This article incorporates material from a paper prepared by Valerie A Cox on 9 February 1993.

James Collinson
James Collinson, believed to be a self-portrait.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848. They were, in a sense, the 'Brat Pack' of their day, being young, rebellious and eager to try something new. What they actually did was re-introduce something very old.

There were many different styles of painting around at that time, ranging from the portraits of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres to the landscape paintings of Samuel Palmer, and some of the latter were a foretaste of Impressionism.

Baroness de Rotschild   Garden In Shoreham
Left: 'The Baroness de Rothschild', by Ingres, 1848.
Right: 'Garden in Shoreham', by Palmer, c.1830.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

I am no art expert but, although the PRB movement is regarded as seminal in the history of Victorian painting, it comes over now as very stylised and static, whereas JMW Turner, who was then nearing the end of his life, is still admired and relevant today: as early as 1835 he had produced the stunning, vibrant work shown below and he showed genuine innovation over the course of his long career. Anyway, you either like the PRB style or you don't, but it was regarded as shocking and anti-Establishment in its day.

Burning Of The Houses Of Parliament
'The Burning of the Houses of Parliament', by Turner.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

James Collinson already has some coverage on this website as a member of the PRB, but he is far less well known than Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais and deserves a more detailed mention.


James was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire on 9 May 1825, the son of bookseller and sub-postmaster Robert Collinson (c.1786- June 1845). According to the website called 'Our Nottinghamshire' the Collinsons were originally farming people in the Mansfield area but Robert broke the mould by opening a bookshop in West Gate. His wife, Mary Harvey, was from Askham in the Bassetlaw district of Nottinghamshire. In 1841 Robert was living over the shop with sons Charles (born c.1823) and James; his wife Mary and their daughter, also Mary (born 1817), were alive but not at home. Mary Junior seems to have been disfigured in some way (Christina Rossetti mentioned an 'eruption' on her face). Mary Senior died in 1863 and Mary Junior remained in Mansfield, unmarried with one servant, until her own death in 1881. Charles, having initially taken over the bookshop, became a farmer and landowner, spending his later years in Matlock, Derbyshire, where he died in 1897.

The book business did well and James, having apparently been taught to paint by local artist Ann Paulson, was able to study at the Royal Academy in London. He exhibited there as early as 1847 with 'The Charity Boy's Debut', and the painting below, completed in 1850, shows what an accomplished artist he was by his 20s.

The Renunciation of St Elizabeth of Hungary
'The Renunciation of St Elizabeth of Hungary', by James Collinson (1850).
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

James had been involved in the Oxford Movement (Tractarianism), which was high Anglican, but converted to Roman Catholicism. His work depicted not only religious subjects, but also what are known as 'Victorian Genre' works, as in this next painting.

Answering the Emigrant's Letter
'Answering the Emigrant's Letter' (1850).
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Religion and romance

Whilst in London James, said to be a quiet and nervous young man nicknamed 'the dormouse', had become engaged to the 17 year old poet Christina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel and William Michael, both Pre-Raphaelites. The Rossettis would not countenance a Catholic in the family, so James converted back to Anglicanism, but it did not stick and he returned to Catholicism, at which point the engagement ended. He was uncomfortable with the Pre-Raphaelites, who were non-Catholics, and resigned from the movement. This is hard to understand now, but it emphasises that the PRB had strong beliefs as a movement and was considerably more than a painting club. Similarly, it shows how deep-seated and important religion was to James.

Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1851 census James was lodging in Robert Street, Chelsea, described as an artist, but a year or two later he decided to become a priest and entered Stonyhurst College in Clitheroe, Lancashire, a Jesuit institution; he left there after a time and resumed his artistic career.

Stonyhurst College
Stonyhurst College.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1858 he married Eliza Alvinia (or Albinia) Henrietta Ann Wheeler (born c.1818 Pimlico). It is alleged on the internet that she was the sister-in-law of Royal Academician John Rogers Herbert (I suspect that one person said it and many others copied it), who was a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelites: this implies that she had a sister married to Mr Herbert, but she did not. Mr Herbert's wife was Kezia Mary Dedman from Great Tey, Essex and her parents were William and Mary Dedman. However, in the 1841 census the Wheelers (that is, Eliza, her mother, Mary Ann, and two sisters, Matilda and Mary Ann - Eliza's father, Samuel, had already died) were living next door to the Herberts in Gloucester Road, Brompton, London, so they certainly knew each other and were fellow Roman Catholics.

Eliza Collinson
Mrs Eliza Collinson, probably painted by her husband.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum


The Collinsons moved to Epsom after their marriage and their only son, Robert Vincent, was born there in 1859. I will let Valerie Cox, who did all the impressive local research, continue the story from here.

