John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is the inspiration for the drawing. The novel is an allegory, and follows the road trip of its main character, Christian. On his journey he meets characters with names like Pliable, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and Wanton and passes through places with such suggestive names as Vanity Fair, House Beautiful, and the Celestial City. The drawing illustrates the moment when Christian sees the cross and the burdensome bundle (sin) falls from his back. The drawing also shows the three shining ones, or angels, that he meets immediately after his deliverance at the cross.
The attribution of the drawing to Charles Allston Collins hinges on a group of eighteen drawings by the artist in the British Museum. The museum bought the group from Charles Fairfax Murray, who in turn, had bought them from the estate of Wilkie Collins. Charles Allston Collins’s brother was the writer William Wilkie Collins, known simply as Wilkie Collins. Charles’s father was the genre and landscape painter William Collins, R.A. (1788-1847). The Collins brothers owe their middle names to their father’s friends and fellow academicians, Washington Allston, A.R.A. (1779-1843) and David Wilkie, R.A. (1785-1841). It was David Wilkie who encouraged Charles to be a painter.
The drawing’s purpose is unknown. It might have been an early stage compositional design for any number of things: a stained glass window, a book illustration, a binding design, a mural. Collins was known for spurts of passionate interest in a subject or project, which he would later drop. In 1860 he married Kate Dickens and turned to writing short pieces for Charles Dickens’s magazine All Around the Town. He mostly abandoned art for a writing career, though he did produce artwork for Dicken’s Edwin Drood.
At first glance it may seem an unusual subject for the artist. Collins is chiefly known for his picture Convent Thoughts. The painting depicts a budding nun, or novice, in a walled garden, who turns her attention from a prayer book to peering into a passionflower. The picture was criticized for its Roman Catholic subject. Collins, however, was very much a protestant, and never converted to Catholicism the way fellow painter James Collinson had. Collinson was an original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and when he left the group a space opened up. Millais thought that Collins should take Collinsons’s place, but there was dissent within the group.
That Collins was interested in Bunyan is clear from his book The Eye-Witness. In the preface to The Eye-Witness, he acknowledges a passage from Bunyan as the inspiration for his book’s title. From a 21st century vantage point, it’s surprising to learn just how widely read Bunyan’s work was/is–it trails only the bible in popularity.