Ithell Colquhoun

British Painter, Poet, and Novelist

Born: October 9, 1906
Shillong, India
Died: April 11, 1988
Lamorna, United Kingdom
I started painting at the age of four or five; in fact I cannot remember a time when I was not painting.
Ithell Colquhoun

Summary of Ithell Colquhoun

Ithell Colquhoun sees the divine design of nature infused through all living things. Rock formations, tree stumps, and vegetables transform to become human limbs and body parts. The artist had a lifelong love for water and an interest in the depths of meaning found at the site of liminal spaces. Early in her career she included doorways, windows, and staircases in her paintings, and sometimes depicted the human figure. Later, as Colquhoun's work reached maturity, she looked entirely to nature; she rejected figuration and repeated earthy subjects such as volcanoes, caves, and rock pools. She paradoxically explored themes of ambiguity, instability, and union.
With strong alchemical leanings, Colquhoun sought to combine the land and sea, fluid and solid matter, and the male and the female. She was particularly influenced by Salvador Dalí's "phantasmic presences", and her enlarged images of flora spark interesting comparisons with those of Georgia O'Keeffe. Almost entirely self-taught, the artist spent years working in London where she became associated with the Surrealists, but by whom she was also labeled dissident due to her strong beliefs in the occult. Colquhoun settled in remote Cornwall where she could find suitable inspiration in nature and move away from people.


Progression of Art


Song of Songs

In an early canvas by Ithell Colquhoun, Song of Songs, two naked lovers are locked in a carnival embrace. In classical style, the woman on the left has pale skin and looks provocatively up with breasts exposed whilst the strong man who cradles her has tanned skin. Set in a garden landscape, rich with trees and foliage, the abundance of fruit and wine await by their side. The artist's tonal and muscular style of painting the human figure reveals an uncanny resemblance to early portraits by Lucian Freud. Colquhoun included people in her early paintings, but following failed love affairs and a rapidly growing interest in nature, her future works would become entirely devoid of the figure.

Religion was an important influence throughout Colquhoun's life. While she would quickly move beyond the solely Christian beliefs of her childhood to explore other faiths, the occult, and magical orders, here we see the importance she placed on biblical narratives in some of her earliest works. The painting is a visual manifestation of the Song of Solomon, and while still realistic, there are hints - in the loosening of forms, heightening of palette, and decrease in historical detail - that show the beginnings of a more abstract, or Surrealist influence.

Sexuality, which plays an important thematic role throughout Colquhoun's oeuvre, is overtly present in this early painting. Although the artist will go on to unite and somewhat dissolve the male/female sexual opposition, here we witness the female as a continuing object of erotic desire. In describing this aspect of the work, the artist's biographer Richard Shillitoe states, "The painting emphasizes the poem's sensuality. Two naked lovers embrace in voluptuous luxury." The poem is also rich in sexual symbolism, which she would return to often including for Shillitoe, "the leafless tree in the upper right with its shaped limbs and gash in the trunk placed next to the phallic spear, is an early appearance of Colquhoun's use of tree imagery to suggest sexual organs." This work then can be interpreted as precursor of her future artistic mastery, leaving behind the traditional heterosexual couple at its centre and instead working outwards from the fringes, learning from formations in nature rather than from the behavior of humans.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection



By 1936, Colquhoun has left any obvious human figure behind and ponders the universal macrocosm by focusing on the microcosm that is flowers and plants. Here the dissection of a Pitcher-plant unites both male and female genitalia, and as such we look towards an ideal of the hermaphrodite, in which opposites alchemically unite rather than stand separately in conflict. At the base of the plant's green leaves that dominate the top half of the painting hangs a closed testicular-looking flower rendered in pale pinks and yellows. The work provides not only an important early example of themes of flowers and vegetation in Colquhoun's art but also marks the beginning of her transition to Surrealist works that she embraced beginning in the mid-1930s. It also provides interesting comparison material with the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe.

