ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

susanna and the elders


Oil on canvas. 30 x 21in. (76.2 x 53.3cm.) Signed ‘Colquhoun’ upper right. Provenance The Simon Carter Gallery, Woodbridge, Suffolk, late 1970s. Sotheby’s, 14 March 1979, lot 88. Exhibited London, New Burlington Galleries, 1932. Woodbridge, Simon Carter Gallery, 1970s. London, Parkin Gallery, 1977, no. 2. The painting depicts an episode from the Biblical Book of Daniel in which two elders hatch a plot to confront and seduce Susanna whilst she is bathing by threatening to accuse her of adultery. Susanna stands in a stream, naked and at ease. She makes no attempt to conceal her nakedness. The elders, in modern clothing, loll on the stream bank watching her. In the back-ground, a powerful waterfall issues from a cave. Susanna stands next to the tall stump of a tree. A small rock, resembling a miniature menhir, is set in the earth immediately adjacent to one of the elders. No artist in the twentieth century could paint a naked woman next to a standing tree trunk without being ware of phallic associations. Nor could the presence of a phallic-shaped rock within easy stroking reach of the elder’s right hand be an accident. The lopped tree trunk is an early example of this favourite image of emasculation. It appears again in later works such as Gouffres Amers (1939) and The Pine Family (1940). The masturbatory allusion is another reference to male sexual inadequacy. The cave and waterfall, both traditional symbols of woman’s natural powers, reinforce the sexually charged nature of the composition. The church that lies beyond the viaduct is remote and unreachable. Its isolation emphasises its irrelevance to the drama being played out in the foreground. The subject of Susanna bathing was a popular subject for artists who generally accentuated the erotic and voyeuristic aspect of Susanna’s plight as she attempted to conceal her nakedness. Colquhoun’s Susanna, however, shows no shame, defensiveness, or modesty. This is an assertive, confident woman who does not accept the dominance of men. Here it is the men who are vulnerable, surrounded by emblems of their impotence and inadequacy. An ink study is with the NT.