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

the major themes

transitions and transformations Colquhoun’s art is an art of transformation. She had an enduring preoccupation with transient states; those moments of instability when something is neither one thing nor the other but possesses qualities of both. Moments such as these occur in the natural world, the human world and the realm of the spirit. Volcanoes, caves, rock pools, wells and fountains are places that can be said to form a permeable interface between the surface of the physical world and the underworld and, symbolically, between the physical and the spiritual worlds. At these places, Colquhoun envisaged streams of energy, generated within the Earth, emerging or erupting. She shows this clearly in Dance of the Nine Opals  (1942), where energy stream well up from a subterranean source. In a late text, “Pilgrimage”, published in 1979, she declared that the power that emerges at such nodal points spouts from the body of Hecate, the Great Earth Goddess. In this regard it is significant that when ceremonies are attempted by a man at the holy wells in “I Saw Water”, they are failures; only those performed by women succeed. Volcanoes were a private obsession. Between 1941 and 1979 there are seven paintings that feature volcanic activity in addition to several references in her writings. Eruptions record a process of flux and metamorphosis in which rock, naturally hard and motionless, becomes liquid and fluid. In fact, all the elements behave in a tempestuous manner: molten rock spews into the heated air, water boils and fire rages. Colquhoun also associated volcanoes with freedom, writing: ‘we cannot have liberty without repeated explosions’. (1) An eruption is a single, cataclysmic event, but nature also works slowly and imperceptibly. For example, the action of soft water on hard rock may eventually sculpt a cave. A cave is a place of ambiguity. At some point it changes from surface feature to subterranean structure. It may offer both protection and shelter but it can also trap and imprison. In mythology a cave is often an aperture that connects this world with the underworld. Because of their vulva-like entrance passages that penetrate into the earth, caves have been identified as the womb of Mother Earth, and associated with the mysteries of birth. The most memorable of her paintings of caves is Stalactite (1962) in which a tall phallic stalactite stands within the cave passage. It emerges from a watery pool, a potent symbol of female sexuality, and one that is that is strengthened by the appearance of a clitoris-shaped island at the end of the passageway. Paintings of rock pools (e.g. Rock Pool, c.1947), together with the Santa Warna series of watercolours and poems, bear witness to her long standing interest in the liminal zone where the land meets the sea, where the element water interacts with the element earth and which forms a gateway from the world of the living to the world of the dead. The defining feature of a rock pool is its transience: it exists only between high and low tides. The intertidal zone is thus a place of transition and transformation. At times belonging to the water and at times belonging to the land, at times wet and at times dry, at times fluid and at times solid, at times visible and at times concealed, it is a place that is neither one thing nor the other. Its existence is determined by tidal processes, themselves largely influenced by lunar forces. It is a dynamic area, intrinsically ambiguous, where water, the purifier, scours and cleanses the land. The ocean represents the chaos of creation out of which land is born. Water also stands for the instinctive and the unconscious; the land for autonomic biological processes which lie below the threshold of awareness. The foreshore is the place where consciousness is drowned and immersed in the unconscious and where material from the unconscious emerges into consciousness. In both myth and history the journey undertaken by the dead often starts with a journey over water. Emergence from the water symbolises rebirth. (2) In the Santa Warna myth, the saint emerges from the water and her womb-like coracle to start her new life. At the climax to “I Saw Water”, the heroine has to discard everything, including her name and her identity, before she can achieve the Second Death. She is cast naked upon the strand: She had been thrown up like a piece of flotsam at the edge of the tide … She lay with her back to the ocean, her left side dinting the moist sand and her head pillowed on a heap of gleaming seaweed, which mingled its tendrils with those of her hair … Now, a part of the strand itself, she felt the old dichotomies fall away from her – opposition between body and spirit or the differentiations of time and space no longer had a meaning.  Water was undoubtedly integral to the rites performed at prehistoric stone circles and influenced their placement near rivers and lakes. La Cathédrale Engloutie (1952) is one such temple that now straddles earth and water. Archaeologists agree that this is due to a rise in sea level that has occurred since prehistoric times. Typically, Colquhoun offered an contrary suggestion: ‘perhaps the daily immersion of this temple, dedicated to the powers of both sea and earth was intended by its builders. The watercolours that form the series Dance of the Nine Maidens (1940) are works that record transitions at megalithic monuments. Each contains the figure of a young woman within the outline of a standing stone; bodies in the process of petrification, from soft flesh to hard rock, from organic life to crystalline structure. The opposites are contained within each image. In Heart (1938), carved from chalk (a rock that is composed of the remains of once-living marine creatures) transformation is incorporated into the material itself as well as the subject matter: a soft, beating organ into hard, motionless stone. Transformative places are not exclusive to the natural world. Areas of the built environment may also serve as thresholds, marking stages in a physical journey and being used to demarcate steps on a, inner journey. Doorways, windows and stairs figure large, especially in her visual work. The Good Angel and the Evil Angel depicted in Marlowe's Faust (1931) leave and enter the stage by separate doors, whilst Humfry Payne (1935), a man with whom Colquhoun had a deeply conflicted relationship, is depicted standing in a doorway. In her first novel, “Goose of Hermogenes”, the Uncle has laid out consecutive rooms in his castle to reflect the successive stages of the alchemical quest. Doorways, or portals, of course, allow movement in two directions and what comes through may not always be welcome or benign. A short story, “The Return”, focuses upon this. (3) The portal is provided by a mirror. In the mundane world, a mirror can do no more than reflect the light that touches its surface. However, in the hands of a scryer, a mirror becomes a permeable surface allowing the operator to cross the boundary between spirit and matter. In her story, Colquhoun writes that the heroine  always sensed an uncanny quality in such reflecting surfaces – might not something more be returned than was put in? Colquhoun wrote of her own experiences of unwelcome astral visitors in a number of poems. “Wedding of Shades” (see Shillitoe and Morrisson, 2014) relates a nocturnal visitation of this sort. Notes 1. “The Water Stone of the Wise” (1943). 2. The inter-tidal zone (and, by implication high tide and low tide) is unexpectedly difficult to define with accuracy. What, for example, delineates its lower limit: is it mean low tide; mean spring low tide; mean neap low tide or lowest astronomical tide, the most extreme neap low tide water which only occurs every 18.6 years? And, how are moving sand banks to be treated? In the UK, the Supreme Court has adjudicated on these matters in a case concerning the right to collect shell fish on the foreshore (2016 UKSC14). 3. Unpublished. The typescript is at TGA 929/2/1/38.