The work also serves as an example of Salvador Dalí's early influence on the artist through his labeled "phantasmic pressences" and their shared personification of nature. According to Richard Shillitoe, "it is Colquhoun's earliest double image, and combines the pitcher-plant with male genitalia." The plant then also becomes a vehicle to explore issues of gender and assert feminine strength, a recurring theme for the artist. What could be the male penis and testicles also looks like ovarian tubes and a vaginal passage and as such simultaneously alludes to female genitalia as well as male demonstrating the layered complexities, symbols, and meanings ever present in the work of Colquhoun. For Shillitoe, "Colquhoun's pitcher plant is, at once, both penis and vagina dentata [or vagina with teeth]. Conjunctio oppositorum [or coincidence of opposites] has been achieved, but male sexual fears, of the female genitalia, are here turned onto themselves: this is the penis which devours itself, a phallus dentata [or penis with teeth]."

Oil on canvas - Collection of The National Trust, United Kingdom



This painting is Ithell Colquhoun's seminal and most important work. Two large vertical rocks dominate the canvas of Scylla. They rise out of the transparent water to gently touch at the top to form a crevice beneath. The stones are colossal, monumental, and a small white boat bravely moves forth in an attempt to pass through. The painting is so successful because it well situates Colquhoun's work within the movement of Surrealism in the widest sense. At once phallic and feminine, the rocks recall the draped introspective figures of René Magritte, the trussed and bound dolls of Hans Bellmer, and the striking 'surreal' nature photography of Lee Miller and Eileen Agar.

The work provides one of the artist's best examples of a 'double image', and of a transitional and changeable space where the earth meets the sea. In addition to the water scene, as art historian Eric Ratcliffe explains, "A major feature is her uprisen legs as twin rocks, seaweed for public hair. The legs touch at the knees, leaving an opening between them and the pelvic area. A prow of a small boat is seen through the opening bordered by the inner thighs, sailing on the bath water. It is a small phallic symbol questing in the vaginal area." The artist herself acknowledged this interpretation when describing the painting by stating, "It was suggested by what I could see of myself in a is thus a pictorial pun, or double-image." Interestingly, this starting point is identical to that of Frida Kahlo's when she painted What the Water Gave Me, in the very same year. One can only speculate as to whether either of the two artists knew of the other's work, or to determine otherwise that this is simply an interesting and recurring subject in the depths of the human unconscious.

This work is one of many that incorporates the artist's prevalent theme of gender used by Colquhoun to both assert the strength of women as matriarchs, and simultaneously to draw our attention to the importance of the female artist in the Surrealist movement. Ratcliffe supports such a viewpoint when he states in this work, "...the overall interpretation is the catastrophic potential of the power of the female over the male sex in a symbolic androgynous setting. It accords with the efforts of other women Surrealists at that time to diminish the dominance of male artists portraying the female as a desire image."

Oil on board - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


The Pine Family

As referenced in the title, Colquhoun's painting The Pine Family consists of three felled trunks lying on the grass with blue sky above them. Each stump has a severed part and has been chillingly labeled with a white tag. This decision to label dismembered 'bodies' prophetically mourns the great loss of life experienced during World War II, as though referring to bodies laid out in a morgue. The motif also looks towards the heinous holocaust, when lives were reduced to little more than another assortment of things stolen from the Jewish people. The message seems to be that death is as close to us as life, as well as the fact that we as humans share our design with the other members of the natural kingdom, including trees.

As with many of her works, there is another way to view the image. One could also see the lower half of three bodies as adorned with pubic hair, and they could have been castrated. Even the title of the painting could be a play on words, for Eric Ratcliffe explains as, "...via a remark of Michel Remy, that 'pine' is French slang for penis."

This painting provides a fine example of Colquhoun's early Surrealist style in which she often used her art to make larger statements. Text is used here to relay the artist's message about explorations of gender. The male figure bears the label "Atthis" a mythological figure; the female "celle qui boîte" which when translated means "the one who limps;" and the middle figure, "the circumcised hermaphrodite." A recurring theme of the artist is also present, the study and influence of magic, here in relation to gender. According to Richard Shillitoe, "In alchemical writings the hermaphrodite symbolizes the union of opposites. [...] The hermaphrodite is the Magical Child, the Two-in-One and is a culmination of the Great Work. In Colquhoun's painting, however, the magical child has been mutilated. S/he too has no penis, although to external appearances the female genitalia remain whole."

