ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

topographical writings:

the living stones: cornwall Following the success of The Crying of the Wind: Ireland, Colquhoun offered to write a follow-up book, on the Azores. Peter Owen, her publisher and friend, was not opposed to this but funding could not be obtained and she agreed to set her sights closer to home with a book on Cornwall. The Living Stones: Cornwall picks up where The Crying of the Wind: Ireland leaves off. It is about the landscape of Cornwall and the interplay between mankind and the landscape. Above all, it is about Colquhoun’s personal responses to the county where she chose to live. It begins with the rocks themselves: The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and the animal life that feeds on this, and finally through the type of human attracted to live there. In a profound sense also the structure of its rocks gives rise to the psychic life of the land: granite, serpentine, slate, sandstone, limestone, chalk and the rest each have their special personality dependant on the age in which they were laid down, each being co-existent with a special phase of the earth-spirit’s manifestation. (p. 46) Geographically and culturally, Cornwall has always been a place on the margin. At her studio, in West Penwith, Colquhoun could not have located herself at a place more in tune with its Celtic and early Christian past. Rich in megalithic remains and ancient holy places, it has the greatest concentration of antiquities to the acre of anywhere in the British Isles. It is a palimpsest of landscapes: in a complex layering of materialities and spiritualities, vestiges of a recent industrial past lie amid places of ancient religious significance. West Penwith, the westernmost peninsula of mainland Britain, is virtually an island, surrounded by sea on three sides and the Hayle estuary on the fourth. It is one of the few places in Britain where, at certain times of the year, the sun can be seen to both rise and set over the sea: a watery birth, death and resurrection. Much of the coastline is made of granite outcrops which rise directly out of the sea; an elemental clash between the hardness of the rock and the relentless action of the water, resulting in a dramatic coast with high cliffs and weathered stacks. On the hills, rock-strewn ridges are crowned by tors and cut by streams. In prehistoric times each feature of the landscape would have had its own meaning and supernatural associations. The hills, tors, solution basins, rocking stones and other distinctive features possessed their own ancestral links, with certain of them, such as caves and wells, being regarded as places where the quotidian and the Other worlds meet. These associations live on in myth, place name and folklore. Once regarded as self-evidently true by the local population and early antiquarians, these ideas were later dismissed by the archaeological orthodoxy, but are, once again, being taken seriously. To an artist attuned to local atmospheres, such attributions could never be in doubt. Drawn to places she perceived as significant and sacred, she constantly displays a profound kinship with nature, and reverence for the life-force. She did not recognise the modern distinction between nature and culture and blurred the boundary between the animate and the inanimate. The title itself, The Living Stones, has echoes of the philosopher’s stone and invites the reader to view the bedrock not simply as an inert, geological, substrate, but to consider contrasts (between for example, life and death, organic and inorganic) that are not generally raised in this context. Throughout the book she dwells on what she calls ‘the animist’s trinity’ of rocks, wells and trees. Her animism is laid bare in the sketches and vignettes that illustrate the volume. Colquhoun finds human and animal forms in the rocks and vegetation: the fork of a tree is a torso with twisting limbs; a phallic menhir penetrates the mossy turf; fungi and granite boulders possess rounded female forms; the sea-stack at Porthgwarra is a phallic axis mundi, joining the sea below with the sky above. Colquhoun’s world is one beyond contradictions. It is, at the same time, animate and inanimate, solid yet yielding. It is a place where the wind cries and the stones live.
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