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Sir John Collier (British, 1850-1934)
Sir John Collier (British, 1850-1934)

Myrrh, Aloes and Cassia

Sir John Collier (British, 1850-1934)
Myrrh, Aloes and Cassia
oil on canvas
89 ¾ x 76 in. (228 x 193 cm.)
Commissioned from the artist by Joseph Crosfield and Sons Ltd., Warrington.
with Dicksee & Co., Liverpool (1919).
The Erasmic Co. Ltd, Warrington.
London, Royal Academy, 1919.
Warrington, Museum and Art Gallery, on long term loan until 2015 (lit 2001 inv. no. TA562)

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Lot Essay

In the enigmatically titled Myrrh, Aloes and Cassia, John Collier entreaties the observer to recall verse 8 of psalm 45; 'all your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; from palaces adorned with ivory the music of the strings makes you glad'. The rhapsodic psalmist portrays a king, interpreted by Christians as Jesus Christ, whose garments are so interlaced with rich perfume that their very fibres seem to be woven from them. The verse creates a sumptuous image of a glittering palace which is at once both unimaginable, and yet tangible in its storming of the senses.

Collier has captured this sentiment masterfully and translates the psalm's enthralment of the senses in his opulent detail. The richness of Collier's palette, his lavish depiction of gold, the deliberate dominance of the lute and censer in the foreground, and the carelessly arrayed heap of bright and gilded fabrics contribute to the overwhelming sensory impression. The female figures have themselves succumbed to the exquisite sensations; the relaxed, vigour less statures of the richly adorned women reveals the wealth of sight, touch and sound to be almost oppressive, they are somewhat powerless and can do little but bask in their luxury. In these figures Collier faithfully re-imagines the final verses of the psalm; 'All glorious is the princess within [her chamber]; her gown is interwoven with gold / In embroidered garments she is led to the king; her virgin companions follow her and are brought to you / They are led in with joy and gladness; they enter the palace of the king'. (45:13-15) Within the bounds of traditional Christian teaching, Christ is the king in these verses, and the princess, his bride, is the church. Collier has captured the passivity of the princess and her companions expressed in the psalm in his female figures; they are languishing dreamily until a greater awakening. Although in many ways Collier has loyally reproduced the description of the princess in her robes of gold, the sultry expressions of the women along with the suggestive revelation of skin and delicately arranged clothing, suggest that Collier's intentions were more provocative than devotional.

John Collier was born in London in 1850, the second son of distinguished lawyer and judge, Robert Porrett Collier, later the first Lord Monkswell. After an education at Eton, Collier sought formal artistic instruction from amongst the most prominent Pre-Raphaelite artists of his day. Collier's formal instruction was enacted at the Slade School, where he worked under E. J. Poynter before proceeding to study in Munich and finally Paris, where he was taught by J.P. Laurens. Despite failing to earn a place as Lawrence Alma-Tadema's pupil, Collier's career was heavily influenced by him and other notable colleagues, such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brother, John Everett Millais. Collier spent much time in Millais' studio and he arguably never lost his sympathy for the late Pre-Raphaelitism inculcated by these early mentors; he remained enamoured by the portrayal of literary and historical characters into the twentieth century, long after they had become unfashionable in critical opinion.

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