While a clear understanding of the message may be hard to define, the painting stands once again as a visual manifestation of the artist's struggle to understand gender roles and the power of sexuality. Ratcliffe says that, "the general, though perhaps superficial message seems to be that identity or definition via the potency of any sexual aspect is doomed." For Shillitoe, similarly, "The work may well be, in part, a parody on the male surrealist obsession with sexuality but every-thing hints at personal transition, uncertainty and chaos." The inherent sexuality present in the work was obvious enough that it was considered to be pornographic and was removed from an exhibition in 1942.

Oil on canvas - Collection of Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel


Tree Anatomy

This was the painting that Coluqhoun hung in replacement of the condemned Pine Family in a 1942 exhibition. As reflected in the title, at first glance the subject of Tree Anatomy is a cross section of the lined innards of a tree. Specifically, it features a section of tree trunk where a large knot has formed an open space that leads the viewer's eye into a dark void. The work however, also provides an important example of the artist's recurring use of the 'double image'. Here the parallel suggestion is that the object is a vagina, which when accepted reveals the artist's belief that nature and femininity are eternally linked. According to Richard Shillitoe, the painting "contains an important statement by the artist of the idea of an intimate and harmonious association between woman and nature. It is an intimate picture of a vegetation deity, a tree goddess."

There is an inherent directness to Colquhoun's work, evident in this painting, in which, even if partially obscured through Surrealist and/or double imagery, the viewer is left to confront female sexuality, in much the same way as in the close up renditions of flowers painted by Georgia O'Keeffe. For Shillitoe the assessment of female sexuality occurs quite literally in this work where, "although, physically, the painting is quite small, the image dominates the picture space. Gazing at that part of a woman's body of which men are most afraid, the viewer is jolted by this subversion of scale and is transformed into a tiny creature experiencing the over life-size image as cavernous and engulfing." In forcing the viewer to directly engage with female genitals as nature and not fetish, Colquhoun re-asserts a balance of power and goes some way to correcting the misguiding male gaze through which female sexuality is wrongly defined.

Oil on panel - Private Collection


Alcove II

An undefined writhing form comprised of nodular patches of blue, green, and yellow floats in the center of Alcove II encased in an abstract hidden cavern of various shades of red and pink. The painting is an important example of one of the many works Colquhoun created in the automatic style of decalcomania in which she applied paint on the canvas only then to place a piece a paper over it, which would at once remove and randomly blot images beneath. While the random and uncontrollable aspect stemming from the impetus of subconscious creation is at the heart of this and Colquhoun's other automatic works, there are also references to recurring themes in her larger body of work. Indeed the surround here is fleshy and womb-like and one may even pose the question if the object within these soft walls is fetal.

This work is the second of two of the same name, the first Alcove having been created in 1946. Richard Shillitoe asserts that the painting may support Colquhoun's long-standing interest in hermaphroditism as, "it must surely have occurred to her that the peeling apart of the part and counterpart of decalcomania into two halves that mirror each other, is analogous to the separation of the genders and the division of the androgyne from the united whole." As for Colquhoun, her fascination with the subject dates back to childhood having once described an early musing on the subject, "If I say that at ten years old I imagined Christ as a hermaphrodite, I shall not be believed. Yet it was so...I fused the red-hearted Jesus with the blue-cloaked Mary and made a god with breasts."

Oil on board - Private Collection


The Lord of Loss in Pleasure, from the suit of Swords Taro pack

Having focused on her writing during the 1950s, and mainly turning to the practice of collage during the 1960s and 70s, this work shows Colquhoun's important, yet brief, return to painting. The work is one of a series of seventy-seven works that the artist designed for a pack of tarot cards and features an orange abstract form set against a bright blue background. As a strong believer in the magic and qualities of revelation inherent in a pack of tarot cards, she was became devoted to completing a pack of her own mainly inspired by non-verbal ideas of the highly spiritual Golden Dawn order. Here we can see clearly that the artist no longer signs her work with her given name, Ithell Colquhoun, but instead includes a magical monogram to assert her authorial identity, that of SV, 'Splendidior Vitro'.

