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


  osmazone Osmazone is an anthology of short pieces, from rhyming verse to prose texts. If there is a theme that recurs throughout the collection, it is that of the personal made public: the celebration of private parts and bodily functions. Never one to be coy or bashful, Colquhoun includes a poem about the anus, a short story in which a woman applying for a position in a modelling agency includes in her CV jobs in which she has modelled for enemas and gynaecological examinations. A short autobiographical text deals with her menarche, whilst a ‘found-object poem’ lists varieties of condoms. Alongside these are more conventional poems and prose pieces. Today, we might describe much of her subject matter as transgressive: an interest in the boundary between self and non-self and in those substances, such as bodily fluids, which cross the boundary. Although not published until 1983, many of the pieces that make up Osmazone were written much earlier. Colquhoun had long planned a collection of her writings under this name and had, in fact, been sent a contract by a publisher in early 1945 but the venture stalled for some unknown reason. The book was to bear the dedication ‘to Toni’ and the acknowledgement ‘typography by Toni del Renzio’, so perhaps the abandonment of the project was a consequence of the difficulties within their marriage and its final breakup. Many years later, in the 1970s, she returned to the idea of publishing a compilation of her poetry and prose. It was an ambitious project and was to have consisted of three parts: prose; poetry; and multi-part poems. When Osmazone was finally published in 1983, only a highly truncated version of her hoped-for anthology was possible. The edition size was 200 copies and it was partly self-funded by Colquhoun. The publisher was Tony Pusey, a British artist associated with the Melmoth group in England and with Dunganon, a network of Scandinavian surrealists. Betraying, perhaps, its early origins, the cover illustration is a reproduction of an oil painting, The Pine Family (1940). The ink drawing that occurs four times in the booklet is a reworking of a watercolour from the same period, Shell Fish (c.1943). Here are notes on some of the individual pieces in the book. THE TITLE This is from J-K Huysmans novel, A Rebours, ch.14: Of all forms of literature that of the prose poem was Des Esseintes' chosen favourite. Handled by an alchemist of genius, it should, according to him, store up in its small compass, like an extract of meat, so to say, the essence of the novel, while suppressing its long, tedious analytical passages and superfluous descriptions. The novel, thus conceived, thus condensed in a page or two, would become a communion, an interchange of thought between a magic- working author and an ideal reader. In a word, the prose poem represented … the concrete juice, the osmazone of literature, the essential oil of art. Writing to E.L.T. Mesens at the end of 1939, Colquhoun mournfully compared herself with Huysmans’ iconic aesthete: “it seems to me that I am a Des Esseintes, but a Des Esseintes without learning and without money…his tastes are my own but I have not the learning nor the money to indulge them” DIVINATION This is from Until Twelve, a series of brief autobiographical sketches, none longer than one side of typescript, some considerably shorter. Each starts with a childhood memory, from which Colquhoun generally derives a broader conclusion about herself or the world, often with a mystical insight. Divination, the last in the series, concerns Colquhoun’s menarche. It is dated 1949, but the others were probably written over a period of time. Divination is the only piece to have been published. TRANSLATED FROM THE GALVANESE This is one of the earliest pieces in the collection, mentioned approvingly in a letter to the author from Herbert Read sent in 21 August 1940. The ‘picture of a bronze statue against a darkening sunset’ mentioned in the text is the watercolour Bronze Figure in the Desert (1940). THE APPLICANT Some elements of this text (presumably not all) can be related to Colquhoun’s personal experiences of the Nature Cure Rest at Champney’s Health Spa at Tring in Hertfordshire. Champney’s was founded by Stanley Lief, whose one-time secretary, Edith Baxter, had earlier been a member of the London surrealist group, and is better known as the artist Edith Rimmington. According to Madeleine Joseph, one of Lief’s later secretaries, Baxter’s duties included performing colonic irrigation for certain clients and making Mr. Lief’s salad lunch. Hygene inspectors would have had a fit. LIVING BOY The dedicatee of this poem is Padrig Goarnig. Between 1946 and 1963 his father, Jean Jacques Goarnig, a Breton nationalist, gave each of his twelve children a Breton name (Padrig, Katell, Yann, Morgan, Gwendal, Diweza, Sklerijenn, Brann, Adraboran, Garlon, Gwenn, Maiwenn). This act, then illegal in France, had the effect of making them all stateless. The case eventually reached the Council of Europe and made legal history. To save face on all sides, the children were each given a special identity card, which combined European citizenship with Breton nationality. Colquhoun suggests that the mother, rather than the father, was the motive force behind this drawn out confrontation with authority. It is not known whether she was personally acquainted with the family, although her references to Padrig’s physical appearance and other family matters might suggest that she was. ODE TO PHILOSOPHICAL MERCURY This is the final poem from a series of eleven that together make up the Anthology of Incantations. The sequence, which has not been published in its entirety,  is a celebration of the richness of alchemical language and imagery. Philosophical mercury is a standard name in alchemy for the female principle. Many of the names of alchemical substances listed in the sequence are taken from Dom Antoine-Joseph Pernety’s Treatise on the Great Art, sometimes quoted verbatim. Other names are from the writings of Eugenius Philalethes. LOVE CHARM I This poem, with its companion, Love Charm II (published by Shillitoe and Morrisson, 2014) is based on a ritual for evoking the Goddess Lalita that Colquhoun devised in 1952 as part of her studies for advancement in the magical society, the Ordo Templi Orientis. HYPNAGOGIC INTERIOR This is a species of automatic or found poem. It was constructed from a printed list of Latin names of moths. The original list, with the selected names physically cut out, still survives.
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