Description: signed and dated l.l.: J Collinson/1855 oil on panel
Dimensions: measurements note 53.5 by 43 cm., 21 by 17 in.
Literature: John Ruskin, Academy Notes, 1855 (The Works of Ruskin, thirty-nine volumes, London, 1903-12, vol. XIV, p. 24);
Art Journal, 1855, pp. 175-6;
Athenaeum, 1855, p. 591;
William Michael Rossetti, Spectator, 2 June 1855;
Thomas Bodkin, 'James Collinson', Apollo, 1940 (pp. 128-33), p. 132;
S. R., 'James Collinson of Mansfield', Nottingham Guardian, 11 November 1952;
Ronald Parkinson, 'James Collinson', Pre-Raphaelite Papers, edited by Leslie Parris, London, 1984 (pp. 61-75), pp. 73-4;
Valerie A. Cox, 'The Works of James Collinson: 1825-1881', The Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society, vol. IV, no. 3, Autumn 1996 (pp. 1-17), pp. 5, 7-8, 14;
Sotheby's, Pictures from the Collection of Sir David and Lady Scott, 2008, pp. 152-157.
Provenance: Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts (inventory number 968);
Christie's, London, 24 June 1983, lot 13;
Thomas Agnew & Sons, London, where bought by Sir David Scott in June 1983 for £18,000
Notes: 'Collison is a key artist: an original member of the P.R.Brotherhood and the first one to leave it. His picture was bought at Christie's through Evelyn Joll [of Agnew's] after spirited bidding. It is, of course, beautifully painted right through , though the subject is not very inspiring: when exhibited at the RA in 1858 it was highly praised by Ruskin and is a fine painting.' Sir David Scott James Collinson's The Writing Lesson was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1855, being commended by John Ruskin as 'a very careful and beautiful study [... and] a good piece of work throughout'. The critic must have remembered the artist's name as a former member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which association had been founded in 1848 and which he had supported with his pamphlet Pre-Raphaelitism published in 1851 and letters to The Times. Collinson's most thoroughly Pre-Raphaelite painting - An Incident in the Life of St Elizabeth of Hungary - was first exhibited at the National Exhibition of 1851, and demonstrated his determination to 'cut the Wilkie style of art for the early Christian', as he announced his intention at the time.
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Collinson's membership of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was short-lived. The immediate cause of his alienation from the group was because in September 1848 he had asked Christina Rossetti to marry him, but had been refused on the grounds of his recent conversion to Catholicism. He resigned formally in the spring of 1850, in a letter to Dante Gabriel Rossetti in which he explained that as a Catholic he could no longer share the purpose of making religious subjects appropriate to Protestant observation, as Holman Hunt was to devote himself to in works such as The Light of the World (Keble College, University of Oxford) or The Scapegoat (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). In 1853 he had decided to train for the priesthood, entering Stonyhurst as a Jesuit novitiate. However, two years later he had abandoned this course, and therefore resumed a career as a professional artist.
The Writing Lesson was one of two paintings exhibited at the Academy that year, and as such was the first to be shown by the artist since Answering the Emigrant's Letter (Manchester City Art Gallery) of 1850. Collinson seems deliberately to have turned to genre subjects, imbued with a serious and edifying moral purpose, and which document with clarity and detachment contemporary social preoccupations. Works of this type may be regarded as products of progressive ideas about how art should deal with issues which were directly relevant to the everyday lives of men and women of all social backgrounds. In March 1850 the Pre-Raphaelite associate John Tupper had written in the third issue of The Germ: 'If, as every poet, every painter, every sculptor will acknowledge, his best and most original ideas are derived from his own times: if his great lessonings to piety, truth, charity, love, honour, honesty, gallantry, generosity, courage, are derived from the same source: why transfer them to distant periods, and make them "not things of today"?'
The Writing Lesson shows the interior of a cottage or farmhouse, plainly furnished but orderly in its arrangements. The floor is of brick; the ceiling constructed from wooden beams. Daylight is cast from a window on the sill of which are placed geraniums and fuschias growing in terracotta pots. An oil lamp hangs from a string, upon which is also placed a blanket - perhaps deliberately positioned to obscure drawings or engravings fixed to the wall which might otherwise have distracted the attention of the person who is being taught. A settle is placed against the wall on the left side of the composition; a chest of drawers is seen in the shadowy right side, with a clock and a chair placed beneath the window. Seated on an upturned wicker basket and wearing a green corduroy jacket, breeches, and red woollen cap is a middle-age man, presumably the occupant of the house which is the painting's setting. He is being instructed by a girl, who despite her youthfulness conducts the lesson with natural authority. This is an act of social philanthropy; her awareness of the importance of her mission to teach the man to write is made clear by her expression, which is patient and encouraging. On the settle is placed her bonnet and scarf - indicating that she is visiting him rather than conducting the lesson in her own house; while on the chair is seen a pot of jam or chutney, sealed with a cloth, which is perhaps a present for the pupil and a reward for his good efforts. With her left hand she points to the words that she has written in chalk on the board that rests on a chair, while with her left she guides his wrist to encourage him in his attempt to replicate the letters. As a pupil he is clearly only a beginner: the words written are those of his own name 'John Smith'.