Colquhoun's designs for the collection of cards are in line with the approach she took throughout her career focusing on Surrealist automatic explorations of color and form. Like the Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint, she firmly believed that color and shape was infused with variant meaning. According to Eric Radcliffe she created, "a set of paintings of tarot cards with particular reference to color modes, rendering 'the essence of each card by the non-figurative means of pure color, applied automatically in the manner of the Psychomorphological movement in Surrealism." Whilst ironically it was her refusal to abandon occult practices that led to a great rift being created between Colquhoun and the London Group of British Surrealist artists, these works created late in the artist's career show her profound ability to make visible key Surrealist styles and beliefs.

Enamel on paper - Collection of the National Trust, United Kingdom

Biography of Ithell Colquhoun

Childhood and Education

Margaret Ithell Colquhoun was born in Shillong, Assam, India where her British father Henry Colquhoun was stationed for his government job with the Indian Civil Service. While her father continued to live in India until his retirement in 1921, early in her life, sometime between the age of one and three years old, Colquhoun returned home to England with her mother and younger brother.

The artist, who early on was known as "Peggy," did not begin any sort of formal education until age 12, and only learnt to read four years earlier. This did not stifle her active imagination in any way, and at a young age after having dreamt she could fly she tested the theory the next morning by flinging herself from the top of the stairs. She later described her inevitable failure, "I crashed painfully, and my howls lamented as much disappointment as physical harm." Her interest in art also started young and according to the artist, "At ten, I said that when I grew up, I never wanted to do anything but paint and write and study nature. Already I knew my own mind."

Early Training

Colquhoun attended Cheltenham Art School from 1925, and then in 1927 enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Here she experienced some formal art training, but she did not stay in school for long and was largely self-taught. It was around this time Colquhoun began to read widely about and develop what would become her lifelong interest in the occult and magic.

After leaving the Slade, Colquhoun traveled throughout Europe and lived for a time in both Athens and Paris. It was in Paris that she met André Breton in 1939 and became heavily involved in the ideals and styles of Surrealism. She was particularly influenced by the work of Salvador Dalí, whom she also met in 1939. Dalí inspired some of Colquhoun's earliest paintings. These featured flowers and vegetation personified, and as such she described as a type of "magic realism." The paintings were exhibited upon returning home to England and her career began to progress.

Mature Period

While for a period Colquhoun was a part of the London Group of British artists who worked within the field of Surrealism, this alignment suffered with the onset of World War II. In addition to the fact that war severely limited art production and the ability of dealerships to sell work, Colquhoun decided to permanently leave the group after refusing to submit to the rules issued by the group's leader E.L.T. Mesens. The two clashed in particular on the subject of the occult, for Mesens objected to the idea that Colquhoun was a member of other societies, which focused on the study of magic more broadly, rather than specifically and only Surrealism. Mesens' and other members of the group's bitterness with Colquhoun remained still strong even ten years after the initial break, when they denied her works acceptance into a prestigious Surrealist art exhibition.

The war years were important in other areas of Colquhoun's life. As a prolific author, she began to write seriously and throughout her career went on to publish many articles, poems, travel guides, and novels. It was at this time also that she met the Italian artist Toni Romanov del Renzio whom had moved to England, and whom she helped by paying off some of his debts. Sharing similar interests, the couple married in 1943. Together they created a short-lived dissent surrealist publication called Arson. They hosted and gave poetry readings, and one of these was interrupted and sabotaged by Mesens and other members of the London Group in 1944. Colquhoun's relationship with del Renzio was however rather short, the couple divorced in 1947. Furthermore, Colquhoun was an asthma sufferer throughout her life, and perhaps triggered by stress, at this time she became seriously ill with the condition.

In the late 1940s, while continuing to paint in the Surrealist style, Colquhoun began to focus heavily on various processes of automatism to which she was first exposed upon viewing the work of Gordon Onslow Ford, Esteban Frances, and Roberto Matta during a 1939 visit to the Chateau Chemillieu in France. In 1948, Colquhoun even appeared in a television program in which she demonstrated art making using theses automatic processes including decalomania, fumage, and frottage.

