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Ithell Colquhoun (1906 - 1988)

Autumnal Equinox, 1949

Catalogue essay by Richard Shillitoe

Ithell Colquhoun was an artist and writer whose works were heavily influenced by surrealism and her various spiritual beliefs. This painting shows clear evidence of both. Its large size indicates the origin of the image: the pattern perceived by her in the artificial wood graining of a painted door. As she wrote: ”a huge figure seemed to walk straight out of the door and advance towards me.” It is an example of surrealist automatism: using an image found, but not made, by the artist as her inspiration. She then developed the image by means of conventional brushwork. For the surrealists, such images came from the artist’s personal unconscious, but Colquhoun believed that because contact with spirits and elementals was possible, they often came from other realms. The sets of concentric circles relate to the chakras, the Tantric power centres of the subtle body, although their number and distribution are personal and not conventional. Colquhoun was not in favour of trying to understand a painting by rational analysis: viewers should enjoy it for what they see – an imposing female figure drawn from Colquhoun’s subconscious or the spirit world and whose presence commands both attention and respect.

x W81cm
Oil on canvas
Colquhoun, Ithell

Ithell Colquhoun (1906 - 1988)

Ithell Colquhoun studied at Cheltenham Art School (1925 - 7) and the Slade School of Fine Art (1927 - 31), winning joint first prize in the 1929 Summer Composition Competition. After discovering Surrealism in Paris in 1932, she held her first solo exhibition at Cheltenham Art Gallery in 1936 and in 1939 joined the British Surrealist Group, showing alongside Roland Penrose at the Mayor Gallery that June. She was particularly interested in automatic painting and how it could unlock not just the unconscious mind but also the mystical. Despite her expulsion from the British Surrealist Group in 1940 due to her increasing preoccupation with the occult, Colquhoun remained active in Surrealist circles; she was married to Toni del Renzio from 1943 - 48. She wrote and illustrated numerous books, including The Living Stones: Cornwall (1957), and exhibited in London at the Leicester Galleries and with the London Group, as well as in Regional galleries and abroad. She took part in several Surrealist retrospectives in the 1970s, including a solo show at the Newlyn Gallery in 1976, and the terms of her will bequeathed her studio (over 3000 works) to the National Trust, which in 2019 was transferred to Tate.