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

the writer:

the new apocalypse Entering the 1940s, surrealism in England was in a poor state. Internal divisions leading to expulsions from the group, together with the dispersal of members due to the War, meant that, as an organised force, surrealism had more or less ceased to exist. For Colquhoun, engagement in group activities met needs that were as much psychological as they were practical, so her expulsion must have been deeply felt. She began to make overtures to a group of poets and writers, referred to then as now as the New Apocalypse, sending poems and short stories to Jim Hendry and Henry Treece. In a letter to Treece of 9 October 1941 she commented: I am really a painter and worked with the surrealists as long as there were any in Europe to work with; but lately I have worked mostly alone. I feel, however, that it is a great help to be able to co-operate with a group and discuss things with other painters and writers from time to time. The New Apocalypse was largely the brainchild of Treece and Hendry. It attracted a number of young writers for whom the Spender-Auden axis held little appeal. Stefan Schimanski, a friend of Treece, played an important role, primarily as an editor. The first anthology of Apocalyptic writing, The New Apocalypse appeared in 1939, followed by The White Horseman (1941) and the Crown and the Sickle (1944). These anthologies, together with the short lived periodicals Seven and Kingdom Come and the annual Transformation marked it out as a movement much given to theorising and the composition of manifestos, but by 1945 it was a spent force. The generally poor quality of the work published in its name has contributed to its subsequent relative neglect. The New Apocalypse’s  starting point was a belief in the wholeness of man. This long-standing Romantic idea had been affirmed most recently by D.H Lawrence in Apocalypse (1931), the book that suggested the movement’s name. In it he emphasised the importance of harmony with nature. The Apocalyptics rejected the centralisation, authoritarianism and dehumanising tendencies of modern society in favour the small, the local and the individual. They also objected to surrealist unreason, championing the right to exercise conscious control over mental and social processes. By opposing the privileging of the unconscious they saw themselves as offering a development of surrealism. They were, accordingly, suspicious of automatism as a denial of free will and because it bypassed technical skill and aesthetic sensibility. What, one wonders, were the qualities in Colquhoun’s art and writing of the time that might allow it to be described as apocalyptic. In a letter of late 1941 to the artist Conroy Maddox in which she described her painting, she wrote that she was undertaking morphological research, investigating “the relationship between human forms and those of rocks, trees and sometimes architecture”. This fits with the Apocalyptics concern with wholeness, although they might have balked at the mystical interpretation of unity and wholeness, at least to the extent that she later expressed it in her essay “The Night Side of Nature”. (1) It is no coincidence that she used the words that she did when describing her painting: her sentence is more or less a summary of the proposition by the French critic Elie Faure that every picture should contain a natural object, an animal, a human being and some form of human creation, such as an architectural construction. Roberto Matta is known to have been reading Faure when he was developing his theory of psychological morphology – a theory of painting that would coalesce inner and outer realities and the dimension of time, all in a state of perpetual transformation. Colquhoun had spent time with Matta at Chemillieu in 1939 (see here) and must have been party to these discussions. Matta was much admired by the apocalyptics, even though his method involved a degree of automatism: There can be no doubt at all that ‘psychological morphology’ with its intense concern for a totality of experience has more in common with the apocalyptics than any other painting of our time. Colquhoun’s stories of this period that she shared with Hendry and Treece, such as “Nature Note”, “Sligo Street” and “Comedy in a Café” (only the first named of these has been published) are, unusually for her, derived from direct observation of individuals and human interactions rather than from her dreams. They are psychological documentaries, or, as the title of another of her writings expresses it, “socio-pathological vignettes”. The importance of the study of individuals in social settings can also be found in Apocalyptic theorising, much as it can be found in the contemporary movement, Mass Observation. Colquhoun’s initial overtures to Treece and Hendry were met with considerable enthusiasm. Hendry wrote a long (1300 words) letter praising her short stories. He proposed including some of them in a forthcoming anthology and discussed the formation of an apocalyptic group of painters. In December 1941 an essay of hers, “Public Art”, was accepted for publication in Kingdom Come, the art editor, Robert Melville, even offering to give up his own page allocation to provide room for it. The essay concerned with the need for art to form a vital relationship with modern life, and how best to achieve this for the general citizen. Melville also advised her to extend it and publish it separately as a pamphlet. Perhaps, he suggested, T.S. Eliot could be persuaded to issue it in the Criterion Miscellany series. (2) Shortly after, however, Melville resigned as art editor of the magazine and Treece offered Colquhoun the vacant position. She wrote back eagerly, asking for a meeting to discuss her ideas, which included covering theatre, dance, music and film in addition to painting. Schimanski, however, vetoed the idea. What Colquhoun thought of as keenness, Schimanski saw as a takeover bid. He warned Treece:   not to allow her too much power in any undertaking, or she would run the show … and Jim Hendry, who has invited her to become art adviser in the Apoc. Movement may find before long that he is the advisor. And that, as far as Colquhoun’s engagement with the New Apocalypse was concerned, was the end of that. On a personal level, however, matters rapidly became more complicated. The artist Conroy Maddox, who was a close friend of Robert Melville in Birmingham, managed to keep a foot in both the surrealist and the apocalyptic camps, providing a set of illustrations for Schimanski’s long apocalyptic poem Knight and Devil (3) and being the main collaborator with Toni del Renzio in the production of the latter’s single issue surrealist journal Arson, which came out in March 1942. Within the pages of Arson del Renzio mocked the “New Apoplexy” and derided Colquhoun’s recent paintings, exhibited in the name of the New Apocalypse, as “sterile abstractions”. Despite this unpromising start, hostilities between del Renzio and Colquhoun ceased long enough for her to pay his debts incurred by the financial failure of Arson  and marry him. After their divorce less than three years later, she maintained a bitter loathing of him until the end. notes 1. Although not published until 1954, the essay had been written by 1944. 2. Colquhoun withdrew her essay when it became clear that Kingdom Come did not pay its contributors. It was later published in Tribune. 3. Published by The Grey Walls press in 1942. For a recent history of the New Apocalypse see James Gifford (2014) “Personal Modernisms” University of Alberta Press, Edmonton. The present account of Colquhoun’s involvement in the movement has been pieced together from letters by Colquhoun, Hendry, Maddox, Melville and Schimanski to Henry Treece, held in the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin; letters from Treece and del Renzio held in the Conroy Maddox papers at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art archive, Edinburgh and letters from Treece, Maddox and Melville in the Colquhoun archives, Tate Britain, London.
new apocalypse bibliography of   published works bibliography of   published works