During the 1950s, the artist began to write more and successfully published two travelogues, one called The Crying Wind, about travels in Ireland, and the other, The Living Stones, all about her new-found love for Cornwall. From 1949 the artist had begun renting a cottage in Cornwall where she had set up her studio and started to split her time between there and London. She later she moved to the village of Paul (Cornwall) permanently, buying a house that she called Stone Cross Cottage. Of her love of this wild landscape she stated, "I am identified with every leaf and pebble, and any threatened hurt to the wilderness of the valley seems to me a rape." She found the peace of the area conductive to good working practice and often became upset at noise generated by visitors to the area. In 1961 she successfully published her debut novel, Goose of Hermogenes, which she had in fact written some years before the two travelogues.

In addition to making art, Colquhoun diligently continued to engage in occult practices, gaining admittance to many different orders between 1950 and 1960. At various times she served in groups including the Order of the Temple of the Orient, she became a Priestess of Isis, served as a master mason, and became a deaconess of the Ancient Celtic Church. In 1962 she began signing her work with her chosen magical name in the form of a monogram. By adopting the name 'Splendidior Vitro', meaning 'clearer than crystal' was a gesture according to Richard Shillitoe (her primary biographer to date) to "put aside her worldly personality", so "Henceforth, art and magic would become one."

Colquhoun also had a lifelong commitment to the power of dreams, recording them in journals and using them as inspiration for her work. Believing that both emotional revelations and physical experiences could occur while sleeping, she once attributed a mark she awoke with as coming from some sort of spirit that had visited her in her dreams the night before. She also maintained a lifelong interest in angels and fairies, periodically wrote to the Fairy Investigation Society and had deep appreciation for the angelic work of poet and painter, William Blake.

Late Period

In the later years of Colquhoun's career she painted less and made more collages. This may have been a practical shift made due to her declining health and eyesight that made it increasingly difficult to work with brushes. Despite increasing limitations, the artist did create one of her most famous series of works throughout the year 1977. The noted pieces were a full deck of hand painted tarot cards all based on the Golden Dawn Order in which she was deeply interested.

Colquhoun's last years were spent in relative solitude and according to author Eric Ratcliffe, "Shelia Hicks, a close friend of Ithell, companion on many long walks, said that in later years she become frail and lonely, and spent a lot of time in bed with her adored cat Ginger for company." While she died of heart failure in 1987, she had ensured the preservation of her legacy by bequeathing her home and some of her art to the National Trust, as well as other artwork to the Tate Gallery. The money that the artist had was left to the Noise Abatement Society, and thus serves as Colquhoun's final statement on her respect for nature but irritation for humans.

The Legacy of Ithell Colquhoun

Part of Colquhoun's legacy in the art world lies in her use of automatism. While she did not invent many of the styles (she did invent some), she became a leader in all of these using many different approaches. According to Richard Shillitoe, "there are few artists who have used automatic methods as extensively as Colquhoun or who experimented with them so tirelessly." She was also a pioneer in the use of junk and unwanted items in the creation of artworks. Later in her career she made works such as Cornish Landscape and Embryo Fetish, both using thrown away packaging, with the latter being made entirely of egg boxes. Today, living in a society saturated by commercialism and the waste generated by this activity, numerous artists attempt to recycle materials including the fellow Cornish sculptor David Kemp, and the more widely known Ghanaian, El Anatsui.

As such Colquhoun was not only a 'Surrealist', but also an artist working independently predicting future styles. Sadly her break with the London Surrealist Group early in her career, while showing a strength of individuality and character, led to a decrease in attention surrounding her work and ultimately a lack of recognition as an important British Surrealist artist until long after her death. Despite this, her influence and a cross-pollination of themes can be seen in the work of fellow Surrealists including the other, more well-known females Eileen Agar and Edith Rimmington. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Colquhoun's explorations of gender and sexuality in her work and determination to provide a distinctly feminine approach to Surrealism (far away from the male obsession with the erotic), helped to pave the way for the Feminist art movement and associated artists that emerged during the late 1960s and 1970s.

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