Ithell Colquhoun - Biography and Legacy
British Painter, Poet, and Novelist
Lamorna, 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."
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.
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.
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.