ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

death of the virgin


Oil on canvas. 77 x 51½in. (195.6 x 130.8cm.) Signed and dated. Provenance Sotheby’s, studio sale, 24 April 1985, lot 547, ill. b/w. Exhibited London, New Burlington Galleries, 1932, no. 52. London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1935, no. 16. Cheltenham, Municipal Art Gallery, 1936, no. 1. London, Parkin Gallery, 1977, no. 7. At the time that Colquhoun painted this picture, the Catholic Church’s official account of how Mary died and ascended to Heaven had not been agreed. It was not until 1950 that the doctrine of the Dormition was accepted as dogma: Mary was assumed into heaven in her body, not as a fleshless spirit. In some traditions, Mary died in her house at Ephesus, lying on her couch in the sleeping alcove. She was with her maidservant, a younger woman, who raised her periodically to drink juice. Peter, along with other apostles and angels, was also present. Standing at just over six feet tall, this is an imposing work. The virgin, depicted as an ageless woman, reclines in bed surrounded by people in modern dress and, who, by their gestures, appear curiously unmoved. One, a bearded man, loafs on the floor at the foot of the bed. The alcove is barely deep enough to contain the bed. It gives the events a distinctly theatrical atmosphere whilst retaining a sense of intimacy. There are few clues within the painting to indicate its true subject matter. It could be a lying in, rather than a prelude to a laying out. The artist, Ethel Walker, who was friendly with Colquhoun, referred to it as ‘Death (or is it Birth?) of the Virgin’ Walker wrote to Colquhoun of her admiration for Death of the Virgin and Aaron Meeting Moses in the Desert (1932). She asked Colquhoun to make her a pencil and watercolour version of each work and sent her a cheque for £5 in advance. It is not known whether Colquhoun accepted the commission. Two preliminary pencil sketches and a water-colour study are known.