Colling Albums

Two unique volumes with original drawings and extensive manuscript text by James Kellaway Colling (1816 – 1905), important  Victorian architect and master draughtsman of the English Gothic Revival

Although initially trained as an engineer, J. K. Colling’s precocious skill as a draftsman lead him to a career as an architect that lasted over six decades.  He was a founder of the Association of Architectural Draughtsmen and later helped found the Architectural Association, where he served as its first Hon. Secretary.  Among his students were W. E Nesfield and the important American anglophile architect John Hubbard Sturgis.   Most of his commissions were outside of London. These included several in America, notable among them being designs provided for the elaborate terra cotta decorations for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (demolished in 1906).  “Born in the same decade as A. W. N. PUGIN  and John RUSKIN, he emerged in the 1850s as the Gothic Revival secularized.  As the moral fervor of the previous decade ebbed, Colling favored a new scientific approach to the visual forms of England’s medieval heritage from which he sought inspiration.  Relying heavily on geometry, botanical categorisation, and systematic abstraction from nature, he adapted Gothic foliage to secular use, publishing his theories in five books of drawings, the most important of which Art Foliage (1865).” (-Margaret Henderson Floyd in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects, vol. 1 page 439).

Colling’s highly regarded talent as a draughtsman, however, has always eclipsed his reputation as a practicing architect, and it is the illustrations he drew for his widely used works on architectural ornament that brought him most of the recognition he received during his lifetime. These books were:  Gothic Ornaments, Being a Series of Examples of Enriched Details and Accessories of the Architecture of Great Britain. (1848-1850, 2 volumes); Details of Gothic Architecture From Existing Examples  (1852-1856, 2 volumes); Art Foliage For Sculpture And Decoration (1865; second edition, 1878); and Examples Of English Medieval Foliage And Coloured Decoration (1874).  Colling took an early interest in Gothic architecture and made numerous field drawings of the decorative details of the many early Gothic buildings he visited, often climbing precariously on ladders to sketch carved details that would otherwise be too distant to correctly record.  His published work, derived from his lifelong interest in drawing architectural subjects from life, provided what were widely regarded as the most carefully documented and historically accurate illustrations of Gothic design available to architects during the second half of the nineteenth century. It is thus not surprising that his drawings were extensively copied and put to use as pattern books, especially in America, where indigenous examples were not available and Colling’s works were widely read.

Colling’s other great interest, begun while still a schoolboy, was in drawing flowers and botanical subjects from nature.  This naturally complemented his interest in Gothic architecture and ornament, and his later published works were devoted specifically to the application of foliage in architectural decoration.  But Colling’s interest in this extended far beyond mere documentation. Throughout his life he regularly drew and painted careful studies of a wide variety of botanical subjects observed in nature. In addition to satisfying his strong interests as a naturalist, these were carefully preserved and later used as a personal reference both in identifying the botanical sources for all types of historical decorative ornament, but also as models for use in creating new decorative forms.

The first manuscript offered here is clearly a product of Colling’s multiple interests and appears to have resulted in an effort to make an instructive work out of what had originally been a personal and recreational activity.  The volume consists of a total of 221 ruled notebook leaves. It begins  with a hand-written title page reading: “MISCELLANEOUS BOTANICAL NOTES AND SKETCHES by James K. Colling. 1875, ” This is followed by 209 hand-numbered leaves on which Colling has pasted or drawn a wide range of watercolor, ink and pencil drawings depicting a variety of botanical subjects accompanied by an extensive hand-written text. These illustrations were drawn or painted on a variety of different types of paper.  Many of them are dated, with the earliest bearing a light pencil notation “Hollyhock and Sunflower from Nature Sept 12th 1839.” The illustrations are generally organised by plant name, usually one species per page, but drawings from different periods and in different media are frequently mounted together. There are 293 separate illustrated pieces, probably clipped from old sketchbooks, which are mounted on the leaves of the volume. In addition to this there are over 100 more illustrations which have been drawn directly on the pages of the notebook. The original intention may have been to organise all of Colling’s botanical studies into one volume for easy reference. For this purpose a two-column 13 page alphabetical index of plant names, with over 300 entries, has been included at the end of the volume.  It appears that the illustrations were initially meant to be mounted on the rectos only, where they might be accompanied by some explanatory text or botanical notes. At some point, however, that intention seems to have evolved into a more ambitious project providing more general observations on botanical form and, from there, on the application of these forms to ornament and architectural carving.  The text for this is written on the versos of the leaves whose rectos were used for illustrations. There are a few pages near the beginning with short botanical notes regarding Wind Fertilzed Flowers and Composite Flowers. Beginning on the verso of leaf 16, however, we find five pages devoted to “Leaves” followed by an additional 5 pages on the “modelling of leaves.” In these sections Colling added several references to the application of these leaf forms in both wood and stone carving. Here he starts giving page references to the places where there are illustrations of the plants he is describing and it becomes evident that Colling was now composing his text with an eye to possible publication and no longer merely for personal use.  At the beginning of the section on “The modelling of leaves” he writes: “By the modelling of leaves I mean the form that the surface of leaves take naturally and its adaptability to its use in architectural carving. In some leaves in nature it is flat although flowing while in others it is violent and abrupt giving great light and shade as well as intricacy to the leaf. I said a little in this direction in ‘Art Foliage’ but I think it may be taken advantage of further.  Also, I compare nature and how it has been taken applied to Architecture.” It is also revealing that the three paragraphs which follow this are copied, with some revision and extension, from text that also appears near the end of the previous section on leaves.  This is an indication of the extent to which Colling was beginning work on the initial stages of composing and updating text for what he was at this point referring to as “the book.” This written text continues towards the end of the volume under the heading “Notes On Colour In Leaves And Flowers.” Here Colling’s observations are mostly random, with each “note” numbered separately and, in several cases, dated.  The first of these is dated March 5th 1875 and the last dated April 4, 1886.  Additional pages include text that has been excerpted from Carpenter’s VEGETABLE PHYSIOLOGY and Agassiz’s GEOLOGICAL SKETCHES.  A date of April 28/91 appears here, and that may represent the last date on which Colling made additions to the volume.

