Alan Collins obituary

Sculptor who was highly skilled at religious and commemorative art

Alan Collins, who has died aged 88, was an accomplished figurative sculptor, whose crisp, lucid work appeared in a host of settings in both Britain and the US. As a public artist, he attracted the patronage of corporations such as the National and Grindlays Bank, whose commission Minerva (1966) is located just north of Southwark Cathedral in south London.

Its stylised, angular forms and contemporary materials – fibre-reinforced plastic with powdered aluminium – set a modernistic tone, but Collins’s most distinctive quality was his skill at religious and commemorative art. This brought his work into cathedrals and churches, including carved portraits at Sir Christopher Wren’s City church St Mary-le-Bow in the early 1960s, and also gained him the commission for the beautiful, expressive lettering of the Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede, Surrey, inaugurated in 1965.

The monument consists of an inscription, including the declaration of freedom from John F Kennedy’s inaugural address of 1961 spread eloquently across a block of Portland stone. Collins’s design and execution were impeccable, forming part of an overall project conceived by the architect Geoffrey Jellicoe as a landscaped tribute to the assassinated US president. The memorial was damaged by a bomb in an anti-Vietnam protest of 1968 and subsequently restored.

Alan Collins was a member of the Seventh-day Adventists and managed to develop an iconography for that church.
Alan Collins was a member of the Seventh-day Adventists and managed to develop an iconography for that church. Photograph: Marianne Collins

More typical of Collins’s work was the programme of sculpture at Guildford Cathedral, also made in the early 60s. This series of statues exemplified Collins’s desire to create “silent sermons”. As well as a weathervane representing the archangel Gabriel in gilded copper, the project includes carvings in both the cathedral’s “garths” or porches, figures of Christian virtues on window mullions and a particularly portentous Hand of God on the west front.

The Guildford sculptures are among Collins’s most celebrated pieces, although perhaps his most widely seen work is the Three Angels of the Apocalypse, the emblem of the Seventh-day Adventist church, of which Collins was a member. This composition was originally created in fibreglass in 1965 for the church’s northern European headquarters in St Albans. With their highly abstracted, interlocked forms, the angels are quite distinct from the scheme at Guildford and demonstrate Collins’s sensitivity to different contexts and functions.

Son of Edith (nee Allibon) and William Collins, Alan was born in the village of Beddington, Surrey. His father worked for a merchant bank. At the age of 16, Alan went to Wimbledon School of Art, in south-west London, where he was taught by Freda Skinner, who, like Collins, combined religious carving with other forms of figurative art and letter-cutting. Collins soon won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art; he became an assistant to Barry Hart, a friend and former teacher of Henry Moore, and by the second half of the 40s was appearing in various exhibitions at Burlington House.

Within a few years Collins had developed a highly successful artistic career – a combination of figurative commissions, secular as well as Christian – with a considerable amount of teaching. Initially, during the 50s, he taught sculpture and figure-drawing at Hertfordshire and Berkshire colleges of art. In the 60s he worked at the sculptor Elizabeth Muntz’s summer school in Chaldon Herring, Dorset, before moving later in the decade to a series of American colleges affiliated to the Seventh-day Adventists. He had joined this faith after hearing the Australian evangelist Thomas Bradley in the 50s. At an Adventist church in Holloway, north London, he met Jeanne Fuegi; they married in 1954.

Collins’s progress seemed extremely promising during the 60s. For his figure of St Martha of Bethany at Guildford he won the Sir Otto Beit medal in 1964, which was something of an annus mirabilis. In this year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors and exhibited in its group show at the Alwyn Gallery. However, this did not prevent his move four years later to a post at Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts, which was partly prompted by a feeling that funds for public art in Britain were shrinking.

The ensuing decades that he spent teaching at Seventh-day Adventist universities across the US gave Collins the opportunity to create some memorable works. The stone sculpture of the Good Samaritan (1981) at Loma Linda University in California was especially striking, with the Samaritan depicted as an African-American man. In the 90s it had to be remade in bronze after it was vandalised and then damaged by smog. This was followed in 2002 by another bronze, The Prodigal Son (or, as the Adventists call it, The Glory of God’s Grace) at La Sierra University, also in California.

These sculptures are quite distinct from Collins’s earlier, more discreet figures for British colleges, such as Archbishop Chichele and Sir Thomas White in the gatehouse of St John’s College, Oxford. Above all, the US commissions show how far Collins managed to develop an iconography for Adventist churches.

Jeanne died in 1992, and the following year Collins married Aliki Athanasiou Grivas Snow. After 45 years in the US, in 2013 he returned to Britain, settling in Bridport, Dorset, close to his long-term friend the sculptor Philip Murdin.

He is survived by Aliki, by a daughter, Marianne, and a son, Mark, from his first marriage, and three stepsons.

• Alan Rodney Collins, sculptor, born 15 August 1928, died 18 October 2016


Christopher Masters

The GuardianTramp

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