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Ithell Colquhoun’s Magic of the Living Earth

Amy Hale



Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) is remembered as a Surrealist and magician, but these descriptors do little justice to the breadth and depth of her artistic and spiritual practice. She was likely one of the most dedicated and engaged female occultists of the 20th century and her command of Western Esotericism infuses the entire body of her creative work. Over the course of her life, she was involved with a variety of occult orders, including the O.T.O., Martinism, Co-Masonry, Druidry, and Golden Dawn-inspired orders, to name a few. She was astonishingly prolific, having created well over 5000 paintings and drawings in her lifetime. She also crafted scores of poems, short stories, essays, novels, and travelogues, many of which were never published.  She had an astonishing command of what she would have perceived as the Western Magical Tradition, with the Golden Dawn system being perhaps her deepest guiding force.  In her work we see a fusion of Kabbalah, alchemy, Golden Dawn color theory, nascent earth mysteries and “Celtic” mysticism. It is difficult to imagine how Colquhoun saw the world, experiencing every object as a web of deep correspondences, forces, and entities; a type of vision one can only cultivate after years of practice, study and embodiment.  

Although Colquhoun was a keen Hermeticist, she was also an animist who saw the earth as alive and possessing spirit and force.  Stones spoke to her; trees and caves were evidence of the Goddess showing her most raw and intimate self for those who would see.  For Colquhoun, the earth pulsed with electromagnetic currents sourced from underground fountains of energy. Antiquities were the beacons of these sites, marking their power.  Colquhoun believed that the ancient peoples who created temples of stone, and the early Christians who followed, had the ability to tap into this energy, to focus it, and to shape a repository for people to come and feel fulfilled by their connection to The Source. Throughout Colquhoun’s writing and sometimes her painting, we see her return to shrines and spaces that marked the human ability to commune with sites of power, telling a story about a spirit-filled earth.

Colquhoun’s animism is key to understanding her complex world view, although she joined many magical orders, skirted around the edges of esoteric Christianity and always championed recognition of the Divine Feminine as a way to bring the world back into alignment. At heart, she was motivated by the theory that every aspect of the planet was alive with divine energy and, importantly, that people could communicate with the landscape through practices that would allow them to cultivate their sensitivity.  Colquhoun’s worldview involved not only a living landscape but also layers and dimensions of reality populated by forces, spirits, and energies. This worldview is the thread that unites all of Colquhoun’s writing and art about the natural world.

Dreaming, trance work, and divination were all methods Colquhoun would use to help attune herself to the natural world and dimensions beyond.  She resonated deeply with the automatic processes of Surrealism because they relied upon practices that forced a conversation with other parts of the subconscious and with other realms. Colquhoun also believed that Celtic peoples in particular had special extrasensory gifts and were naturally more in tune with the landscape, and she assumed a Celtic identity to support her own perceptions of natural psychic sensitivity.  Although this belief is a deeply problematic position[1] to hold about a group of people, her beliefs about the spiritual receptivity of the Celts reinforced her long-term relationship with Celtic places and spaces.  She lived in Cornwall for over forty years, having been compelled by its Celtic history and culture and also the preponderance of megalithic monuments and sacred sites there.



Early Botanical Period and Surrealism

It is evident from Colquhoun’s earliest forays into Surrealism that she wished to convey the earth as sensual, vibrant and as holding secrets. From her earliest paintings and sketches through to her final years, she had a love of painting and drawing the natural world, and she particularly focused on close studies of flowers. In the mid-1930s, as Colquhoun was beginning her explorations into Surrealism, her botanical studies become more and more sexualized, with flowers and tree trunks morphing into lush vulvas and visual metaphors for penetration or sometimes impotence. Her pictures of flowers at this stage were detailed, and while not yet explicit, they were nevertheless intimate and sensual. She chose to paint and draw plants that were already rich with the possibility of double entendre: lilies, gloxinia, bananas and cacti, their true symbolic nature eager to be revealed. It would ultimately be her passion for the natural world and all its mysteries that provided her initial vehicle for the expressions of the mythic, the deeply sexual, and the surreal. Colquhoun’s botanically-based works are the representations of a vital landscape with which we can and should enter into conversation. Flowers and trees are not merely symbolic of sexual principles; they embody them, and they are emblematic of divinity and the sacred power of creation and possibly redemption.

