Friday, January 28, 2011

Ithell Colquhoun ~ from Lamorna to Lanhydrock

This month, I’m on the trail of the elusive Ithell Colquhoun. While usually described as a surrealist painter, she was also a prolific author, poet and playwright. Yet her writings offer little insight into her personal life or emotional relationships. She remains an enigmatic outsider, isolated from the artistic and literary mainstream. Her fascination for mysticism and the occult became entwined with a quest for identification with the spirit of the Celtic landscape.

Of Scottish ancestry, Ithell was born in 1906 in India, where she was brought up in an atmosphere which encouraged freedom and independence. This enabled her to develop an unusual degree of sensitivity and curiosity about her environment. The family returned to the UK when she was very young. Educated at Cheltenham Ladies School, Ithell subsequently became a student at the Slade. Here her affinity with the natural world found expression in representations of plants of unusual shape and dimension, such as hibiscus and pomegranate.

Canna 1936
Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum
Oil on canvas

Early works also included classical subjects such as ‘The Judgement of Paris’ and ‘Susanna and the Elders’ in which she challenged conventional gender roles by depicting the females as strong, assertive figures.

In 1931 she visited Paris, where she rented a studio and came across the work of the surrealists. Inspired by Salvador Dali, her botanical works now began to embrace notions of fertility and sexuality, in a style she described as ‘magic realism’. Back in London, Ithell’s status was acknowledged by solo exhibitions in the capital and Cheltenham. In 1936 she visited the International Surrealist exhibition held in London, where Dali delivered a lecture from inside a deep-sea diving suit. Surrealism was a philosophical movement founded by the French poet Andre Breton in 1924, which rejected rationality in favour of the creativity of the unconscious mind. This had great appeal for Ithell, who joined the British Surrealist Group in 1939. However, its membership was dominated by men who regarded women as objects of erotic fantasy. Ithell reacted to this attitude by parodying the surrealists’ obsession with sexual imagery. Her 1938 painting ‘Scylla’ offers an example of her subversive manipulation of the notions of eroticism. In ‘The Pine Family’ she took this further by using images of castration to promote the concept of androgyny as a response to the issue of duality (also explored in her mystical writings). Ithell’s association with the surrealists was short-lived. There are conflicting accounts of the circumstances surrounding her break with the movement. She was unwilling to adhere to its political agenda and her increasing involvement with occult organisations led to a rift. She left the Group in 1940. However, aspects of surrealism, such as automatism, a defining feature of Breton’s original manifesto, remained integral to her artistic and literary output.

By this time she had become involved with Toni del Renzio, a Russian-born Italian surrealist poet. The couple were married in 1943 but their relationship soon foundered owing to his infidelity. They divorced four years later. Ithell was utterly devastated. Though she subsequently engaged in romantic liaisons, she never fully recovered from the breakdown of her marriage.

Having visited Mousehole during the Second World War, Ithell decided to leave London following her divorce, to make a fresh start in Cornwall. With scant regard for the comforts of domesticity, she rented a corrugated iron hut in Lamorna, with no electricity or plumbing, which she occupied as both home and studio. The simplicity of such a life enabled her to feel a profound connection with the rhythm of nature and its affinity with the ethereal world. In her book, ‘The Living Stones’, she described Lamorna as ‘… valley of streams and moon-leaves, wet scents and all that cries with the owl’s voice, all that flies with a bat’s wing …’

It was during her time in Lamorna that Ithell painted ‘Landscape with Antiquities’, an imaginary scene, but one which documents many of the prehistoric sites between Lamorna and St Buryan. Clearly depicted are the ‘Merry Maidens’ stone circle and, across the road, the two Pipers standing stones. Her painting evokes the sacred nature of this environment, which can so easily be overlooked by the visitor in a hurry to reach Lands End. Intriguingly, the interlocking rectangles in the bottom right-hand corner are said to represent Boleigh Farm, where the painter Lamorna Birch originally settled.

