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

artistic development:

travels in the Mediterranean On graduating from the Slade School, Colquhoun spent some time travelling and studying abroad. Many of the 91 works that she exhibited at her first one-person show (at Cheltenham, in 1936) consisted of drawings and watercolours of her travels through the Mediterranean. Her destinations included France, Greece, Teneriffe and Corsica. She has written that she studied abroad, (1) but there is no evidence that she followed any formal course of study.  Many of the works that she completed are topographical but there are also a number of domestic interiors. In these works Colquhoun gives early indications of a life-long interest in moments of change. Later, this would focus on change in the natural world or in spiritual states, but here it is more mundane. Human figures are always absent, but their recent traces remain. Images of a bed, still unmade, from which the occupant has recently departed (Bed lI - Greece 1933), of discarded clothes (Clothes in a Heap – Greece, 1933) are good examples. Similarly, when she painted buildings, she concentrated on architectural features that enable movement and transition, especially entrances and doorways (Doorway, Corsica, 1936; Gateway, Corsica, 1936). It is noteworthy that Colquhoun’s portrait of the archaeologist, Humfry Gilbert Garth Payne (1935), with whom she was then having an intense but ambiguous relationship, depicts him standing in a doorway, in neither one room nor another; neither coming nor going. There is more on their relationship here. All these works possess an air of stillness, emptiness and detachment. Beds are not made, clothes lie abandoned on chairs, windows are shuttered, doors are closed and gates fastened. High walls hem the viewer in (Gateway, 1937; Village Lane Corsica, 1937). There is no-one to be seen. It is like boarding the Mary Celeste: the crew has just gone. Colquhoun seems to have arrived the moment after the population has departed. Individually, an empty room, a doorway, a blank window or a deserted street may appear psychologically neutral, but cumulatively they are not. We are in the presence of absence. Their emptiness is not benign; they provoke anxiety. They give rise to a sense of exclusion – a paradox in which the viewer feels rejected from the image under observation. This sinister quality culminates in paintings of the Méditerranée series, in particular Rivières Tièdes (1939) in which a closed church is seen from the outside, and Interior (1939) in which the grand room is empty of both people and furniture. The fascination with, and the horror of, emptiness surely has its origins in the artist’s own psychological makeup. It mirrored her own personal, emotional life and her endeavours to forge links with occult, artistic and titerary groups that were so frequently thwarted. Her fate was to be an observer, seldom, and for long,  a participant. Notes: 1. Colquhoun, I. Introduction to exhibition catalogue, Ithell Colquhoun: Surrealism, Paintings, Drawings,  Collages 1936-76. Penzance: Newlyn-Orion Galleries, 1976.
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