ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

artistic development:

formal training Coming to England as a child from her birthplace in India, Colquhoun attended Cheltenham Ladies College and then enrolled at the local College of Art. She came to London in 1927 in order to study at the Slade School of Art. Of her formal training she once wrote ‘I learnt to draw at the Slade School. I have not yet learnt to paint. I am teaching myself to carve and to write. Sometimes I copy nature, sometimes imagination: they are equally useful.’ (1) The training was successful enough for her to be awarded joint first prize in the most prestigious of the Slade competitions, the Summer Composition Prize, in 1929 for a large oil painting Judith Showing the Head of Holofernes. Her teacher, Professor Tonks, praised her ‘remarkable gifts’ and sense of design, but warned her, with some prescience, that ‘the only danger in your development is that with your active and curious mind you may be led to run after all strange objects. You go out to gather strawberries and come back with two strange beetles and a spider instead.’ (2) Many of her paintings from this period were on classical or biblical themes. Judgement of Paris (1930), Susanna and the Elders (1930) and Death of Lucretia (1931) are subjects that could have been tackled by artists at any time in the preceding three hundred years. However, although the subject matter was traditional, her interpretations were contemporary, frequently reversing and challenging traditional gender roles. Rather than providing an opportunity for the artist to paint voluptuous female flesh, the women in her paintings are powerful and assertive, never subservient. By contrast, her male figures are often indecisive, sometimes foolish. A number of the paintings, such as Death of the Virgin (1931) and Aaron Meeting Moses in the Desert (1932), each over six feet high, are large physically imposing works. She wished to develop her skills in this direction and for three successive years, from 1931 to 1933, entered the competition for the Rome Scholarship in Mural Painting. Each time, however, she was unsuccessful. Some of the works that she submitted can be identified from inscriptions on the reverse. Mrs. Paul (c.1929) is one example. Notes 1. Colquhoun, I. “What do I need to paint a picture?” London Bulletin, No. 17, 15th June 1939. p13. 2. Letters from Tonks to Colquhoun, Tate Gallery Archive, TGA 929/1/2260-68.
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