Landscape with Antiquities, Lamorna 1955
Oil on canvas
©National Trust/Ithell Colquhoun bequest
Courtesy of Royal Cornwall Museum

In 1959 she moved to a cottage in the village of Paul, inland from Mousehole. As she immersed herself in the activities of various occult organisations, her work became more inward-looking. 1961 saw the publication of her gothic occult novel, ‘The Goose of Hermogenes’, described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘possessing a haunting, visionary quality’. Ithell began to sign her paintings with a distinctive monogram with magical connotations. She continued to exhibit in the 1970s with retrospective shows in Exeter and at the Newlyn Orion in Penzance. As a painter of fantasy she achieved some success in Europe. However, writing became of primary importance to her during this period.

One of Ithell’s most powerful late works is ‘Dark Fire’ of 1980. While the subject can conjure up the idea of regeneration or purification, in this context it is the destructive force which prevails. It has been suggested that the painter was inspired by the role of fire in the process of alchemy. Here it forms an impenetrable barrier, beyond human control, which threatens to consume all in its path.

Dark Fire 1980
Oil on canvas
©National Trust/Ithell Colquhoun bequest
Courtesy of Royal Cornwall Museum

In 1988, in a bizarre echo of the death of Barbara Hepworth thirteen years earlier, Ithell Colquhoun died in a fire at her home.* Her writings, letters and library were bequeathed to Tate Britain. The National Trust was granted custodianship of her artworks, and they are currently stored at Lanhydrock. Visiting the archive in the hope of coming across some of her lesser known canvases, I was taken aback by the sheer volume of her output. Though yet to be fully catalogued, the variety and scope of these works is awe-inspiring. The collection (in excess of 1,000 works) ranges from pencil and charcoal nude studies of the early 1930s, to eerily empty landscapes recording her travels in Greece and Corsica, and commissions for costume design and stage sets. It is evident that the ‘surrealist’ label obscured an oeuvre of exceptional versatility.

One image in particular which caught my attention was a preparatory work for a mural entitled ‘Decoration for a Children’s Waiting-Room in a Hospital’, with a curious inscription in the bottom left-hand corner, ‘Benedict Yae’. I understand it was destined for the hospital in Moreton in Marsh, but have been unable to ascertain whether this project ever came to fruition. An oriental fantasy, it would have delighted its young viewers, enabling their imaginations to roam freely in an enchanted world.

Decoration for a Children’s Waiting Room in a Hospital c. 1936
Oil on board ©National Trust/Ithell Colquhoun bequest

Ithell Colquhoun was a strong individual who refused to conform to expectations. An atmosphere of mutual antagonism existed between her and the artists of St Ives, with whom she had little in common. It would be interesting to speculate what she might have made of ‘Dark Monarch – Magic and Modernity in British Art’, the 2009 exhibition at Tate St Ives in which her work was shown alongside that of her St Ives contemporaries. This show was testament not only to a resurgence of interest in her paintings, but also to her importance as a writer and collector who embraced surrealism, automatism and the occult. The accompanying catalogue includes an excerpt from her book ‘Children of the Mantic Stain’ describing automatism as applied to her visual work.

Posthumous acclaim, then, for an artist ahead of her time. It is to be hoped that documentation of the Lanhydrock collection will facilitate wider access to the legacy of this exceptional woman.

© 2011 Helen Hoyle

Acknowledgements to:

Richard Shillitoe:
National Trust, Lanhydrock
Royal Cornwall Museum
Special thanks to Amy Hale, PhD, Adjunct Professor of Humanities, UMUC, whose book 'The Supersensual Life of Ithell Colquhoun' is due to be published later this year by Francis Boutle Publishers at

Further reading: 'The Living Stones' by Ithell Colquhoun

*See comment by Richard Shillitoe (below)

Researching Ithell Colquhoun

Research sometimes leads down blind alleys. While exploring the work of Ithell Colquhoun for this article, a breakthrough occurred when I accessed a new database, the Cornwall Artists Index. This led me to a collection of over 1000 works by Colquhoun, in the custodianship of the National Trust at Lanhydrock. Without this information, my quest for little-known images by the artist would have proved fruitless.

