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Ithell Colquhoun - Artist, Writer, Occultist with Dr.Richard Shillitoe

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The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History

11 Mare Street

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E*4RP

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The Curator of our current exhibition of Ithell Colquhoun's work will give a talk about the exhibition

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Ithell Colquhoun, 1906-1988

Artist Writer Occultist

Caput Mortuum

Our pigmy diadem of body

duenech duenach gree duenech

recremental earth binarius

terra damnata

Ithell Colquhoun

This was first introduction to Ithell Colquhoun. I came across this in 1971 in a surrealist magazine called TRANSFORMACTION. It was completely mystifying. I thought the whole thing – including the name - was a surrealist joke. I know now that Ithell Colquhoun was a real person and that the poem is about alchemical transformation, one of the enduring preoccupations of her life. Two watercolours in the exhibition: Alchemical Figure – Secret Fire (1940) and Diagrams of Love: Fire and Water (1941) also have alchemical subjects. ‘Caput mortuum’ is a traditional name for the inert residue that is left following an alchemical experiment. In fact, all the words and phrases in the poem are synonyms for this residue.

Her life started conventionally enough, in India in 1906 where her father held a senior position in the Indian Civil Service. From the age of two she was brought up with her younger brother by an elderly spinster aunt on the Isle of Wight. When her parents finally returned to England, Ithell attended Cheltenham Ladies College before commencing art training at London’s Slade School of Art in 1928. She won prizes for her drawing and compositional ability. Her major paintings of this period were of biblical or classical themes. Death of Lucretia (1931) is an important example. Like many of her works its underlying subject is sex and power.

In the mid-1930s Colquhoun fell under the spell of surrealism. She was ripe for surrealism because, like alchemy, it questioned the nature of reality and the illusory nature of every-day certainties. Her active involvement with the London surrealist group, however, lasted only a matter of months: she was thrown out because she refused to compromise her esoteric interests.

Following a trip to France in 1939 where she met a number of the continental surrealist artists, she began to make extensive use of automatic methods of painting. That is, painting spontaneously with a complete suspension of conscious control, at least in the initial stages. Colquhoun was particularly interested in the origin of automatically generated images: was the source external – as a spiritualist might receive messages from other worlds – or internal, from the artists’ personal unconscious?

The best-known automatic technique is probably decalcomania, in which paint is squashed between two surfaces. When they are separated, the resultant pattern is interpreted. Arbour (1947) is an example. A related technique, stillomancy, in which the paper is folded to produce a symmetrical image, often revealed mountain or forest spirits. There are two examples in the exhibition: Oread (1970) and Dryad: Oak (1971). The latter is related to the poem “Duir” in the sequence Grimoire of the Entangled Thicket which she published in 1973. Self-portrait (1947) is an automatic drawing, and in Heads (nd) she has discovered faces within randomly produced ink blots, as one might see shapes in flames or clouds.

Colquhoun had always painted plants and flowers (Cactus and Morning Glory II, both from 1933 are good early examples) but her relationship with nature became more intimate as she spent increasing amounts of time in Cornwall, finally settling in the village of Paul, near Penzance, in 1959. Cornwall brought out her sense of animism. “Mother Earth” was more than a metaphor, it was a literal truth. Being alive, the land is naturally sexually active. The dustjacket she designed for her book about Cornwall, The Living Stones, couldn’t be clearer. Men an Tol (1957) is one of the original drawings for the book. A sexual interpretation of this prehistoric monument on the Cornish Moors is unmissable. Other drawings from the book Fungus (1957) and Sunlight on Rockpool (1957) are also exhibited. In Trees (nd) she has again found sexual forms within the natural world.

A manuscript page from her meditation on the energy currents that girdle the earth is included in the exhibition. She was drawn towards places in the earth where physical or spiritual transformation takes place. Sometimes these transitions are physical and violent - Volcano (1972) records an eruption of Mt Etna- and sometimes they are spiritual and sombre: The Grave Circle at Mycenae (1933) shows the natural world where it intersects with the world of the dead

Colquhoun believed that all spiritual systems are limited by their historical ancestry so each can only possess a partial and incomplete understanding of the creator’s purpose. Accordingly, her spiritual enquiries were wide ranging. At times she was a Druid, a Freemason, a Martinist (a group promoting mystical Christianity), a member of esoteric societies such as the Ordo Templi Orientis which followed in the tradition of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and a Priestess of the Fellowship of Isis.

Colquhoun believed that she was a channel through which hidden intelligences could communicate through her dreams. She kept dream diaries all her adult life and used them in her writings, meditations and magical rituals. One particularly important dream inspired the painting The Grotto of the Sun and Moon, Nicaragua (1952). The text that accompanies the painting is Colquhoun’s explanation of the dream’s significance.

In the early 1960s Colquhoun began to use ordinary enamel paint, allowing it to flow and mingle in a semi-controlled way. Haunted Hedge (1970) is one of the largest examples of this technique. It reminds us that hedges in Cornwall are sturdy granite structures that may contain hidden chambers. The use of enamel paint in a small scale is represented by the pack of Tarot cards which uses occult colour theory for its designs. The originals were painted in 1977. Her experiments with collage also began at about the same time. Hill Forest (1971) is slightly later: it is made from self-adhesive labels.

The exhibition, which is the first devoted to Colquhoun’s work to be held in London since 1977, also contains books, exhibition catalogues and one of her dream diaries.

Dr Richard Shillitoe once worked in the National Health Service and is now an independent researcher. He maintains the website ithellcolquhoun.co.uk. In 2010 he collaborated with Adam McLean to publish the first edition of Colquhoun’s pack of Tarot cards. The following year he published Ithell Colquhoun: Magician Born of Nature which includes a comprehensive catalogue of her art work. In collaboration with Mark Morrisson he edited Colquhoun’s unpublished novel I Saw Water (2014) and edited a new, illustrated, edition of her first novel Goose of Hermogenes in 2018. Medea’s Charms, a volume of Colquhoun’s selected shorter writing has recently been published by Peter Owen Publishers.

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The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History

11 Mare Street

London

E*4RP

United Kingdom

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Eventbrite's fee is nonrefundable.

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