Authors > Colquhoun the Writer

In the foreword to The Crying of the Wind: Ireland and The Living Stones: Cornwall, the writer and comedian Stewart Lee dissects the mystical prose of Ithell Colquhoun.







STEWART LEE, writer-clown: 


Ithell Colquhoun – Your Gnostic Travel Guide, Now And Always

The Crying Of The Wind (1955), though purportedly a book about a journey around Ireland, is the experimental novel the surrealist artist and occult biographer Ithell Colquhoun never knew she had written; and its more self-aware successor, the 1957 account of her life in Cornwall’s Penwith peninsula, The Living Stones, may yet work a magical transformation on your relationship with any landscape around you.

Both books are now impossibly expensive in their legendarily scarce original editions, and both were many decades out of print until now. How I envy you, if you are about to read either, or both, of Ithell Colquhoun’s Gnostic travelogues for the first time. For soon you too will be post-Colquhoun, and everything will seem ever so slightly altered.

Born in British India in 1906, Colquhoun is best known as a surrealist painter, and latterly as an occultist, eventually writing a difficult allegorical novel influenced by her interests, entitled Goose Of Hermogenes, and a biography, Sword Of Wisdom, of the would-be Hackney magus, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, who was born a few minutes’ walk from the kitchen table where I first began writing this introduction.

If you’ve ever wandered the aisles of The Royal Cornwall Museum, The Southampton Art Gallery, or The Victoria And Albert, you’re probably aware of Colquhoun’s art without realising it, and would find her better known paintings strangely familiar. I scour auction sites on line, repeatedly missing the affordable ones by mere months.

I assume I must have picked up The Living Stones, and my first edition copy of the book’s predecessor The Crying Of The Wind, in now long gone bookshops somewhere in the 1990s, far from home, away doing stand-up comedy shows.

Their author-etched archaeological drawings and cryptically vague titles probably meant they looked to me, in my intuitive ignorance, as if they fitted the longstanding folk-mystic second hand book bender I’m still on. They must have cost less than a fiver a piece too, or I’d have passed on them, in my youthful frugality. And then they probably sat unread, on shelves full of other good intentions, for years before I tackled them, unaware of the treasure within.

I know, however, that I had definitely read my ex-Torquay Public library first edition of The Living Stones by the middle of 2007. Of this I am certain, because later that year we were on a sudden Summer holiday with our five month old firstborn, in a rented net loft in Mousehole, and the faerie voice of Ithell Colquhoun bustled at me from the hedgerows all week. My new wife became bored of me repeatedly quoting fact and opinion from the The Living Stones, as it dawned on her what a tiresome man she was now shackled to.

Colquhoun had journeyed to her new home in the post-war wilderness of West Cornwall alone, charmed the suspicious natives, carved out her patch of ground, decoded the folk customs and sacred symbols around her, and recorded her experiences. And in that Cornish Indian Summer, for me, the stories within The Living Stones lived again.

The Mousehole house called The Lobster Pot, for example, that the Colquhoun’s much admired “great beast” Aleister Crowley had briefly occupied was still there; and the branches of the trees that vaulted the once largely untraveled lane down to Lamorna cove, alongside which Colquhoun had dwelt alone in her Spartan Vow Cave studio, were re-shaped now by the daily battering of motor vehicles, whose increasingly detrimental effects she had noted in 1957 with prophetic environmental anxiety.

The mass marketed metal images of a lucky Cornish pixie, based on a witch called Joan The Wad, that Colquhoun had been amused by, had become ubiquitous, and we recognised the ongoing monetisation of supposedly antique authenticity all around us in souvenir shops; and when I remembered how her Lamorna idyll was interrupted by newfangled radio noise, Colquhoun worrying that technological opportunities for “indiscriminate listening” would render us incapable of appreciating anything, I wondered what she would make of the backpackers’ mobile phones, that buzzed even within earshot of the sacred rocks of Men-An-Tol, interrupting my intended reverie.

And when I told my wife of how Colquhoun too had been unconvinced by Tintagel’s gauche attempts to turn the gaseous King Arthur myth into solid financial reality, she smiled a little at least, as we stood, like our spirit guide half a century before us, admiring mock-historic portraiture in the “debased Victorian academic style”, beneath the opportunistic 1922 arches of the ersatz King Arthur’s Hall.