As Colquhoun became more involved with Surrealism, her depictions of the natural world became more explicit. She progressively represented bolder sexual depictions of both the male and female form as seen through the lens of vegetation such as Double Coconut (1936) and Pitcher Plant (c. 1936) which is a thinly veiled portrayal of penetration.  In 1938, she produced a positively tumescent Aloe. By 1940, her eroticized nature forms engaged with a mythic, archetypal significance, representing the hopeful vitality of the earth and its redemptive potential in the shadow of war.  The Pine Family (1940 - above) is a stark lesson about the decaying state of humanity during the crisis of World War Two.  The Pine Family depicts driftwood on a beach representing a castrated male, female and hermaphrodite where all genitalia have been disfigured. The male figure is labeled “Atthis”, the female is “celle ce boite” or “the one who limps”, and the third figure is labeled “the circumcised hermaphrodite”. While this painting had internal references within the culture of Surrealism, The Pine Family explores similar themes as Elliot’s The Wasteland, representing Colquhoun’s exploration of the Frazerian myth of the fallen, castrated and resurrected fertility god also recalling the Fisher King with his wounded “thigh”[2].  



Antiquities as Portals

I am glad not to be an archaeologist, for my lack of status allows me simply to enjoy myself among antiquities. I can interpret them according to my own morphological intuitions without reference to any current orthodoxies or deference to any school of thought—even without strict regard to evidence[3].

Ancient monuments were, for Colquhoun, evidence of the genius of early humans, and a reminder of all that humans have forgotten about living in harmony with the land and harnessing its powers. The Neolithic/Bronze Age stone monuments dotting the landscape of Cornwall have inspired the antiquarian and esoteric imagination in Britain since at least the 17th century, when early antiquarians linked them to the Druids, hypothesizing that these were the ritual or astronomical sites of the ancient Britons.  Everyone from archaeologists to spiritual pilgrims have tried to penetrate the mysteries of these sites, to recover their original function, and tap into their ancient technologies.  Cornwall has one of the densest concentrations of megalithic monuments in Western Europe, which has only added to the mystical allure of the area and reinforced the belief that there is something ancient and powerful lurking just below the earth.  

While we know today that these stone sites were not artifacts of a Celtic civilization, the idea that the Celts were the inheritors of an ancient mystery tradition of the West, very likely transmitted to them by the mythical super human inhabitants of the sunken land of Atlantis, has remained a perennial facet of the lore of Western Esotericism. It is likely that the concentration of megalithic monuments, holy wells, and remnants of medieval sacred sites that Colquhoun would have encountered in her early visits to West Cornwall inspired her interests in sacred landscapes and even what would later be known as “earth mysteries”.  Colquhoun’s writings from the 1950s on sacred sites in Ireland and Cornwall, brought together a number of cultural and alternative spiritual influences of the early and mid-20th century. These included an increase in interest in pilgrimages to sacred sites in Britain, ley lines, and ideas about electromagnetic currents under the earth’s surface.  Although these theories merged in British subculture with the earth mysteries movement in the 1960s, Colquhoun was exploring ideas regarding ancient monuments functioning as interdimensional portals as early as the 1940s.

Although Colquhoun was likely inspired by Dion Fortune’s writing about sacred sites in the 1930s, in many ways, Colquhoun’s interest in sacred sites and their power was well ahead of her time. She was synthesizing a number of beliefs and fringe intellectual currents in Britain and other parts of Europe regarding the nature and origins of not only megalithic monuments, but all sacred sites, including ancient churches and stone crosses. It was in this milieu of ideas in the early 1940s, combined with her interests in other dimensions, that Colquhoun developed her theories about stone circles. In many ways, Colquhoun prefigured esoteric ideas about megalithic monuments that didn’t become widespread for approximately twenty-five years. Ley lines did not take on supernatural associations until the publication of John Michell’s The View Over Atlantis in 1969, though the idea of an ancient network of tracks connecting sacred sites had captivated British antiquarians since the 1921 publication of Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track.  However, Colquhoun’s work is consistent with the early twentieth century stirrings of what today is frequently referred to as “alternative archaeology”, where the past function of sites is speculated via unconventional or intuitive means. Fredrick Bligh Bond’s use of gematria and psychic readings at Glastonbury Abbey in 1917 were early examples with which Colquhoun would have been familiar.

