Collingwood’s Letters from Iceland …

Date: Friday 23rd May 2014

AN editor of The Collingwood Icelandic Pilgrimage 2012, Mike Lea spoke to members of the Upper Eden History Society about W. G. Collingwood (1854-1932) who was active in the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society for 35 years.

Born in Liverpool and then graduating from Oxford with a first in Greats this “eminent Victorian”, friend of Ruskin and Ransom, had a remarkable influence upon our area. An antiquary and writer, Collingwood founded the Lake Artists’ Society. Mapping Old Norse names in the Lake District, his reading of the Icelandic sagas led him to write Thorstein of the Mere in 1895 and The Bondwomen the following year. It also led him to question whether Iceland and Cumberland could be viewed as parallel Viking communities.

Collingwood’s abiding interest in the Viking period made him president of the Viking Club, where he was introduced to Dr. Jon Stefansson, a meeting from which grew a strong desire to go to Iceland. Many other British authors, including William Morris, had written on Iceland, which was converted to Christianity in 1000 and celebrated its stories, the sagas, during the 13th and 14th centuries. With Stefansson, Collingwood embarked upon a pilgrimage of the saga-steds of Iceland in 1897, aiming to visit places from which these tales are set: to link landscape to stories. He aimed to produce a guidebook to the saga sites which he would illustrate and a series of paintings to be sold after his return to England. Sailing from Scotland, past the Faroe Islands, Collingwood travelled round Iceland for 10 weeks.

A strong family man, Collingwood had moved his Swiss wife and four children to Gilhead, Coniston, in 1886 and it was there that they received his many letters and drawings. Describing himself to be “shaken to bits” but “not smashed” while riding his two ponies, Flugnir and Lysingr, his Icelandic journey was quite tough going.

Nevertheless, he made 300 watercolours or ink sketches in those 10 weeks, 201 of which are in the National Museum of Iceland, 32 in Abbot Hall, Kendal, and 61 In the possession of the W. G. Collingwood Society, Cardiff University. The rest are in private collections in Denmark and Great Britain.

In 1985, the pocket Kodak used roll film and an album is in Kendal’s Abbot Hall with its 152 illustrations, 13 of which are in colour. Mike Lea showed numerous slides of these beautiful and most impressive images. Inspired by this expedition, members of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society were to follow in the footsteps of Collingwood. This was 2012, when organisers Mike and Kate Lea, with 31 others, traced his journey in the Collingwood Icelandic Pilgrimage.

Iceland, land of glaciers and mountains, was dubbed “Niceland” by Collingwood who praised the people he met there. He used maps with numbers indicating paintings he had made. Helgafell, given artistic drama in his sketch, was where he met the farmer, Jonas, who resided in an ancient “roughest cottage” living in more subsistence than comparable Lakeland farms.

In Reykjavik, which he did not praise but saw as untidy, Collingwood now receives an honourable mention in the exhibition catalogue of the Culture House and is present in its displays which include reproductions of two of his paintings, notably of his most famous image, Law Rock (the Logberg).

Accompanied by Jon Stefansson reading aloud from the sagas and stopping when they saw something interesting in order to make a picture, Collingwood, inspired by the Laxdaela Saga, dug up the grave of Gudrun Osvifrsdottir, then “a big heave in the turf” and entered Helgafell Church where he prayed. “Rather emotional”, he re-interred its contents minus souvenir beads and sundry skull parts.

The two men moved on to see Thor’s Stone, investigating and painting the Beserks’ Road, Snaefelsjokel and Arnadalskard Valley in 1897. Returning to Stykkisholmur, there was an al fresco feast laid on for them, Collingwood sketching as speeches and songs were given in their honour.

The same reception was accorded to the 2012 group Mike played an example of one song to his audience before presenting photographs of several paintings, mainly watercolours which exemplify Collingwood’s remarkable skills.

He was inspired by this area where Gudrun’s husband was killed and by Borg Church, where he painted the altarpiece depicting Christ Blessing the Little Children, seen since as “of rare quality.” He also composed his poem In Gunnarr’s Country to commemorate where, in Njals Saga, this famous hero had his hall.

As well as the home of Gunnarr, another place Collingwood was keen to visit was the Althing, prolonging his stay in Iceland to spend two intensive days painting and drawing at Thingvellir. A painting of the Logberg was chosen as the frontispiece of his book Sagasteads. By Collingwood’s time the Althing was out of use and deserted but later he repainted this rocky landscape as an imaginary medieval scene crowded with people and huts. He finally worked this up into a huge painting, The Parliament of Ancient Iceland, which is now in the British Museum, London. As a well-known image, this painting has been reproduced in books and at sites such as the Culture House in Reykjavik and Thingvellir itself, contributing to and symbolising the Icelandic national identity.

Travelling back by sea where he was bronzed and bearded, Collingwood’s self-portrait can be seen in Abbott Hall, Kendal. He proclaimed in 1897 that he had “seen the homes of the heroes”, and likened it to having “a curtain suddenly going up; as if our eyes were opened, at last, to the glory of the North”.

Members of the 2012 Collingwood Icelandic Pilgrimage enjoyed finding out how much alive is the memory of Collingwood among the friendly and generous Icelandic people. An exhibition has been proposed at Abbott Hall where the works and findings of this enlightened, intelligent man so warmly and well introduced by Mr. Lea may be furthered.