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Ithell Colquhoun (1906 - 1988)

Kelp Gathering, 1949

Catalogue essay by Richard Shillitoe

In 1949, the National Cash Register Company decided to commission a mural painting for the main entrance hall in their new factory in Dundee. They asked the Royal Society of Arts to organise a competition to find a suitable work. The subject set for the panel was The Scottish Scene and entrants were free to embody any theme of their choice, within the overall framework of the Scottish Scene. From the designs submitted, fifty were selected for an exhibition which opened in London and toured venues in Scotland before closing in Belfast. Kelp Gathering was Colquhoun’s unsuccessful entry for the competition. Although Colquhoun had established her reputation in the late 1920s-early 1930s as a painter of figure compositions (including her prize-winning Judith Showing the Head of Holofernes, 1929, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1931), by the time Kelp Gathering was painted figures had all but disappeared from her compositions. Instead, she was busy pursuing her occult research and experimenting with the automatic painting techniques she had learned from the surrealists. As well as being unusual in this respect, Kelp Gathering, with its depiction of rural poverty, is one of the few (if not the only) paintings of any period that engages in social comment. Despite its leanings towards figuration, the painting nevertheless includes many surrealist techniques. In a marginal note to a full size watercolour study for this work in the Tate archives, Colquhoun listed: “Textiles. creels: vertical comage (fine); tweeds: diagonal comage (fine); kelp: coarse comage; grass: fine comage; fur, hair: decalcomania; rocks, stones: grattage”. This painting remained in the artist’s possession until 1986 when it was acquired by the art dealer Victor James. In an email to Richard Shillitoe dated 13 March 2011, he wrote: “I visited the artist in 1986 and purchased the painting from her then. I wanted to buy an oil and she had little to sell but fished this picture out from behind a cupboard! It looked as if it had been there for many years. She told me it had been done or inspired by a trip to Donegal, but did not give it a specific title. I subsequently sold it, which I now regret, to a gallery in Bath, who I think then consigned it in 1988 to Christies.”
x W91.4cm
Oil and wax on canvas, Signed
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.