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


toni del renzio Toni del Renzio (1915 – 2007) was a man of great energy and ability. He also had the capacity to inspire deep loathing, perhaps linked with envy, in many of the people who knew him. This is especially true of his early years in England. As a result, his attempts to reenergise the moribund surrealist group were a spectacular failure and led only to personal vilification. His efforts in this regard and the personal animosities have been dealt with in detail by Silvano Levy (1). Some were suspicious of him from the start. A Russian by birth, he arrived in England via Italy and France in 1938. Initially he seems to have associated himself with the right-wing Count Potocki, who published woodcuts by him in his journal the Right Review. He also designed the costumes for a ballet Midas, performed in 1939. By the autumn of 1941 he had made contact with the Birmingham surrealists, John and Robert Melville and Conroy Maddox. Writing to Henry Treece, Maddox reported that del Renzio claimed that while in France he had worked with Bunuel on film, designed for Vogue and shared accommodation with Dali and De Chirico. “I imagine he has painted at least half of Picasso’s paintings”, he added maliciously. (2) Nevertheless, by January 1942 del Renzio and Maddox were collaborating on a proposed surrealist periodical, Arson, and Colquhoun, who had not yet met either, was sending prose pieces to Maddox enquiring about their suitability for Arson. It turned out there was no room for any of her work (although there was for material by Marguerite Salle and Emmy Bridgwater with both of whom del Renzio was ‘involved’). Within the pages of Arson he mocked the New Apocalypse movement with with Colquhoun was slightly involved (see here), calling it the “New Apoplexy” and derided Colquhoun’s recent paintings as “sterile abstractions”. Despite this unpromising start, hostilities between del Renzio and Colquhoun ceased long enough for them to start an affair, for him to move into her studio, and for her to pay the debts he had incurred by the financial failure of Arson, thereby saving him from bankruptcy. (3) They married on 10 July 1943 (Maddox was a witness), separated in the winter of 1946 and divorced in 1947. Del Renzio undoubtedly shared her interest in the occult, once telling an interviewer, perhaps with tongue in cheek “My ambition is to paint a picture on each facet of the philosopher’s stone.” (4) How far their relationship and their shared interests inspired the other’s artwork and poetry is difficult to say, but the correct answer is probably not a lot. There is certainly no evidence of the sort of creative partnership between them that characterised surrealist couples such as Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer, Alice Rahon and Wolfgang Paalen  or Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy. There is little more than the manuscript of a poem by del Renzio illustrated with automatic vignettes by Colquhoun and a small number of jointly written surrealist poems. The poems all have a strong sexual element; in del Renzio’s case his contributions are better described as carnal rather than erotic. Each wrote about myth and sexuality in the pages of the surrealist section of “New Road 1943” that was edited by del Renzio, suggesting that sexuality at a theoretical level must have been a subject of discussion and debate between them – as, indeed, it was for many surrealists. Within the section, del Renzio wrote about sexuality in a rather confusing text, The Light that will Cease to Fail. In it, he referred to “the sexual element in the unconscious reality of the Surrealist Group” and proclaimed that the surrealist voice reveals “metamorphosis, initiation, monogamy, freedom.” He went on to evoke the names of Breton and Engels as authorities for his claim that the most revolutionary sexual attitude is ‘the monogamic tendency’ before concluding that ‘The New Myth, monogamy, both intimately related to liberty, these are the rewards of Surrealist lucidity, furnished us by revelation, initiation.’ In Colquhoun’s piece “The Water Stone of the Wise” the New Myth was ‘the myth of the Siamese Twins’, the hermaphrodite whole. Taking the two texts together, one may conclude that del Renzio used ‘monogamy’ in the same way that Colquhoun used ‘hermaphrodite whole’, to indicate that true revelation, true liberty, is the move beyond gender opposites to attain the timeless and united state of the androgyne; of two people or two souls combined into one. They may have been thinking of each other and they may have been thinking of the whole of human kind, but alas, in their personal lives the conjunction of opposites proved to be temporary; monogamy was not maintained, at least on del Renzio’s part, and the short-lived marriage ended in disjunction and separation. After their divorce, Colquhoun maintained a bitter hatred of him until the end. He was, she wrote many years later, “a conman on the dole”, a liar and a homosexual, whose Romanov lineage was a fantasy. These allegations say more about Colquhoun’s state of mind than they do about del Renzio’s ethics and behaviours, but her loathing was unabated. In old age del Renzio was interviewed as part of the “National Life Stories Collections: Artist's Lives” project. He blamed the breakdown of the marriage largely on her self-centredness. No doubt she could have said exactly the same about him. (5) Notes 1. Levy, S. The del Renzio Affair: A leadership struggle in wartime surrealism. Papers of Surrealism, issue 3. 2005. See also Toni del Renzio in Extremis: Alter Ego and Doppelganger. Papers of surrealism, issue 6, 2007. Both articles are online, but the links appear to be unstable. 2. Maddox’s letters to Treece are in the Treece papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. 3. Legal papers relating to the bankruptcy action are at the National Archives, Ref 89/1384. 1000 copies of Arson had been printed, at a cost of £105, but only £35 was recovered from sales.  The title was inspired by a book by Nicolas Calas, ‘Foyers d’incendie’ (Hearths of Arson), published in 1938. 4. Sorrell, M. 1944. So this is Surrealism. The Queen. 20 September,17-18 & 32. One of del Renzio’s essays, written during their marriage, “Lustful Breezes make the Grass Sweetly Tremble”, Polemic No 3, 1946, 33- 42, makes much of Sandro Botticelli’s apparent use of qabalistic and alchemical imagery. 5. The tapes are in the British Library. The tape that concerns Colquhoun is part 21.