not only due to its formidable size and striking visual impact. Hanging among late Victorian works by her contemporaries, it is likely to have been the most testosterone-fuelled picture on display, and would have surprised many that it was painted by a woman. This would have been quite a statement in itself, particularly at the turn of the century, when the Suffragette Movement was in full momentum, campaigning for equality and the right for women to vote.
At the time, the Royal Academy’s policy towards female students was symptomatic of the broader prejudice levelled against women in society. No woman had been elected R.A. since Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser (when the institution was founded in 1769), and the schools had an educational structure that gave male students a distinct advantage. Collyer found it all incredibly frustrating and stated:
Why the female of the species should never be given the same advantages as the male is difficult to understand. At the Royal Academy Schools we women had to compete against the men for all the prizes and medals that were given each year, and we were only allowed half the amount of tuition and less than half their opportunities for study.
No nude model was allowed for posing in the women’s painting room at the Royal Academy Schools. It was strictly against the laws that the women students be permitted to study from the human form divine……the Academicians blushed at the very thought of anything so shocking. To learn how the human body is constructed one must dive below the skin; before painting drapery or clothes on a body the artist must be able to visualise what is under the clothes (4).
Collyer in her own words, became a ‘leading firebrand and rebel’, and often brought up the issue with leading Academicians such as Sir Frank Dicksee, P.R.A., who argued that it would be a waste of money, as women invariably married and gave up painting. Dicksee, much to Collyer’s chagrin, informed her that when new members were being elected, all potential candidates names were written on a board, and chalk-lines drawn through the women before voting commenced (5).
Along with some fellow female students, Collyer organised extra-curricular life drawing sessions in a photographer’s studio off Baker Street, to give her and other women students the opportunity to draw and study the nude, for two hours, four nights a week. Not content with this, she also organised a meeting(6) with the President, Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), who promised to bring the matter before the Council (7). After debating the issue, the Council agreed that should an instructor wish, they could pose a nude model in the presence of women students. With this leverage, Collyer and her supporters managed to persuade nearly all of the teachers to allow women to study the nude. It could be said that Laura Knight’s famous - and at the time controversial - self-portrait with a nude (1913) was made possible due to Collyer’s actions. Modest about her achievement, Collyer later reminisced that ‘at one time I had some animosity toward the Suffragettes, but now I place a sprig of rosemary in remembrance of them, for women artists too, have much for which to thank them.’(8)
Whilst studying at the Royal Academy Schools, Collyer became great friends with Field Marshal Sir Frederick Paul Haines (1819-1909), an important patron of the arts and theatre. Attending many opening night performances with him, she became acquainted with numerous great names of the day, among them Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker, describing the latter as ‘a big burly Irishman who owned a strong brogue and a vast sense of humour. He was such an entertaining companion… [who] seemed to romp through life laughing so kindly with, and at, his fellow-beings; a party was never dull for me if he happened to be about’(9). However, Collyer thought the world of the London Debutante ‘a waste of time and money’ and questioned ‘what was it all for? Where was it leading? (10)’
After graduating from the Royal Academy Schools in 1898, she set up a studio in London, painting on commission all over Britain until the outbreak of the First World War; she then enrolled as a nurse at the Allied Hospital in Boulogne, until it virtually closed down in 1915. The role was particularly traumatic, and one that she only touches upon in her autobiography, writing ‘I draw a blind over memory at this juncture, thankful that time has now partially obscured the mind-pictures of agony and horrors I witnessed during those few dreadful months in France’ (11). One has to only look at the injury studies of Henry Tonks, F.R.C.S. (1862-1937), a senior surgeon during the war, and later Slade Professor of Fine Art (1918-1930), to have an insight into what she must have witnessed.
In order to recuperate, in 1915 Collyer went to visit her sister Olive (12), who had been a coffee plantation farmer outside Nairobi, Kenya, since 1908. The trip was to dramatically change the course of her life. A ban on civilians travelling on ships (due to wartime dangers of mines and enemy vessels) was imposed after her arrival, so upon receiving a full-refund on her return ticket, the enterprising Collyer decided to stay as a pioneer livestock farmer (13), buying land facing the Aberdare mountains (14) that had scarcely seen a human foot since the Masai move in 1911. It’s interesting to note that Karen Blixen (1885-1962), whose best-selling autobiographical account of her time Kenya, Out of Africa, was made into a film, moved there in 1914, returning to Denmark in 1931. In such a small society, the two undoubtably knew each other (15).
When Collyer first arrived, it was fortuitous that she was an accomplished rider, as cars were as ‘rare as Great Auk eggs’ (16) - as such, shopping for provisions took an entire day. Her life was full of adventure, surrounded by the Kikuyu, Masai, pioneers, farmers, adventurers, stunning landscapes, and - of particular interest to her - the most extraordinary wildlife: her autobiography continually alludes to cheetahs, rhinos, elephants, hyenas, leopards, wild dogs and crocodiles, and more than once she had to confront lions who were attempting to steal her cattle. On one occasion she battled with a giant python that had coiled around her terrier, Prickles. Without a knife or gun, she used a log as a weapon, landing a lucky head-blow as she became the object of the powerful creature’s intent. When help arrived, she tracked the snake down and finished it off with a shotgun after it came at her again. She fed and hid Masai warriors (who the British had tried to conscript as trackers in the East Africa Campaign), sealed off the farm during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, and in 1927, awoke at midnight to the grass roof above her head ablaze - the light from the flames stirring her, as burning red hot embers fell about the room. Escaping outside, she realised that one of her terriers was locked in a bedroom, and re-entered the burning building to rescue it. Sadly, all of her possessions, manuscripts and diaries were destroyed - although all Collyer could think was what a shame it was that her passion-fruit creeper had been burnt. After four months of living in a tent (during which a severe earthquake occurred), her new house (which Collyer built herself, with the aid of a female friend and carpenter from the Seychelles) was ready; the very night she moved in, the rains began.