Colquhoun produced many studies of Cornish stones over the central decades of her life.  Around 1940, Colquhoun completed some very early and quite rough watercolor sketches of Cornish monuments, the Men an Tol and Lanyon Quoit, although she displayed no further evidence of the complexity of her thought around these monuments.  Within a couple of years, however, Colquhoun developed some unique full studies of the Nine Maidens/Merry Maidens and the Men an Tol that suggest the merging of a variety of complex esoteric theories about the nature and role of the monuments ranging from wells of energy coming from the earth to, potentially, her research into other dimensions. These paintings are unique and complex and we see nothing else like them in the rest of her oeuvre.

In 1941/42, Colquhoun completed two outstanding paintings of Neolithic or Bronze Age monuments, The Dance of the Nine Opals (1941 - below left) and The Sunset Birth (c. 1942 - below right), which display the most sophisticated articulation of Colquhoun’s theories around sacred sites and which merit slightly more discussion than some of her other sacred landscape works. These complex paintings include a number of ideas and theories that Colquhoun was working on quite feverishly, yet they never seemed to blossom into a major body of work. In the early 1940s, Colquhoun was concentrating theoretically and artistically on energy flows and portals, and these take shape in a number of her artistic projects at the time, including these particular works on Cornish stone monuments.   Her lifelong obsession with the fourth dimension and tesseracts is also reflected in the sketches of Dance of the Nine Opals.  In these luminous and visually complicated paintings, she explores a wealth of ideas around the megalithic monuments as energy conduits at points in the earth that can act upon the energy centers present in the human body.  These theories intersected with her wider esoteric thinking at the time, and they are early articulations of what she would refer to as “the living stones”.  Colquhoun’s usage of this phrase may have had its source in Ouspensky’s Tertium Organium, which itself may have been inspired by Peter 2:5 : “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”

Dance of the Nine Opals (left) is multi-sourced in its inspiration and, like a number of her magical landscapes, combines a collage of features. The painting features a circle of nine quartz like stones, with whirls of primary colors mingling at the center. The earth beneath them is red, the sky is a dark indigo and they are surrounded by white mountains, which are fictional to this landscape in Cornwall, suggesting an even more liminal quality to the work. The stones are linked by a green ring, with a green central causeway bisecting the circle, originating in the distance and extending out into the mountainous landscape, passing through the center of the two pillar stones, perhaps suggesting that this monument is only one on a well-worn path.  From under the center of the stone circle emerges a golden fountain which cascades back down underground, creating a sphere of thin yellow lines connecting each of the stone.  The stones are also connected to each other through an intricate web of red threads.  

The stone circle in this painting is most likely modeled on the beautiful Merry Maidens stone circle in West Cornwall.  Unlike her painting, which shows nine stones, the Merry Maidens contain nineteen stones in near pristine condition with a well-trodden pathway running through the center, which is most likely the result of modern travelers and not part of the original design.  Outside the circle are two larger stones known as “The Pipers”, and in Colquhoun’s rendering, two stones stand as guardians to the main circle on either side of the pathway bisecting the monument. It is notable that there are a number of stone monuments in Britain called “The Nine Maidens”, including two of them in Cornwall which likely appealed to Colquhoun’s mythic sensibilities.  The lore of these sites, as with many stone circles, was that the stones were women turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath.  Colquhoun refers to this by the legendary term “hexentanz” or “Witches’ Dance” and around 1942, Colquhoun completed some delicate watercolor enhanced sketches on onion skin which show beautiful naked witches frozen in the stones mid dance.

Colquhoun wrote a short essay to describe the complexity and variety of visual themes in Dance of the Nine Opals.  Although Colquhoun’s essay regarding this painting is almost uncharacteristically vague in terms of a single motivating theory, the image itself reveals a clear set of underlying principles: that the stones are in some way animated intelligences, that they conduct energy, and that these sites themselves are conduits for some sort of subterranean electromagnetic currents. In her essay about the painting she refers to the golden fountain of energy as a “Fountain of Hecate”. This phrase was later made popular by Kenneth Grant, but here Colquhoun refers to the idea which entered Western Esotericism through the popularization of the Chaldean Oracles that there are power centers of the earth associated with the Goddess Hecate, presented in the Oracles as a life-giving force.