Meanwhile, all along the moors, standing in circles or pointing skyward, the living stones themselves lay largely intact half a century later, monuments to man’s eternal need, as exemplified by Colquhoun in all her endeavors, to make artistic, philosophical and magical sense of our environment.

Colquhoun’s time-travelling survey of Cornwall’s culture and history brings ghosts and dead landscapes to life all around you, doing for the westernmost county what Arthur Machen did for London, what Alan Moore does for Northampton, and what Frank Waters did for the American South West.

And, like Machen lamenting the London of literary legend he arrived too late to live through, and Johnson and Boswell regretting the real highlands that they missed by mere decades, Colquhoun senses the land she loves is fading.

“It seemed that my way home was marked out by ancient stones”, she writes, as she approaches the book’s final chapter. And there we meet Albert Mellor, a pedlar who never learned to read nor write, a soon to disappear denizen of Lamorna’s “vanishing seclusion”. For the woodland thins. “Marauders have come with saws,” laments Colquhoun, “and raided the land for firewood.”

Though a superficially similar catalogue of traveler’s tales and historical and geographical observations, The Crying Of The Wind is a very different book to its successor, The Living Stones. Where The Living Stones begins with an explicit treatise, Colquhoun aquaplaning through snake worship, Atlantean myth, and Saints’ feast days to declaim a unified theory of human apprehension of the landscape, The Crying Of The Wind begins poetically, with a description of a ruined Irish manor and its decrepit owners, that we are left to respond to as we see fit, setting the tone for the stark contrasts between the two works.

The Living Stones is weighty with detail and qualification, but the earlier The Crying Of The Wind shrugs off its characteristic absence of hard fact; “I am glad I am not to be an archaeologist,” Colquhoun writes at the opening of the chapter called Tara Of The Kings, “for my lack of status allows me simply to enjoy myself amongst antiquities. I can interpret them according to my own morphological intuitions without reference to current orthodoxies, or deference to any school of thought – even without strict regard to evidence.”

(It’s worth noting that, despite Colquhoun’s absolving herself of the responsibility to interpret detail scientifically, her 1954 stabs at the purpose and function of ancient sites in the Boyne Valley and the Lochcrew Hills, on the slopes of which I proposed to my wife in 2006, were more or less in-line with subsequent archaeological opinion.)

While The Crying Of The Wind responds to Irish history and landscape intuitively, The Living Stones is more analytical. And while the Cornish Ithell Colquhoun of The Living Stones seems gay and content, her Irish counterpart of three years earlier is fearful of tombs, darkly affected by decaying homesteads and the sufferings of wayfaring tinker children, and occasionally bitterly vicious towards sections of society she dislikes.

In the chapter entitled Roundstone Colquhoun describes, when drawing outside, how lashings of rain “spattered on the lines of ink, producing lovely effects that I did not intend.” Where The Living Stones is controlled, The Crying Of The Wind is unmediated, working the elemental and the unpredictable into the writing process.

And while the author of The Living Stones is documenting a landscape in which she is happy, and where she intends to stay, the Colquhoun of The Crying Of The Wind seems haunted and restless. And though I never noticed it the first time I read the book, upon re-reading the chapter Night Life, Colquhoun seems to find a brief sojourn with bohemian Dublin friends quietly questionable.

During an evening at the famous Gate Theatre she decides that the sainted Oscar Wilde merely “made the cult of insincerity socially acceptable”, before drinking too deeply and too late in the family home of theatrical friends, who stain their absent parents’ carpets with red wine and accidentally set fire to the lid of their piano.

In neither of the travel books does Colquhoun offer any obvious clues to her personal history. The character of the narrator of The Crying Of The Wind arrives from nowhere, without context, experiencing her surroundings in the moment. One paragraph, in the East To West chapter, leaped out at me, as I read the Irish book again, now older and more emotionally vulnerable than when I first enjoyed it as an impregnable younger man.


“The design of the Claddagh wedding-ring, two hands clasping a heart, is famous; but the original rings, heavy and of rough gold, are scarcely imitated by the flimsy examples displayed in jewellers’ shops today. I remember that I nearly chose one of these for my wedding-ring, but the jeweler candidly advised against it, saying it would not wear well. As things happened, it would have proved a more appropriate symbol than the solid gold buckle that I selected instead, which has long outlasted what it betokened.”


This odd and uncharacteristically revelatory paragraph is an example of the sort of buried personal detail which, when noticed in tiny shards in Samuel Beckett works like Not I, Krapp’s Last Tape or the Lucky speech in Waiting For Godot, suddenly and irrevocably changes the tone and texture of all the surrounding material by association.

