ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

marlowe’s faust


Oil on canvas. 48 x 36in. (121.9 x 91.4cm.) Signed and dated verso. Provenance Sotheby’s, 27 June 1979, lot 123, ill. col. Government Art Collection, Accession Number: 14649. Exhibited London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1935, no. 20. Cheltenham, Municipal Art Gallery, 1936, no. 5. London, Parkin Gallery, 1977, no. 6. London, Fine Art Society, 1981. Literature Illustrated in colour on the Government Art Collection web site, as Scene from Marlowe’s ‘Dr Faustus’ and dated 1933. Letters from Dr Wendy Baron of the Government Art Collection concerning the purchase of this work are at TGA 929/1/796-797. Ratcliffe, 2007, ill. col. pl. 70. Faust, disillusioned by the limits of traditional fields of study, turned to the occult in the search for ultimate knowledge and the power it brings. He sold his soul to the devil in pursuit of this knowledge. Part of the following note is based upon the information sheet published by the Government Art Collection. The painting represents a composite of the opening of Scene V of the play. The stage shows Faust’s study in his house. On the wall is painted the serpent coiled around the tree of knowledge, in front of which stand his good and bad angels who appear at intervals throughout the play and vie for his soul. The good angel, dressed in white, points heavenwards and appears and disappears through the closed door marked Ego Dominus tuus (I am your Lord). The bad angel is dressed in black. The door behind him is open. It bears the inscription Diabolus deus inversus (The devil is God stood on his head) and leads down to the red fires of hell. The bad angel motions downwards, and together with Faust standing in the pentagram with a wand, turning his back on the communion bread and wine, conjures up Mephistopheles. The latter appears in the guise of a Franciscan friar, Faust having dismissed the first devil who appeared to him with the words: Thou art too ugly to attend on me. Go and return an old Franciscan friar, that holy shape becomes a devil best. The stunted tree of knowledge, choked by the serpent, the bare trees in the foreground, the diseased tree covered in fungus and the sawn-off tree stump in the midst of the spectators all symbolise Faust’s final damnation. As the chorus puts it: Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight. In the ‘real’ world, of landscape and spectators, physical decay, indicated by the diseased trees, contrasts with the moral decay taking place on stage. The audience, in modern dress, are singularly uninterested in the moral struggles of Faust who is making choices about the future of his eternal soul. It has been suggested that the painting is a commentary on the political situation in Germany with the rise of Hitler’s national socialist party, but it can also be seen as the modern world’s refusal to engage with the spiritual world. The painting remained unsold and in Colquhoun’s possession until 1979 when it was bought by the British Government. It now hangs in a Government building where, no doubt, it serves to warn diplomats of the dangers of ill-judged pacts. Several sketches of the overall composition are known, together with the squared cartoon and a study for the young woman in the foreground hugging her knees.