Christiana Payne, in her catalogue entry for the work in the exhibition Scenes of Cottage Life in Nineteenth-century British Art (see Exhibitions), has questioned whether the man, who appears reasonably prosperous at least as judged by the furnishings of the interior, might be likely to be illiterate, even at a time when a large section of the population in towns and countryside had few educational opportunities. Collinson painted interiors of this kind so well and with such loving attention to plethoric detail that perhaps he allowed the social difference between the two to be emphasised less strongly than it might have been. It is clear, however, that the child is intended to be a representative of a higher social echelon, perhaps - as Lindsay Errington suggested in the catalogue Sunshine and Shadow - the daughter of a clergyman or squire. The Writing Lesson is to do with education and learning, and by implication expressed the mid-Victorian preoccupation with the moral virtue of self-improvement and the assistance that people, either as individuals or as representatives of their class, might offer to others.
There was a movement in the 1840s and 50s that aimed for universal literacy, acknowledging that prospects for personal and professional advancement would always be limited for any individual who could not read or write. The popularity of Charles Dickens's novel The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), in which at the end of chapter three the heroine Little Nell attempts to teach her friend Kit Nubbles to write, may have encouraged a view that it was the duty of the more fortunate and privileged members of society to assist others who had not had the same opportunities. Collinson, who was himself the son of a bookseller and who therefore is likely himself to have placed a particular value on the ability of people of all sorts to read, was clearly seeking to illustrate the missionary zeal with which the middle-classes attempted to spread literacy. The painter's personal commitment to the doctrine which held that an ability to read and write was an essential qualification for social improvement is testified by the fact that in three of his principal paintings of the 1850s, Answering the Emigrant's Letter, of 1850, The Emigration Scheme (Lord Lloyd-Webber collection), of 1852, and the present painting The Writing Lesson, he has consistently shown adults depending on the abilities of their children to read and write for knowledge of and communication with the outside world.
Collinson's The Reading Lesson is one of a number of paintings of the 1850s describing such instruction. The first exhibited work of the Pre-Raphaelite associate Robert Braithwaite Martineau was Kit's Writing Lesson (Tate, London), exhibited in 1852. The same painter followed in 1856 with The Spelling Lesson (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), which like Collinson's The Reading Lesson is a subject in which one figure remains in a state of passive observation, while a protagonist struggles to achieve or complete a set task.
The Reading Lesson belonged to Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) (from 1871 Baroness Burdett-Coutts). Known as 'the richest heiress in all England', she inherited immense property from her father, Sir Francis Burdett, and her mother Sophia Coutts (who was herself the daughter of the banker Thomas Coutts). She lived in Stratton Street from 1837, and was on terms of friendship with an extraordinary range of English and foreign celebrities, including the royal family; politicians such as Wellington, Peel, Disraeli and Gladstone; writers and thinkers such as Dickens and Samuel Rogers; the actor Sir Henry Irving; and Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie, and many others besides.
She used her inherited fortune to support philanthropic causes, many of which aimed to provide practical skills and essential education for the disadvantaged members of society, and also to protect children. She was a pioneer of social housing, financing the construction of model tenements in Bethnal Green, complete with markets, gymnasiums and boys' clubs. She was one of the founders of the Ragged School Union, which was an attempt to provide universal primary education. In 1884 she was a co-founder of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She was intensely interested in the natural sciences, endowing geological scholarships at Oxford University and presenting Schimper's herbarium of mosses to Kew Gardens.
Angela Burdett-Coutts inherited notable paintings and drawings, which formed the core of her own collection. She was a familiar figure in the auction rooms (being drawn on one occasion by Harry Furniss when attending a sale). She bought substantially at the 1856 sale of her friend Samuel Rogers. Among artists who benefited from her patronage was Rebecca Solomon. While she collected a wide range of types of paintings, many of them were of subjects relating to her social campaigning. She also collected antiquarian books, and in 1864 acquired a superb Shakespeare first folio. In acknowledgment of her services, in 1871 she was raised to the peerage. A freeman of the City of London, she was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.