John Collier
Priestess of Delphi

John Collier, Britain, 1850 - 1934, Priestess of Delphi, 1891, London, oil on canvas, 160.0 x 80.0 cm, 189.0 x 107.0 x 10.0 cm (frame); Gift of the Rt. Honourable, the Earl of Kintore 1893, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Priestess of Delphi is darkly atmospheric yet rich in colour and light. It powerfully demonstrates the dramatic vision and artistic skills of its painter, John Collier.

Collier was a leading British portraitist and a painter of classical subjects in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. From the age of twenty until his death more than sixty years later, he regularly presented paintings for exhibition at the Royal Academy in London and also published several textbooks on painting.

Collier was well connected in British political and social circles. As a boy he had attended Eton, the elite school of Britain’s future leaders. His grandfather had been a member of parliament and his father and elder brother both became government ministers. It is little wonder, then, that his portrait subjects included royalty and many high-ranking politicians. These were often solemn works, but a lightness and gaiety emerged in his portraits of younger subjects and stage personalities. And in contrast to his portraits, Collier’s classical paintings were often dramatic, even theatrical.

A fine example is this work, Priestess of Delphi. Against a background of profound darkness, light falls on the Oracle of Delphi, the foremost visionary in ancient Greece. Vapours curl from a fissure below her bronze seat, suggesting a menacing underworld just out of sight. The oracle priestess drifts in a trance as she channels divinations from the gods, aided by a bough of sacred laurel grasped in one hand. In the other hand is a bowl of water, her mirror to another realm. Collier’s image is as much a work of stagecraft as of paintcraft, presenting a brooding atmosphere of darkness and light, of superstition and revelation.

When Priestess of Delphi was exhibited in Adelaide in 1893 two years after it was painted, South Australia’s colonial governor was so taken by the work that he said it should never leave the city, and acquired it for the Gallery. The governor, the Earl of Kintore, had attended Eton in the years that Collier was there, and later sat in parliament at the same time as the artist’s father and brother. These establishment connections, who in Britain commissioned Collier for portraits, now admired and commended his work on the other side of the world.