Other suggestions for the origin of the painting that Colquhoun addresses in her essay reinforce the idea that these sites were built on top of power sites already existing in the landscape that early peoples were in some ways attuned to.  This idea is reinforced through references to anecdotes of witches meeting at these sites for rituals or the use of these locations for fertility rituals such as Maypole dances.  For Colquhoun, the number of correspondences that any given circumstance or image can be tied to is evidence of its significance.  She also notes that the number nine is that of the astrological planets plus Vulcan and Pluto, which is also the number of the earthbound sephiroth under the more ethereal Kether, which is also the nine months of human gestation, which again reinforces the idea of fertility as a central principle of the usage of the site.

Colquhoun would often take one theory and apply it to various contexts to see how well it would fit.  During this period in from 1939-1943, she was synthesizing a number of ideas about extra dimensions and energy flows that she applied to human bodies and landscapes. Colquhoun was fascinated by the fourth dimension, and the idea that a spiritual adept could access other dimensions was foundational to her art. One of Colquhoun’s sketches from this time reveals other layers of theory that connect her landscape work with other magical art projects she was completing during this period.  These projects include her early interest in tesseracts and also in energy transmission and their impact on the human body. In some watercolor sketches, Colquhoun encapsulates these stone monuments within a tesseract, employing the same color schemes that she used for her other tesseract and cube of space sketches.  This suggests that Colquhoun actually viewed megalithic monuments as extra dimensional portals built by adepts of an ancient wisdom tradition.

The second subject of Colquhoun’s landscape energy studies is the Men an Tol, a highly unusual monument in West Cornwall consisting of a granite ring flanked by two short pillars.  The Men an Tol, which means “holed stone” in Cornish, sits alone on a gentle, barren hill in West Cornwall. It is quite small, and it almost emerges as a breathtaking surprise when one comes upon it. When Cornish antiquarian William Borlase sketched the monument in the late 18th century, the alignment was different, with the holed stone to the side of the two pillars[4].  These unusual stones have had a long local association with healing.  They are said to cure every condition from rickets to infertility as long as the afflicted passes through the center stone in the right way at the correct hour.  

The Sunset Birth has similar features to Dance of the Nine Opals, yet Colquhoun was clearly looking at different energetic aspects of the monuments, with the primary distinction being that The Sunset Birth references the impact of the monument on the energy centers of the body.  Both The Sunset Birth and Dance of the Nine Opals address themes that Colquhoun seemed to be exploring in a number of esoteric contexts. In addition to her interest in extra dimensional portals, during this time we also see her intense theorizing on sex magic and her visual attempts to represent of the sexual act with an abstracted conjunction of energy channels in conjoined human bodies. This a visual theme which also emerges in The Sunset Birth.

The stones in The Sunset Birth (right) are not the crystalline crucibles that we see in Dance of the Nine Opals.  The landscape and sky are very sparse, but the stones themselves are bright. The stone on the left is a deep blue, the stone on the right is a yellow orange and the center ring is red, echoing the trinity of primary colors which represent synthesis and fulfillment of unity.  As with Dance of the Nine Opals, the stones are linked together by subterranean energy lines.  Through the center stones is a faintly visible figure of a woman who is clutching the pillar stones and who is passing through the center stone.  We don’t see her flesh, only her energy which remains in streams of red, yellow and blue.  The Men an Tol here is functioning as some sort of battery which can act upon the energy channels of the human body.  Sadly, Colquhoun did not elaborate on these paintings, and the landscapes and antiquities she completes after this time are somewhat more conventional, although they are still emblematic of her animistic views on energy embodied in a highly sexualized landscape. The cover of The Living Stones shows the Mên Scrifa, an early medieval inscribed stone, not-so-subtly penetrating the earth, while other sketches for the book reveal a cave which transforms into a huge vulva.  The latter was not used in the publication.

The ways in which the land could serve as a conduit for sacred experiences was a recurring theme in both her visual work and her writing, especially notable in her travelogues from the 1950s The Crying of the Wind: Ireland (1955) and The Living Stones: Cornwall (1957), which were snapshots of her experiences of the landscapes and people of Ireland and Cornwall respectively.  In the 1950s, spiritual and cultural innovators such as Wellesley Tudor Pole, Margaret Keturah Fulleylove Thornley, Cornish activist Robert Morton Nance, and others were promoting a return to pilgrimage and the veneration of sacred sites in order to promote a renewal of the British spirit after the devastation of World War Two.  They were especially interested in promoting sites associated with St. Michael, whom they believed had the ability to cleanse darkness from the landscape.  The Crying of the Wind and The Living Stones showed how Colquhoun used pilgrimage, veneration, and offerings at ancient sites as a way of connecting with the energies that were concentrated there[5].  In The Crying of the Wind, Colquhoun retreats to antiquities and sites such as Tara and Crough Patrick to gain solace from the poverty and desolation she saw in mid-century Ireland. These places represent to her a time when the people were more in alignment with their true Celtic spirit.  In The Living Stones, her pilgrimages are conveyed with slightly more joyous veneration, yet at the heart of both texts lies the cautionary tale that modernization and urbanization will only further dampen the relationship that people can forge with the land and with their ancestors.



Colquhoun’s animist legacy

In third decade of the twenty-first century, Colquhoun is revered as a spiritual and artistic ancestor in her beloved Cornwall, a magical soul who was deeply connected to the power of the local landscape. Artists, witches, and magicians in Cornwall have built altars to her memory and conjure art and magic inspired by her work. One such community project, “Ancient Scent”, wove art, ritual and automatism together at sacred sites of West Cornwall which Colquhoun so deeply loved.  Steve Patterson creator of the Ancient Scents project wrote:

“The tale begins back in 2015 when a group of artists, performers, writers, and sorcerers gathered together in Lamorna Village Hall in West Cornwall and hatched a fiendish plan to invoke the genius loci of Lamorna Valley, with the Surrealist artist and occultist Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) as our guiding force and tutelary spirit[6].”

Over the course of a year, artists would meet monthly for workshops where they conducted rituals, completed divinations, and created art based on Colquhoun’s automatic techniques.   The year concluded with an exhibition in Lamorna Village hall, complete with an altar to Colquhoun herself.  Very likely Colquhoun would have been delighted by finally having been understood and recognized for her love of landscape and the idea that there were others working with these principles to honor the living spirit of the land and to preserve it for future generations. Colquhoun hated incursions of modernity and urbanity, and she especially hated the noise that came with it.  What would please her spirit most would be a concerted effort to encourage people to embrace silence and to just listen to the landscape itself.


[1] Malcolm Chapman in his 1992 The Celts: Construction of a Myth demonstrates the cultural tropes that have been attributed to Celtic cultures over the centuries.

[2] Whitney Chadwick has also commented about the references in The Pine Family that the label “Celle ce boite” is a reference to the Surrealist passion for the Willhelm Jensen novel Gradiva, known as “she who strides.”  

[3] Ithell Colquhoun, The Crying of the Wind (1955) p. 147

[4] William Borlase, Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall.

[5] cf Rupert White, The Reenchanted Landscape (2017)

[6] Steve Patterson, “Robert Lenkiewicz, Ithell Colquhoun, 'Ancient Scent' and an alchemical experiment!” http://www.artcornwall.org/features/Steve_Patterson_Robert_Lenkiewicz.htm


Works Cited

Borlase, William.  Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall. London: Bowyer and Nichols, 1979.

Chadwick, Whitney.  Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

Chapman, Malcolm. The Celts, Construction of a Myth. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.

Colquhoun, Ithell. The Crying of the Wind. London: Peter Owen Publishing, 1955

White, Rupert The Reenchanted Landscape: Earth Mysteries, Paganism and Art in Cornwall Antenna 2017



see link for interview with Amy Hale http://www.artcornwall.org/interviews/Amy_Hale/Amy_Hale_Ithell_Colquhoun.htm

Amy Hale's Genius of the Fern Loved Gully is available from www.strangeattractor.co.uk

This article was first published in The Enquiring Eye #3 2020