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Ithell Colquhoun (1906 - 1988)

Nativity, 1929

In this picture, Colquhoun subverts the traditional language of male painterly tradition to represent the Biblical Nativity in terms of the modern woman’s experience. Mary, whose unidealised body is semi-naked with bright red nipples, looks out at the viewer in anguish, while Joseph overbearingly squeezes her arm. Mary’s long pellucid fingers with red painted nails encircle the baby Jesus, who is reduced to a series of semi-abstract shapes.

This picture is accompanied by a copy of a letter from Toni del Renzio, Ithell Colquhoun’s husband, stating The Nativity was created circa 1929 whilst Colquhoun was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art. Indeed, the number 64 on the front of the work can be found on a number of other works from the same period (including the Self Portrait in the Ruth Borchard collection) and is thought to relate either to a competition into which the work may have been entered, or Colquhoun’s student identification number at the Slade.


We are grateful to Richard Shillitoe for his assistance.

x W51cm
Oil 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.