If this peculiar paragraph existed in a book full of personal anecdote it would not seem significant, but it takes on extra weight due to the scarcity of comparable revelations. These days, all it takes is one swift google to substantiate a theoretical subtext.

Colquhoun’s five year marriage, to the controversial Russian surrealist Toni Del Renzio, ended in divorce six years earlier. In later life her bitterness toward the man she eventually regarded as a “conman, liar and homosexual” was explicit. Here her sadness and regret seems controlled, but very real nonetheless.

(Oddly, one of Toni’s roughly contemporaneous lovers, the unfairly neglected Birmingham Surrealist Emmy Bridgwater, was eventually to die in 1999 in a new built house on a new build estate constructed over the Southernmost ellipse of my teenage suburban Solihull paper round.)

It’s reasonable to assume Colquhoun’s inner landscape was somewhat cloudy, and with a chance of heavy rain. Biographer Richard Shillitoe on the website even suggests that The Crying Of The Wind, published by her friend Peter Owen, was, “an attractive prospect to a small, cost-cutting independent publisher” because the author herself, in this case also an artist, “was able to supply her own cover artwork and illustrations.”

And despite The Crying Of The Wind’s modest success, Owen could not find funding for Colquhoun’s proposed Azores-set follow up, and so the more economically accessed Cornwall was chosen instead. Colquhoun, at this stage, does not appear to be a thoroughly viable prospect.

Was the Colquhoun of the Irish travelogue adrift, professionally, personally? One could read the whole of The Crying Of The Wind as a kind of pathetic fallacy in reverse as, lost and alone, the blank and blasted author takes on instead the attributes of the heath itself.

The book begins with the writer sleeping exhausted in a ruined house and ends, in an apparently perfunctory chapter entitled The Municipal Gallery Visited, with her traversing a Dublin art collection, looking at portraits, which Colquhoun deems of variable worth, of artists and personages that she decrees of variable value, only Jack Yeats’ studies emerging unscathed.

And then it just ends, this mysterious book, with this woman, this mysterious woman, alone, in this gallery, the wilds far to the west; the inconclusive conclusion of a story shot through with the kind of endlessly interpretable impressionistic details that Ian Watt and Milan Kundera, in their critical studies The Rise Of The Novel and The Art Of The Novel respectively, would identify as examples of peculiarly novelistic knowledge.

The Crying Of The Wind may have been intended as a travel book, but its author’s curiously unresolved state of mind, and the tiny slithers of emotional subtext she lets slip, mean it reads like a artfully constructed work of fiction with a carefully calibrated unreliable narrator. The Crying Of The Wind may be an accidental novel, but it is still a great one.

I moved house two years ago and threshed the chaff from my book collection accordingly. As I transferred The Crying Of The Wind to the saved stack I noticed something I had never seen before. There was a blue ballpoint pen inscription, dated July 1961, on the title page. “To the Parrys, with love from Ithell.” My book was signed by the fucking author, Ithell Fucking Colquhoun, but whichever bookshop had sold it to me hadn’t noticed, and neither had I.

“To the Parrys.” The psychologist and publisher John Parry had married Colquhoun’s old Slade art school friend, the surrealist painter and novelist Linda Carmen, in 1940. Carmen sometimes wrote under the name Leo Townsend. Her forgotten artworks were recently critically re-evaluated in The New Statesmen.

Linda Carmen died in 1991, three years after Colquhoun herself passed away at the Menwinnion Country House Hotel, in her beloved Lamorna. Who had inherited the book Colquhoun gave to Carmen, and how had it found its way to my bookshelf, where this abandoned gift, (now one of my favorite works, and the edition I own one of my favorite objects), would be treasured?

It’s beside me now even, on the bar of the Worcester Travelodge, where I write the last few paragraphs of this piece, alone, at 12.34 a.m. on a wet May Monday, drunk on shit wine, after a day of hospital visiting, and I swear this book burns invisibly with its own quiet and consoling heat.

The Ithell Colquhoun of The Crying Of The Wind would not have allowed herself to impose meaning on this mere coincidence of belated and beloved ownership. The Ithell Colquhoun of The Living Stones might have taken some comfort from it. Neither of these prodigiously talented women, I think, would be entirely wrong.






© Stewart Lee
© Peter Owen Publishers.



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