ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
© All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe 2015-16  All artworks copyright the estate of the artist.

the major themes

gendered landscapes The idea of woman as a channel connected intuitively to nature is an inspirational metaphor for feminists, neo-pagans and natural healers. The Goddess has become a unifying, cosmic, nurturing whole. She is to be found within the landscape. She is the very ground beneath our feet, a numinous figure, infused with the earth itself. It is, of course, a common conceit that the hills and valleys of the natural landscape mirror the mounds and hollows of the female body. Colquhoun’s most literal interpretation of body/landscape fusion is found in the ink drawing Interior Landscape (1947) in which sweeping curves are strongly suggestive of the contours of the landscape and of buttocks and genitalia. Within this feminised landscape Colquhoun has placed objects that traditionally symbolise the female. These include pitchers (symbols of oral nourishment which form the breasts but which can also be read as eyes), and a well, a symbol of the vagina which can also be read as a mouth. Paintings such as Scylla (1938) and Tree Anatomy (1942) discussed in more detail here, also contains an important statement of the idea of an intimate and harmonious association between woman and nature. Because of their vulva-like entrances into mother earth, and the link that they make between the surface and the womb-like underworld, caves occupy a special place in myth and legend. Stalactite (1962) contains both male and female genital forms from the natural world. The viewer is situated in the deep recesses of a cave and looks out, along the passageway, past the phallic stalactite, over the mysterious rockpools to the sea and clitoris-shaped island beyond. Body-landscape imagery plays a central role in Goose of Hermogenes. The female narrator, in attempting to capture her lover, does so by forming a magical link with nature: I open my veins to the east I open the veins of my arm with the cut of a sliver of silicon. Blood pours out from the left flows out till it reaches the sea goes on flowing pours inexhaustible through the inexhaustible sea without chafe or pause till it surrounds the island a line veining marble a red line in the green sea taut from my arm making a long arm to his home circling the island a ribbon of stain in the foam unmixing like a rusty chain to bind him in binding his home so he never can go ...   (p. 68) Later, searching for the statue-woman, the narrator finds her residing ‘in the land’s own long memory’: Her navel is a pool of water lilies; from her armpit evening-primroses sprout … From her left side juts one of her ribs, a headed stone; on the front is sketched a cross, on the back an indecipherable poem in ogham is inscribed. (p. 77) Santa Warna For a period during the late 1940s, the story of Santa Warna exercised a great influence on Colquhoun, being the subject of a number of gouaches Santa Warna’s Wishing Well; Santa Warna Lands; St Elmo and Linked Islands I and Linked Islands II) as well as a lengthy poetic sequence, published in 1948. The origin of the legend is obscure. Standard hagiologies offer no information. There appears to be no references to the saint or to her story outside of Scillonian folklore and the more comprehensive gazetteers of holy wells. She is the patron saint of St Agnes, one of the larger islands that make up the Scilly Isles which lie off the south west tip of Cornwall. It is said that she arrived there from Ireland in a wicker boat covered with hides, landing at the place now marked on maps as St Warna’s Bay. Like many saints, she had her holy well and, perhaps in an inverted memory of her method of arrival, became associated with wrecks and wreckers. It is said that the inhabitants of St Agnes used to throw crooked pins into the well and pray to her to send them a rich wreck.  The myth enabled Colquhoun to explore the alchemical fusion of sexual differences. The key works are Linked Islands I and Linked Islands II, both of 1947. Depending upon the state of the tide, St Agnes is two-in- one. At low tide it is one island. At high tide it becomes separated from Gugh, which forms a separate land mass, linked to St Agnes only by a slender sand bar. The sea both unites and separates. Each island has its own gender identity. With its prehistoric, phallic, menhir, known as The Old Man, Gugh is the male counterpart of St Agnes, where Santa Warna’s Well symbolises the female. When the two are united at low tide they become, in an alchemical sense, the hermaphrodite whole. The series is also to be understood within the wider context of Colquhoun’s conception of woman as linked, imaginatively and intimately, to nature and to the earth itself. When, in her poetic sequence Colquhoun writes: Where does the turf end and Santa Warna begin? Rocks breathe, springs circulate; now is the change complete. She is absorbed into the body of the Island, visible to the seer’s eye alone. She identifies the inner creative life with the generative creation of nature. Further, Santa Warna’s arrival, in a coracle, contains an echo of Venus, the goddess born of the sea, coming ashore on her shell.