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Ithell Colquhoun (1906 - 1988)

Crane Flowers, 1935

Catalogue essay by Blanche Llewellyn

Identifying as “a poet in words, collages, paintings, and constructions,” Ithell Colqhoun’s lifelong fascination with surrealism, alchemy, and the occult imbued her art with a transformative essence. The origins of her influences are diverse, stemming from André Breton’s call to surrealists to transform the world, the alchemists’ attempts to transform matter and from the magicians’ endeavour to transform themselves. During her stay in Paris in 1931, Colqhoun studied paintings by Salvador Dali and other surrealist painters.  While the strong influence of this group in her imagery was mainly seen after 1936 when the international surrealist exhibition opened in London, nonetheless, her technical engagement with surrealism was evident in early pieces such as “Crane Flowers.”

Colquhoun’s first oil painting of flowers was conceived in 1935. In a burst of sustained creative activity, she produced a series of work on the theme, twenty-five items in all, for her first solo London show, “Exotic Plant Decorations”, held in 1936. Flowers and plants remained a recurring theme in Colqhoun’s work throughout her life, undoubtedly serving as symbols of the eternal cycle of death and rebirth inherent in our existence. In Colqhoun’s artworks, plants represented the magic of nature, fertility, and creativity, while also serving as symbols of sex and gender. The surrealists, in their quest to transform perceptions, challenge boundaries, and redefine reality, placed a strong emphasis on eroticism and sex. Colqhoun’s fascination with plants and nature, especially exotic varieties, that sometimes resembled sexual organs, reflects her quest and exploration of this theme in her own artistic journey.

x W36cm
Signed, 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.