'James and Mary Wickwar appear to have been close friends of James and Eliza, and also lived in Epsom. They were a Roman Catholic family, not converts, and James (the name by which he seems to have preferred to be known) was born in Berkshire. They were closer in age to Eliza than to James, that is 42 at the time of the marriage, so were possibly her friends rather than his. From the Epsom census return of 1861 we know that all their five children were born in London, the last three in Chelsea, including the youngest, four year old Vincent. It seems, therefore, that they may have moved to Epsom at about the same time as the Collinsons. However, it may have been that Mary returned to London for the birth of her children to ensure superior medical attention, a common occurrence at the time. James Wickwar was a clerk in Her Majesty's Stationery Office. In 1857 Collinson exhibited a painting entitled 'The Mineral Spring' at the British Institution. This was one of the names by which the Epsom Wells were then known, so it is tempting to speculate that Collinson visited the Wickwars, who were already living in Epsom then, and painted the work locally. Unfortunately the picture is now lost and there do not appear to be any descriptions of it in contemporary reviews. The Wells seem then to have been merely a pump in a farm-yard but they were certainly painted in 1866 and are the subject of a contemporary engraving.

Collinson began to submit pictures from Epsom in 1859, and the last was submitted in 1863. His addresses are confusing, owing to errors in the copying of exhibition catalogues and variations in the addresses in Kelly's Directory. However, he seems to have lived in a house named Woodcote Villa in New Road, Epsom. New Road was at that time the name of the continuation of Worple Road on the southern side of Ashley Road, which is now also called Worple Road. This joins Chalk Lane in Woodcote, and New Road replaced the track across the Common Field, which lay between Epsom and the hamlet of Woodcote. In the 1861 census return, the Collinson family is shown as living in 'Common Fields' so it seems that perhaps New Road was not an accepted name at the time. I have been unable to find a house now standing along that part of Worple Road which could be Woodcote Villa. The house with that name, not far away in Woodcote Road, was named recently and was not occupied by the Collinson family at that time. From one exhibition catalogue the address is given as Woodcote Villas, so the house could have been one of a pair. The census of 1861 shows that the Collinsons' neighbour was a retired solicitor. By 1871, when the Collinsons had moved from Epsom, the census shows six houses in New Road, all sufficiently large to employ several living-in servants. One was occupied by an engraver and his family, who might possibly have been known to Collinson and have moved into his house. A map of Epsom produced in 1868 shows a building at the bend in Worple Road now occupied by blocks of flats which could have been a pair of villas.

1866 OS Map

St. Joseph's Roman Catholic church in Heathcote Road was being built when the Collinsons moved to Epsom. The parish records of baptisms begin on 2 July 1859 and Robert's baptism is the second to be recorded, on 25 July. His god-parents were Joseph and Mary Wickwar. Robert's second name, Vincent, was the same as that of the Wickwars' youngest son. The Wickwars continued to live in Epsom after the return of the Collinsons to London. At first they lived in Woodcote Green, which is in what is now Woodcote Green Road, presumably in a house since demolished and replaced by more modern ones. Only 'Woodcote Villa' (a recent name) and a pair of rustic-style cottages remain from that time. Joseph Wickwar does not appear as a private resident in the 1859 Kelly's 'Directory' so, like the Collinsons, the family had only recently moved to Epsom. This may have been because of the opening of a second railway line to serve the town. The first, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, had opened in 1847, with the station in what is now the Upper High Street. In 1859 the town was connected to London via Wimbledon by the London and South-Western Railway with a separate station, now the only one remaining. Since Wickwar worked in London as a clerk he presumably required a fast and reliable train service there. Collinson also travelled to London regularly since he is recorded as being the paid secretary of the Society of British Artists from 1861 to 1870. At that time the journey to London took about thirty five minutes and there were about eight trains a day.

St Joseph's Church
The old St Joseph's Church in Epsom (now demolished and rebuilt in a modern style).
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

Robert Collinson attended Mount St. Mary's School in Derbyshire from the age of ten. This was not far from the old Collinson family home in Mansfield. He trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood in England and France and became a parish priest, finally at Chislehurst. He retired in 1919 because of ill- health and was cared for by the Sisters in a Catholic nursing home until his death in 1930. I traced those of his father's pictures which he retained after his mother's death in 1894 to a private collection. They include a self-portrait of James whose appearance before its discovery was unknown and unrecorded except in a book of papers published in France. Robert also retained a portrait of his mother painted by his father, probably at the time of their marriage. These two portraits were not painted as a pair and the self-portrait was probably painted earlier.* The third picture in the collection is one of the Holy Family, most likely painted in France for Robert when he began his studies for the priesthood.