Although Collyer did occasionally paint in Africa, her artistic output was limited. Canvases and oils where difficult to come by, and on one occasion when she did manage to acquire some, the locals used them as body paint. Art must have also have been far from her mind when experiencing droughts, locust invasions, famines and floods. She observed that the first time she discussed art since arriving was in 1923, when she became ill and was ordered to spend time in Zanzibar, recuperating by the sea.
From her time spent in London, mixing with figures such as Bram Stoker, Singer Sargent, Rudyard Kipling and Lord Leighton, to living among the Kikuyu, Masai, farm-holders, adventurers, pioneers and wildlife of Kenya, few people can claim to have lived such a rich and varied life, worthy of a biopic played by Meryl Streep; indeed, all that’s missing from the second half of her autobiography is Robert Redford. A great artistic talent, it is a shame that her output was not more prolific. Had she stayed in London, continuing to work as a professional artist, it is possible that she would have become a household name. However, when the artist looked back upon her life, it’s likely that she would have concluded that staying in London would have come at a cost that she would not have been prepared to pay: Kenya, and her adventures in Africa - perhaps the greatest, most vivid canvas of all in her life.
Margaret Collyer died in Mombasa in 1945.
I am grateful to Margaret Collyer’s great-nieces, Veronica Bellers and Susan Duke, for examining images of this picture and giving their much appreciated thoughts. Veronica and Susan compiled Collyer’s autobiography, A vivid canvas: Margaret Collyer, Artist and Pioneer 1872-1945.
I would also like to thank Andrew Potter from the Royal Academy, for his assistance on information regarding the Royal Academy Schools during Collyer’s studentship.
Lord of the Isles was featured in Country Life, 18 October 2017 , p. 124 A sense of style - A forgotten Scottish masterpiece returns
1 Collyer, the youngest of six, was born and brought up in Surrey.
2 Victor VII of Ardtornish (b.1891), herd book no. 1067, was by far the most successful black bull shown by Mr Thomas Valentine Smith of Ardtornish. His show record was:
1st Prize as a yearling at The Royal Highland Show (Inverness, 1892).
1st Prize as a two year old and champion at The Royal Highland Show (Edinburgh, 1893).
3rd as an aged bull at The Royal Highland Show held (Aberdeen, 1894).
His sire was An-t-Iasgair (b.1882), no. 13 in the first herd book, bred by the Earl of Dunmore, whose career consisted of 3rd prize at The Royal Highland Show (Edinburgh, 1884).
His dam was the outstanding black cow, Proiseag Dhubh (b.1877), herd book no. 783. Her show career was:
3rd Prize Cow The Royal Highland Show (1881)
1st Prize Cow The Royal Highland Show (1882)
2nd Prize Cow The Royal Highland Show (1884)
1st Prize Cow The Royal Highland Show (1885)
1st Prize Cow The Royal Highland Show (1889)
Victor VII was used extensively at Ardtornish over many years.
3 Margaret Collyer, A vivid canvas: Margaret Collyer, Artist and Pioneer 1872-1945, Librario Publishing Ltd, 2008, p.150. Few highland cattle now lead a ‘wild free life’ in such areas as the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, of North West Scotland, as this bull would have - as a result, such magnificent specimens are now seldom seen.
4 It is not known who acquired the painting.
5 Ibid., p.74
6 Despite the inequality, by 1897 (the year before Collyer graduated), twenty percent of all fine art students were women.
7 Collyer’s fellow students ended up backing out of the meeting with Leighton, just before it commenced. About to attend it alone, by a stroke of good fortune, a friend who was on the Council, George Bouchier, happened to be at Leighton House; he agreed to attend the meeting in her support.
8 Collyer was certainly a well-known figure within the Royal Academy Schools; Leighton once lent her two models, whom he himself employed for his own paintings. The result, a 10 x 5 ft cartoon entitled A Roman Empress, was hung at the Concert Hall at Alexandra Palace. John Singer Sargent, and Walter William Ouless financially supported Collyer’s ailing best-friend and fellow student, Katherine Willis, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 29.
9 Ibid., p.77.
10 Ibid. p.70.
11 Ibid., p.183.
12 Olive was given the name Niawera by the Kikuyu, which means ‘the woman who works’.
13 Collyer had the honour of being the first ever woman to be invited to an Agricultural Dinner in Kenya, and was placed to the right of the Director of Agriculture, Archibald MacDonald, MRAC, FMAS.
14 Collyer’s farm was situated between Gilgil and Thomson’s Falls, just southwest of lake Ol’Bolossat.
15 Although Collyer doesn't record in her autobiography meeting Karen Blixen, it certain that in such a small social circle she did. Two of her best friends, Sir William and Lady McMillan, were well-acquainted with Blixen.
16 Ibid., p.189.