A second volume consists of an album of 73 original watercolour drawings painted by Colling over an 18 year period stretching from 1847 to 1865.  Botanical studies make up nearly two thirds of the subjects, most of them being drawn from nature, although 4 of the sheets have a total of 16 drawings that are clearly intended to show the ornamental application of specific flowers or leaves. Apart from 3 architectural subjects (Bacton Church, Norfolk; Conway Castle; and the Inigo Jones bridge at Llanrwst) the remaining 22 watercolors are all picturesque landscape views, with the locations and dates clearly shown. There are a few pastoral subjects chosen, but the great majority depict more exciting scenery, including dramatic rockwork (the Cheddar Cliffs of Somersetshire, the cliffs at Llandudno and the coast at Bude, for example) waterfalls and rushing streams. At least 10 of the views were painted in Northern Wales during the summer of 1861.  All the watercolours were painted on individual sheets and mounted on leaves in an album measuring 37.5 x 27.5 cm. The mounted watercolours themselves are of varying sizes, including several that are round or have been rounded at the corners or the top, and even one that is trefoil in shape.  The rectangular sheets range in size from 22.3 x 13.5 cm to 29.8 x 24.3 cm, except for two leaves near the end where pairs of smaller half-sheets have been included instead. The album has been rebound at a later date. There are 42 stubs distributed randomly in the volume, indicating that some leaves have at some time been removed. Why they were removed is not known.  There are also 4 leaves that are inserted in the album on stubs, two of which are a different color paper and have small adhesion marks on their versos, indicating that four of the leaves were inserted into the volume at a later date.

Colling is, of course, most noted for his influence in the spread of the Gothic Revival in the mid-nineteenth century. In later years, however, landscape painting and botany became his strongest interests.  In that context it is interesting to note that the album offered here includes drawings relating to both these interests, but nothing that reflects his early interest in medieval Gothic.

Although Colling ceased publishing after the second edition of Art Foliage in 1878, the high regard for his skills as a draughtsman continued into the 20th century.  This is shown by the fact that in 1902 a fund was raised by members of the R.I.B.A to purchase from Colling the original drawings for his Gothic Ornament, Details of Gothic Architecture, Medieval Foliage and an unpublished volume on “Art Botany.”  For these he received the then considerable sum of £190, evidence of his continued high standing among his peers.  The MacMillan Encyclopedia of Architects concludes its entry on Colling to say “The crisp and simplified style of Colling’s drawings had both a theoretical and a visual impact on nineteenth-century architecture.  From his detailed study of medieval models in the 1840s evolved a system for design of natural foliage from two-dimensional stenciling to three-dimensional carving.  His continual focus on placement of ornament in context accordingly varied its style between naturalistic and conventionalized form.  Colling’s Art Foliage by 1865 thus replaced his Gothic measured drawings in The Grammar of Ornament (1856) as the textbook for architectural sculpture of the 1870s.” The contemporary influence of Colling’s published works is certainly already recognised, but it can also be argued that his unpublished botanical notes, found here, anticipate in many ways the botanical interests of the Arts and Crafts movement and can offer further insight into an important moment in the evolution of English architecture and decorative arts.

(Copies of Colling’s ART FOLIAGE (Second Edition. London: 1878) and EXAMPLES OF ENGLISH MEDIAEVAL FOLIAGE (London: 1874) are also included.)


1- Album, Folio (37.5 x 27.5 cm); 71 ff. with  73 mounted watercolours.  Bound in quarter brown morocco with pebbled cloth over boards.  Leather spine label reading: “WATERCOLOUR SKETCHES – J.K. COLLING.  Fine.

2 – Notebook, 4to (25.5 x 20.5 cm); 220 ff. ruled sheets with numerous cut-outs pasted in. Bound in quarter brown morocco with pebbled cloth over boards.  Spine reads: “BOTANICAL SKETCHES  |  J. K. COLLING. Leather scuffed.

3 – Colling, James Kellaway. EXAMPLES OF ENGLISH MEDIAEVAL FOLIAGE AND COLOURED DECORATION.  4to (30.8 x 23.5 cm); vi + (i) + 72 pp. + 76 lithographed plates (interleaved). Original publisher’s cloth with beveled boards; re-cased with new end papers; small nick at head of spine, otherwise fine.

4 – Colling, James K.  ART FOLIAGE FOR SCULPTURE AND DECORATION; WITH AN ANALYSIS OF GEOMETRIC FORM. Second Edition, Revised.  4to (30.8 x 23.5 cm). xii + 84 pp. + 80 lithographed plates.  Original publisher’s cloth with beveled boards; re-cased with new end papers; small nick at head of spine, lightly frayed at head and heel of spine, otherwise clean and bright.

PRICE: £25,000