Charles Allston Collins
British, 1828 - 1873
The background of Convent Thoughts was begun in Botley in 1850 when Collins was
visiting Oxford with Millais. According to a note by Thomas Combe (Oxford based
patron of the Pre-Raphaelites) on the back, the flowers
were painted in Combe's garden in Walton Street. The novice was added later, in London
using a costume which William Holman Hunt had previously used in Claudio and Isabella.
The sleeves, however, covered the essential missal which the novice holds. Collins admitted
that he was tempted to cut the sleeves short: 'It is awkward', he wrote, 'in as much
as part of the story depends on the hand and the book held in it'. The book, indeed,
provides the key to the symbolism. The novice's index finger marks a page illustrating
the Annunciation, the moment when the angel tells the Virgin that she has been set
aside for special grace. She is surrounded by many different species of lily flowers,
the Virgin's attribute, which also flank the picture on the frame, designed by Millais
and inscribed 'Sicut Lilim', the opening words of a text from the Song of Solomon,
conventionally thought to prefigure the Virgin of the New Testament:
'As the lily among Thorns, so is my love among the daughters'. The flower she holds,
however, is a Passion Flower, symbol of the Crucifixion, to which her thoughts have turned.
We know this as the missal is open at a picture of the Crucifixion.
Convent Thoughts was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851 along with Millais'
Return of the Dove and Hunt's Valentine Rescuing Sylvia. All three were
severely attacked by the critics. Millais persuaded Thomas Combe to buy Convent
Thoughts while Coventry Patmore wrote to John Ruskin asking him to write something in the
press about the painters who were attempting to paint nature according to his own precepts.
Ruskin complied with a famous letter to The Times (13 May 1851) in which he warmly
defended Collins' botany while glossing over his evident sympathy for Roman Catholicism.
Oxford and the Pre-Raphaelites by Jon Whiteley
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