The animal and genre painter Margaret Collyer published her autobiography, An Artist's Life, in 1935, without illustrations. She was then living in Kenya. Over a period of years (and with some minor assitance from the British Sporting Art Trust) her twin great-nieces, Mrs Susan Duke and Mrs Veronica Bellers, have gathered over fifty photographs of the artist's oil paintings and drawings to add to the original text, giving the new edition the title: A Vivid Canvas. This book was brought out by Librario Publishing Ltd., Kinloss, Scotland at the end of last year.
Miss Collyer's life was divided into almost equal parts. The first part, 1872 to 1915, was spent as a child, student and professional artist in England; in the second she lived in Kenya as a pioneer farmer mainly in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains where she had less opportunity to paint. She was not a part of the 'Happy Valley' set!
This Note, or review, of A Vivid Canvas is concerned with Miss Collyer's life in England before 1915. From her early years she enjoyed painting only a little less than she loved animals, but she had little tuition. When eighteen she went occasionally to the Animal Painter's Studio in Gower Street, London where "I learn't nothing." In 1891 she spent some time in Dusseldorf ostensibly to study animal painting under Herr Rochell, known as the 'Battle painter to the Kaiser'. Again this was not a success, although she developed an appreciation of music. Miss Collyer is reticent about her home life. Shortly after returning from Germany she reports that "one evening my father and I agreed to part". She saddled her horse and off she rode that same night to stay temporarily with her grandmother in Godalming!
The need to earn a living became imperative as did the need to improve her painting skills. Returning to Gower Street, she lodged for a time with Mr and Mrs Alexander Cooper whose Animal Painter's Studio had all but closed. Alexander Cooper was the eldest son of the noted battle, animal and sporting painter Abraham Cooper RA (1787-1868). Both Alexander and his wife, Maria, painted. For his part he exhibited history, genre and some sporting paintings at the RA from 1837 to 1888; Maria exhibited pictures of fruit and flowers. Miss Collyer accepted Alexander Cooper's kindly advice that while she had a great facility for painting animals, she lacked training. This criticism was later echoed by the eminant Frank Dicksee who went so far as to say that Margaret's art was beyond correction! Taking up this challenge, Miss Collyer set about working for a scholarship at the Royal Academy Schools. She attended the Pelham Street School of Art where her tutors (Arthur Cope and Watson Nicol) specialised in preparing students for entry to the RA Schools. While at Pelham Street and later at the RA Schools, Miss Collyer lived at Alexandra House, near the Albert Hall. This marvellous institution provided women students of music and painting with a room and food for £60 per annum. It is probable that Miss Collyer was at her happiest during this period.
With £60 and the cost of her materials and other small necessities to be found, Miss Collyer undertook commissions during her holidays where and whenever she could. A more unusual patron was a lady living in the Midlands who owned a pack of harriers, a couple of which she wanted portrayed. While changing trains at Coventry, Miss Collyer bought a Scottish deerhound for £8 from a complete stranger! On the arrival of these two, her patron proved to be a delightful if very eccentric woman. After dinner she would dress as a Highlander, "kilt, bare knees, dirk, sporran, plaid ...... and a bonnet on the side of her head." With Margaret playing the piano she then danced reels with her similarly attired butler for exactly one hour - for the exercise. Other patrons were less charismatic and felt that, when not painting, an artist's place was in the servant's hall. Miss Collyer soon put them right on that score!
After graduating from the RA Schools, Margaret Collyer found a London studio and quickly gained commissions, sometimes via relations and friends of her family. Her boon companions throughout her life were a series of dogs with whom she had many adventures. She had one or two paintings accepted by the Royal Academy each year from 1897 until 1910. Their titles reflected the typical Victorian and Edwardian sentiment of the day, without giving one any idea of the subject matter: Nothing ventured, nothing gained, 1898, or Silence is deep as eternity, speech is as shallow as time, 1903. Two Academy pictures are illustrated in A Vivid Canvas: Nonplussed, 1900 (a terrier examining a hedgehog) and Scottie and Khaki, 1905 (the latter dog is a West Highland Terrier). She was painting many horses at the same period and it would have been interesting to see reproductions of her portrait of Manifesto, winner of the Grand National in 1897 and 1898, or Jenkinstown who won the same race in 1910. As an aside that can be levelled at many books where paintings are reproduced, it is disappointing that no dimensions are given. Without these it is difficult to discover the scale that the artist favoured or imagine the impact of the painting on the wall, which is a pity.
A Vivid Canvas provides a self-portrait of the artist painted in 1929. We see a rather severe, spectacled, face beneath a head of cropped hair of the period. What is quite evident from the text is that Margaret Collyer was a forthright, outspoken woman who did not suffer fools at all. She obviously had immense determination, energy and courage, but perhaps she was a person whom one would approach carefully before venturing one's own opinion on any canine or art matter!
At the outbreak of the 1914 War, Margaret Collyer immediately went to Boulagne to be a nurse in an Allied Hospital. In the spring of 1915, the hospital was closed and it was then that her sister, Olive, suggested that Margaret should join her in Kenya. This she did, but after a time attempted to return to France but found that travel was forbidden. After working with her sister on her farm near Nairobi, she decided to set up on her own account in the foothills of the Aberdares. There was less time to paint, but a very sympathetic portrait of Lord Delamere still hangs in the Muthaiga Club, Nairobi, and other work is scattered throughout the country. Her interest in dogs remained constant, and the Margaret Collyer Challenge Cup for the Best Terrier is still competed for annually at the Nairobi Kennel Club. The chapters on Miss Collyer's life in Kenya are equally absorbing and will be of immense interest to 'old Kenya hands'.
Margaret Collyer is of a different mould to that which we consider a sporting artist usually comes. She does not fit in with her contemporaries: Cecil Aldin, Munnings, Lionel Edwards and F.A. Stewart, or for that matter with Lucy Kemp-Welch. However, this new book provides not only an insight into the subject's art and the popularity of her work as a painter of dogs, horses and people in her day, but also a fascinating portrayal of a student and artist's life in the early part of the Twentieth Century.