Cornwall Artists Index has been online since December 2010. The resource evolved out of Melissa Hardie’s comprehensive dictionary and source-book ‘Artists in Newlyn and West Cornwall’ published in 2009. While this publication focussed on the period 1880-1940, the new database extends the information in the dictionary to include all artists active up to the present day. Commercial galleries can come and go, but the Cornwall Artists Index provides a valuable platform for maintaining the profile of contemporary artists. Their inclusion in the database (with links, in many cases, to their own websites) establishes them as heirs to a tradition of art practice which had its roots in Cornwall’s historic art colonies.

Cornwall Artists Index can be found at If you have any material to add to existing entries, or if you know of any artists who merit inclusion, please email


  1. Helen, I had not seen any of Ithell Colquhoun's paintings before reading your article - they are fantastic. She certainly deserves much attention as it seems she developed her own controlled style within the Surrealist framework and their scope of subject matter. I wonder if 'Dark Fire' had Max Ernst's Vision of the Porte St Denis, 1927 or La Foresta Inbalsamata, 1933 as starting points; perhaps 'Landscape with Antiquities' evolved from Magritte's 'Restless Sleeper', 1927. If Ernst's 'Joy of Life' is dated 1936/37, 'Canna' 1936 could have been an influence for that work.

    Thank you for writing about this painter, I will look out for her work in future and try to get one of her books.

  2. Wendy - the connections you have made are intriguing. My feeling is that both Magritte's 'Restless Sleeper' and Colquhoun's 'Landscape with Antiquities' could be read as 'mind maps'. While looking at the Ernst images you referred to, I came across 'Forest & Dove' of 1927 which shares with Colquhoun's 'Dark Fire' a sense of being trapped.

  3. Some brief comments and clarifications on your excellent piece, if I may.
    I have visited the archives at Llanhdrock on a number of occasions over the years and have measured, photographed and catalogued all the art works (with the exception of some student sketches). The results, with descriptions and explanations of the imagery have been published in my book Ithell Colquhoun: Magician Born of Nature.
    Like you, I too have pondered over the meaning of the inscription ‘Benedict YAE’ on the mural design of the little girl dreaming of a fantasy island that you illustrated, but I have no idea what it refers to. I can tell you, however, that two murals were installed at the hospital in 1936, but have since been removed. In fact they were paintings on canvas and not murals in the usual sense of being applied directly to the wall plaster. One, an apparently idyllic scene of two women by a pool, was actually based on two Tarot cards, which would have amused or outraged staff and patients had they known!
    The notion that she died in a house fire is a fiction that has gained some currency, but the truth is that she spent the final period of her life in a nursing home where she died of heart failure.

  4. Richard - thank you for your interesting comments, and for shedding light on the hospital 'murals'. My sources of information regarding the current state of the cataloguing of the works at Lanhydrock were Jo Moore, the curator, and Dr Amy Hale of UMUC. The circumstances of Colquhoun's death were obtained from a number of sources including Tate Online.

  5. You might be interested to see an image of an early work by Ithell Colquhoun (Corner 1937) that was exhibited in her joint exhibition with Roland Penrose at the Mayor Gallery in 1939: it can be seen on our gallery website: the artist is listed in 'Artists' under 'Modern British/Post War' and the painting is illustrated there.

  6. Ithell Colquhoun: Image and Imagination
    16 January — 19 March 2016
    Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance

    An exhibition of work by Ithell Colquhoun (1906 – 1988), a Surrealist artist who was inspired by the nature and landscape of Cornwall.

    Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988), an artist drawn by the ‘Gaelic melodies’ of West Penwith, captured the beauty of nature in her paintings and writing from the solitude of her refuge, a simple hut in the Lamorna Valley. Colquhoun’s art combined naturalistic painting with experiments in surrealism and abstraction. She worked in many media and ventured into techniques such as decalomania, frottage and fumage. This, the first exhibition in a public gallery since her death, shows an intriguing selection of pictures spanning her six decade artistic career, with particular emphasis on her work on the human in nature.

    Price: £4.50 Adults, £3.00 Concessions. Under 18s free.

    Time: Open 10am – 4.30pm (last admissions 4pm) Monday – Saturday.

    For more information please visit the website: