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Medea’s charms: the writings of Ithell Colquhoun

Ithell Colquhoun (photograph below left by Man Ray) is best known as a Surrealist artist. Her occult-infused novel, 'I Saw Water', unavailable during her lifetime, has now been published by Pennsylvania State University. Richard Shillitoe who co-edited the text, describes the book and its context.



Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) was a highly original creative force who expressed herself through painting, collage, poetry, novels, short stories and topographical books. This diversity was bound together by an animistic view of the universe in which, in some mystical sense, all matter is alive and interconnected. It is a refrain that runs through all her work, being especially evident in her best known book, The Living Stones: Cornwall (1958). It is contained within the title itself, just as it is in the title of her earlier book on Ireland, The Crying of the Wind (1956). In her world, both literal and metaphorical, stones live and the wind cries.

Colquhoun was drawn to Cornwall as a place where spiritual and earth forces are constantly revealed through standing stone, holy well and natural rock formation. She spent much time in trying to engage with these natural forces through divination, meditation and the study of occult theory. Her association with the Land’s End Peninsula, established during childhood holidays, was resumed during frequent trips to escape from wartime London. In 1949 she purchased a rudimentary tin-roofed wooden studio in the Lamorna Valley which she named Vow Cave. This was uninhabitable during winter, but in 1959 she was able to buy Polgreen Cottage in Paul (later renaming it Stone Cross Cottage) and saw no need for further relocations. She lived there until her death in 1988. Much of her writing was done in Cornwall and much of it reflects its ambience. Her literary talents, however, had already been evident for many years, initially finding expression in the essay format.

One constantly present theme in her essays is the magical. It was displayed in her first publication, The Prose of Alchemy (1930), a lengthy essay that celebrates the rich poetic imagery found in many of the classical alchemical texts of previous centuries. It was written whilst she was a student at the Slade School of Art and published in G.R.S. Mead’s influential journal of Gnosticism and esotericism, The Quest. Mead had been part of Helene Blavatsky’s inner circle in the 1880's but he had resigned following internal schisms within the Theosophical Society and formed the Quest Society. Colquhoun’s essay was later described by the poet David Gascoyne as “one of the best, most stimulating, short introductions to the subject of alchemy considered as imaginative literature that exists in English”.

A later essay The Mantic Stain (1949) was the first article to be published in English on automatism, the method practiced extensively by the surrealists (as well as many mediums) for finding inspiration in apparently random blots, smudges and stains, into which they ‘read’ images or built narratives. In trying to get beyond conscious, rational control, Colquhoun herself practiced many automatic methods for generating images or word combinations and associations.

In another essay, The Night Side of Nature (1953), she attempted to reconcile contemporary science and the apparently discredited old world-view of the animists and the alchemists. She defended the so-called pathetic fallacy, proposing that Man is subjected to the same forces that impel the rest of nature. She drew parallels between human psychology and natural phenomena, regarding, for example, the ‘splitting’ of the psyche as described by contemporary psychiatrists as essentially the same process that splits rocks such as shale and slate. Geoffrey Taylor, the literary editor of The Bell, the foremost Irish literary periodical of the time, praised the lucidity of her writing and described the essay as “elegant and ingenious – the most persuasive account of the new astrology that I’ve seen”.

Other writings on esoteric themes range from the popular to the recondite. The series of articles written for Prediction magazine were intended for a general audience, whereas the essay in which she speculated that women are more evolved than men because their bodies contain more orifices must have been understood (or taken seriously) by a much smaller audience!

Poetry and short stories
Throughout her life she published poems, short stories and translations of French poetry in literary magazines. She is well known for her links with the surrealist group in London just before World War II, but it is rarely appreciated that for a short period in the 1940s she was also associated with the New Apocalypse writers. Largely forgotten today, The New Apocalypse was a post-surrealist Romantic movement whose leading lights, the poets Henry Treece and Jim Hendry, thought highly of her work, especially the psychological insights shown in her short stories. They planned to include her work in Apocalyptic anthologies. However, the war and personal animosities put paid to their collaborations. In fact this was Colquhoun’s constant fate; to be on the periphery of groups, seldom fully accepted, sometimes expelled. Behind great personal charm she had a steely determination and refusal to compromise that was off-putting to many. Even today, despite being the most original of the British surrealists, she has never been properly recognised by art or literary critics, or by the general public who seldom have the opportunity to view or read her work.

Two slender collections of poetry and prose writings were published during her life: Grimoire of the Entangled Thicket (1973) and Osmazone ten years later in 1983. Both were illustrated with her own drawings. The eight poems in the Grimoire owe much to Robert Graves’ theorising about Celtic mythology and the White Goddess. They form part of a series of twenty two poems – one each for the thirteen month Celtic lunar calendar plus nine for the pagan festivals that mark the year’s progression.

Osmazone is a strange but representative compilation that includes both poems and short prose pieces. There is a poem about the anus, a short story in which a woman applying for a position in a modelling agency includes in her CV jobs in which she has modelled for enemas and gynaecological examinations. A short autobiographical text deals with her menarche, whilst a ‘found-object poem’ lists varieties of condoms. There is a surrealist group-poem in which each participant contributes a line in ignorance of what has gone before, whilst another poem gives tonsorial advice to a member of a family of Breton nationalists. It is a shame that it was published in such a small edition (only 200 copies) and is very hard to find today.

Other Writings
In addition to her two published travel books she wrote another, The Blue Anoubis, based on a Nile journey undertaken in 1966, and also illustrated with her own drawings. The book is raised above the level of a travelogue by her regular and detailed comments on Egyptian gods and godesses: “It is amusing”, she wrote, “to classify the deities of the pantheon, according to their morphology, under the various zodiacal signs”, before proceeding to tabulate their attributes. Maybe so, but this must also have limited its appeal to any prospective publisher.

In 1968 she was asked by the editor to contribute a series of articles on holiday destinations to The Times Educational Supplement. This she did with gusto, in one instance offering readers unexpected information regarding archangels.

Colquhoun’s first novel was Goose of Hermogenes, published in 1961 but written over twenty years previously. On the surface, it is about the heroine’s relationship with her uncle who lives on his island retreat and engages in esoteric experimentation, the ultimate aim of which is to conquer death. The heroine undergoes trials involving separation and purification. She discovers the transforming power of sexual ecstasy. Through physical imprisonment and psychic probing, she learns about possession, both physical and spiritual. Eventually, she returns to her point of departure, to the house where her parents had separated, and achieves reconciliation with her father, now dead.

It is, clearly, an allegory of the alchemists’ quest, whether it be regarded as the elixir of life or spiritual purification. The context is not merely alchemical, however, but contains Pagan and orthodox Catholic strands whilst having much to say about Goddesses and gender inequalities. Some passages are clearly derived from dreams, but as no working drafts survive, her method of composition is not recorded. The position is very different as far as I Saw Water is concerned because she kept all the drafts and notes.

I Saw Water
It was Colquhoun’s life-long practice to record her night-time dreams. Dreams were important to her both as a source of artistic inspiration and of hidden, magical knowledge. During sleep, she would have argued, rationality is at its weakest. Sleep, therefore, is the time when we are closest to the gods and at our most receptive to godly messages – if we can understand them. For her, artistic inspiration and magical knowledge were one and the same. The illustration, of a notebook page from the early 1950s (below right), shows just how art, literature, dream and magic were integral to Colquhoun’s daily life.

There is a shopping list on the left of the note, apparently anticipating a trip to the Scilly Isles. The large ink blot in the middle serves as a reminder that her visual art relied heavily on the interpretation of chance forms generated through automatic processes. The dream summary on the right hand side has been earmarked for possible inclusion in I Saw Water. (The Dr. X of the dream was a Jungian psychotherapist which whom Colquhoun, a patient of his for a spell, had a difficult transference relationship.) The patterns of short horizontal lines form some of the figures of the Yi-King (more commonly spelled I-Ching) derived from an ancient method of divination and which Colquhoun incorporated into the novel.

In about 1967 she began trawling through her dream diaries of the previous two decades, selecting those that she felt were linked in some way. She stitched them together, gave them a setting and a narrative structure, and the result was I Saw Water.

It is set on the island of Ménec where Sister Brigid is a nun. The Order she belongs to, the Sisters of the Parthenogenesis, is ostensibly Roman Catholic, but its mission is more reminiscent of certain schools of alchemy than of Catholicism: it is the unification of the separated genders. The achievement of this will transmute fallen, sinful, humanity to a state of spiritual perfection, restore nature’s equilibrium and confirm the unity of the hermetic cosmos. In addition, many aspects of conventual and ritual life on Ménec have more in common with Pagan nature worship than with Christianity. Colquhoun also drew on her knowledge as a practicing Druid. Ménec itself, it transpires, is the Island of the Dead and all the inhabitants, nuns and laity alike, are in transit, working their way towards their second death. The second death is a teaching that is not found in Judeo-Christian theology but is associated with Eastern belief systems. Colquhoun would have been familiar with it through her membership of the Theosophical Society. A major influence on Sister Brigid is the local landowner, a figure who is surely to be identified with Adonis, the mythological vegetation god. He entices Brigid from the convent, but dies (inevitably) by drowning. Eventually, Brigid is able to cast off her personality and human emotions and achieves a state of disembodied peace. The book is narrated in a matter-of-fact style that recounts as commonplace a remarkable series of events. Naturalistic passages are juxtaposed with lengthy sequences, almost unaltered from the dream diaries, with resulting dislocations of time, place and logic.

I Saw Water is published in a volume that includes an introduction and end notes. It is supplemented with a full bibliography, a number of poems, short texts and images, many also printed for the first time, which place the novel in the broader context of Colquhoun’s work. It is not light holiday reading and you will not find it at the railway station bookstore or the airport news-stand. But, if you are at all interested, seek it out. It is the first substantive piece of Colquhoun’s writing to appear since her death. It will transform your understanding of her and her life’s work.



publisher’s web site http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-06423-9.html

see also http://www.ithellcolquhoun.co.uk/