Surprisingly, there has so far been little study to use Charles Collins’s work on paper as the basis of critical discussion, and nothing which takes it as a primary point of focus apart from a single chapter which reported that Collins was ‘distinguished alike as artist and author,’ a gentle, shy and sensitive person perhaps unfairly consigned to oblivion, has little to say of an analytical nature. Charles Allston Collins (1828-1873), an artist, a novelist, an essayist, and an art critic, turned 40 on 25th January 1867. Beginning his career as a pre-Raphaelite artist, Collins hoped to sell one of his first paintings, Berengaria’s Alarm whose subject-matter shows Queen Berengaria, wife of Richard I (“the Lionheart”), terrified her husband has been killed in the Crusades after offered his belt, or “girdle” for sale by a peddler.
As an artist, Collins was strongly associated with Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, although not an official member of it, and he in fact preceded the Pre-Raphaelite painters in exhibiting at the Royal Academy: the ‘PRB’ was founded in 1848 whereas Collins started exhibiting his paintings in the Royal Academy in 1847. He continued to do so until 1855. Some of his paintings could be considered as masterpieces such as Berengaria’s Alarm (1850), Convent Thoughts (1851), May in the Regent’s Park (1852), and The Good Harvest of 1854 (1855). The importance of Collins’s paintings lies not solely in their artistic merits, but in their relative conceptual position among those created by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and John Everett Millais (1829-1896).
In 1857 Collins decided to swap painting for literature. Then he was known to have contributed more than 160 articles to seven of the most notable periodicals of the mid-Victorian era: Household Words, All the Year Round, Macmillan’s Magazine, Cornhill Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Tinsley’s Magazine, and Harper’s Weekly, as well as to the less mainstream Warne’s Christmas Annual. Much of his writing appeared first in Dickens’s All the Year Round and was later republished as three series in book form, as A New Sentimental Journey (1859), The Eyewitness (1860), and A Cruise upon Wheels (1863). He also wrote three novels: The Bar Sinister (1864), Strathcairn (1864), and At The Bar (1866).
In his last years of his life, Collins’s health was so broken, but he mixed a good deal in society, and seemed to enjoy life wonderfully. However, while some authors may seriously start their job in their 40th anniversary birthday, in the case of Collins, he reached his culmination. Following the discovery of an annotated set of All The Year Round, as many as ninety articles have been newly attributed to Charles Collins. Here are some of the many articles contributed in All the Year Round by Collins in the year he turned 40: ‘The Devil’s Training School’, ‘Will the Public Strike?’, ‘Book Illustrations’, ‘A New Portrait Gallery’, ‘A Tale with a Striking Moral: Chapters I, II, III, and IV.’, ‘Rough Doings.’, ‘English Royal Authority.’, ‘Some Very Light Literature.’, ‘The English Gentleman’s own Profession.’, ‘The English Gentleman’s own Profession (second article).’, ‘Eye-Memory.’, ‘Nothing Like Example.’, and ‘An Unofficial Report.’
As a writer, Collins’s style was characterised as ‘well invented and well told. The interest is strong, the incidents and several of the characters are unhackneyed, and though vividly romantic, possible enough to take their place in a picture of easy every-day life’. As a reader of Collins’s writing, Collins, arguably, tried to make a link between the sentimental non-fictional and sensational fictional writings. Collins’s three works of non-fiction are reviewed in terms of his presentation of sentimental and travel narratives, the traditions of satire, and some of the most intriguing cultural phenomena of the nineteenth century: the sensibility vogue; the culture and personal acculturation; the emotional-aesthetic sensitivity; the rise of celebrity authorship; transformations in the understanding of personal identity and selfhood; a visual commodification of the 19th century landscape/cityscape; an artist’s appreciation of the cultural value of ‘reviews’ and the ‘picturesque’. Amid the deluge of the characteristics of sensation novels, Collins’s novels claimed to take the rank of highly-class sensation novels. As with many sensation novels, the trio of the novels are best described by having the themes of obsession and objectification; bigamous marriages; revenge (vengeance); misdirected letters; romantic triangles; heroines placed in physical danger; drugs, potions, and/or poisons; characters adopt disguises; trained coincidences; and aristocratic villains.
Others also left tributes, written and graphic, William Holman Hunt sketched a rare portrait of his friend and confidante, as he lay dead, quoting from Collins’s A New Sentimental Journey: ‘It is a pleasant thought, at any rate; for surely of all the ingredients in the horror which death inspires, there is not one that has a larger share to make it terrible than the bitter thought that we are forgotten . . . Think of this sometimes, and go, once, now and there, and stand beside his grave. You shall not come away the worse.’
However, even the brief obituaries which followed in the newspapers carry new information not previously known. It was reported not only on the loss of a painter and writer, but also the death of the art critic for the daily newspaper called Echo since its foundation in 1868 until his death. He was buried on 14th April 1873 in Brompton Cemetery; the grave is marked with a flat granite on which is written only his name and dates of his birth and death.
Collins and Buckingham: This post was submitted by Saad Mohammed Al-Maliky, who is currently researching his PhD at Buckingham on the life and works of Charles Collins. The frequently ill ‘Poor Charlie’, younger brother of Wilkie, and son-in-law to Dickens, has spent much of his posthumous career under the shadow of these two behemoths of Victorian literature, but recent discoveries on the full extent of Charlie’s writings and Saad’s exploratory research aim to redress this history of neglect and bring new awareness of this writer and his works.