ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe



Oil on board. 36 x 24in. (91.4 x 61cm.) Provenance Tate Gallery, purchased from the artist,1977. Exhibited London, Mayor Gallery, 1939, no. 4. Penzance, Newlyn Gallery, 1961, no. 14. London, Hamet Gallery, 1971, no. 28. London, Leva Gallery, 1974, no. 9, ill. b/w and on the preview card. London, Camden Arts Centre, 1974-5, no. 18. Penzance, Newlyn Gallery, 1976, no. 3. London, Parkin Gallery, 1977, no. 17. London, Hayward Gallery, 1978, no. 14:10. Marseille, Galerie de la Vieille Charité, 1986. Swansea, Glyn Vivian Art Gallery, 1986, no. 45, ill. b/w Manchester, City Art Gallery, 2009, no. 33, ill. col. p. 118. Literature The London Bulletin, 1939, no. 17, ill. b/w p. 15. Colquhoun, 1979, ill. b/w p. 101. Ades, 1980, ill. b/w fig. 2. Chadwick, 1985, ill. b/w pl. 88. Battersby, 1995, ill. b/w pl. 35. Remy, 1999, pp. 204-5. Foster, 2004, ill. col. p. 85. Ferentinou, 2007, Chapter 5. Ratcliffe, 2007, ill. col. pl. 32. Allmer, 2009, ill col. pl. 33. Cardinal, 2009, pp. 40-41. This is the best known, most exhibited and most illustrated of Colquhoun’s works. It is her only oil painting in the English national collection. It is her most celebrated double image. The title refers to the myth of Scylla and Charybdis that occurs in Homer’s Odyssey and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In legend, Scylla, a beautiful maiden, was turned into a raging six-headed monster as a result of sexual jealousy among the gods. She attacked all seafarers who came within reach. A small boat nuzzles its way between two rocky pillars that rise from the sea and arch inward above it. The water is translucent, enabling the underwater forms of the rocks to be clearly seen, together with a conspicuous clump of red sea-weed. The image was inspired by what Colquhoun could see of her legs and lower torso whilst she was lying in the bath. The double images formed by rocky pillars/thighs and seaweed/pubic hair are early examples of the association between a woman’s body and the landscape which came to figure prominently in Colquhoun’s work. By inviting the viewer to gaze at her thighs and, as the boat noses its way between them, to imagine her sexual penetration, Colquhoun has transformed herself into a creature that is both irresistible and fatal. A number of commentators have concentrated upon a further double image, proposing that the pillars/thighs can also be read as a pair of penises. It his been further suggested that the disjunction between hard rock and soft flesh is emphasised by the way in which Colquhoun has painted the textures of the sexual organs: they appear as though flayed, exposing the subcutaneous tissues. To add to this a layer of gender confusion, it may be remarked that this is the way in which Colquhoun painted forms that can be interpreted as labial folds (e.g. Tree Anatomy, 1942; Alcove, 1946; Attributes of the Moon, 1947). Colquhoun (1981) denied that the pillars were consciously and explicitly phallic, whilst conceding, a little grudgingly, that they could be read in this way. When the pillars are read as penises, then their curvature to meet together at the top of the painting encourages the gap between them to be seen as a vaginal oval. When regarded in this way, in comparison to the size of the vagina, the penis/boat is very, very small. In addition to the disjunction between hard rock and soft flesh (be it thigh or penis), Cardinal (2009) points to a further oppositional relationship: the pleasure and relaxation of lying in the warm, still waters of the bath tub contrasted with the danger and discomfort of a mariner negotiating the terrors and turbulence of Scylla and Charybdis. The overall dimensions of Scylla contain the golden section. That is, the length of the shorter side is 62% (approximately) of the length of the longer side. The rectangular panel upon which the painting was executed is slightly too wide for this proportion, so Colquhoun painted a narrow stripe of grey paint along each vertical side to reduce the width of the painted image to the correct proportion. The golden section is also to be found within the composition itself. Thus, the level of the horizon is set at the golden section of the height of the painting. Markings on a study for the work indicate that the golden section has also determined the positioning of the apex of the left knee/rock/penis and of the seaweed/pubic hair. When first shown, at the Mayor Gallery in 1939, part of the gallery space was devoted to works by Roland Penrose. This picture of female sexual assertiveness must have made a strong contrast with works by Penrose such as Good Shooting (1938) and Octavia (1939) which portray passive, fragmented and fetishised woman’s bodies of the sort to which Scylla is such a powerful antidote. An obvious comparator is Frida Kahlo’s What the Water Gave Me. The two works must have been painted within months of each other, although it is extremely unlikely that either was aware of the other. Despite any surface similarity, the two works have little in common. Whilst Kahlo’s work is primarily autobiographical, full of personal and emotionally laden imagery, Colquhoun’s painting makes a universal point about woman’s place in nature. It may be thought that for a woman artist to take control over the depiction of her body in this way is a 20th century phenomenon, but this may not be so. Writing of the Gravettian-style female figures of the Upper Palaeolithic, McDermott (1996) proposed that the very first images ever made of the human figure (the so- called Venus figurines) were not made by men and that, far from being distorted and erotically charges images, in fact accurately represented what a woman artist could see of her herself as she looked down along her own length. (1) Other explanations, which are as numerous as commentators venturing an opinion, range from seeing the carvings as “fertility” symbols or “mother goddesses,” paleoerotica, or gynaecological primers. Scylla was the first of a sequence of seven paintings called, collectively, Méditerranée. The other works are L'Ancre (1939); Beau Gosse (1939); Gouffres Amers (1939); L'Helice (1939); Le Phare (1939) and Rivières Tièdes (1939). The cartoon for Scylla is known, and a small watercolour study. notes 1. McDermott, L. D. “Self-Representation in Upper Palaeolithic Female Figurines” Current Anthropology 37, 1996, 227-75.