*Note: The two portraits are most probably the ones shown earlier in this article.

Unfortunately we have very few of the works which Collinson certainly painted while living in Epsom. One, submitted to the British Institution from Epsom in 1859 entitled 'The Bankrupt', has the same interior background as 'Short Change' submitted the previous year from London, so was not painted in Epsom. However, 'Too Hot', exhibited in Manchester in 1859, definitely was. Bourne Hall Museum in Ewell has a coloured print, cut out of a magazine or annual, entitled 'Too Hot' with information on its subject on its cardboard mount. It is said to depict the Epsom postman Edward Scott with his grand-daughter Miss George. She is sitting on his knee and he is offering her tea to drink from a saucer, which she is refusing because it is too hot. They are painted in a well-furnished kitchen. In fact we know that Edward Scott was a bailiff and land agent and it was his son-in-law, William George, who served for forty years as a postman in Epsom and married Scott's daughter Louisa. In the 1861 census he is recorded as 'letter carrier and army pensioner' and in James Andrews' 1903 'Reminiscences of Epsom' it is noted that he served in the Sikh Wars. The family lived in Pikes Hill and the little girl could be Jane or Harriet.

Too Hot
'Too Hot'.
Click image to enlarge, opens in a separate window.

In 1860 Collinson exhibited a painting entitled 'Off to the Derby' at the British Institution. This is almost certainly the same work as 'The New Bonnet' shown in Manchester the same year. This painting is recorded as being lost in a fire but we have a reproduction of it in Professor Bodkin's paper on Collinson written in 1940. It shows a young woman and her family admiring her newly delivered bonnet while outside her young man waits to drive her to the Derby, which is advertised on the side of his gig. Also in 1860 'Happy Thoughts' was exhibited at the Royal Academy. It is now lost and we have no contemporary description but it would be a suitable title for a painting of Eliza and her new baby. 'Michaelmas Fare', shown at the Society of British Artists (SBA) the same year, and also lost, could well be a painting of the traditional Michaelmas goose. The next year 'So Hot' appeared at the SBA, possibly 'Too Hot' re-titled, with 'Odd or Even', (now lost), the name of a children's game where one player has to guess the number of small objects the other has hidden in his hand. 'Good for a Cold' from the same year could be an earlier painting, 'Solace for an Invalid', exhibited in 1857, with a new title**. We have an engraving from the latter in the Castle Museum, Nottingham, although the original painting is lost.

**A Collinson oil entitled 'Solace for an Invalid' sold at auction for 12,000 in 1998 and the 'Good for a Cold' engraving seems to have been made by William Henry Simmons.

Good for a Cold
The engraving of 'Good for a Cold' by W H Simmons.
Image source: Wellcome Images.

In 1862 'Au Revoir' and 'The Blind Basket Maker' were shown at the SBA, both now lost. However, we know that a blind basket-maker, Tom Worsfold, or 'Blind Tom', lived in a cottage in Church Street at this time and he was a well-known local figure. James Andrews has an account of his acting as a guide to late-night travellers arriving at the station who did not want to hire a fly, and includes a photograph showing him sitting to weave a large basket. This photograph could well have been taken by Collinson himself, since many of Andrews' photographs date from the period of the painting. Tom Worsfold died in 1863.

Blind Tom
Blind Tom

In 1863 Collinson submitted his last picture from Epsom, 'A Sparrow's Nest', to the Royal Academy. A contemporary review describes it as a figure subject. From 1864 his paintings were submitted from 15 St. John's Park, Holloway. He is recorded as living in Epsom in Kelly's 'Directory' of 1859 and 1862 but I have so far found no advertisements offering his services as an artist or photographer. He never appears to have had great success as a painter. Evidence for this is given by the second and even third submission of the same painting under new titles to different exhibitions, each time at a reduced price. His most well-known work is 'For Sale' of which there are four almost identical versions with different titles. The companion, 'To Let', exists in three versions.'

By 1871 the Collinsons had moved to Islington and they subsequently went to Camberwell. During this period they spent time in France, particularly at Place du Naye, St Servan (in Brittany, near St Malo).

The Holy Family
'The Holy Family', painted by James Collinson whilst living in Brittany 1878; the background is St Malo.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.


As Valerie Cox said, Robert took up his father's abandoned career and became a Roman Catholic priest. In 1891 he was a priest at Dartford, Kent; 1901 saw him in Newhaven, Sussex and by 1911 he was based at Surbiton, Surrey. He died on 30 August 1930 at a convalescent home in Worthing, Sussex, probate of his estate being granted to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Southwark.

James died of pneumonia in Camberwell on 24 January 1881. Eliza died on 1 January 1894, still living in Camberwell.

Linda Jackson
June 2013

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