Archive > Who Was Ithell Colquhoun?
The daughter of a civil servant in India, Colquhoun was born in Assam in 1906, but was soon sent back to England. She studied at Cheltenham Art School and the Slade School of Art, after which she took studios around Europe, studying under the likes of Paul Vézelay and André Breton. In 1942 she married fellow surrealist Toni del Renzio.
An acrimonious divorce in 1947 also saw Colquhoun informally separate from the surrealist movement, leaving her free to explore her interest in mysticism, the esoteric and the occult.
The results of this preoccupation are most evident in her writing, which includes the short novel Goose of Hermogenes (1961) and the two earlier travelogues, The Crying of the Wind (1955) and The Living Stones (1957). She died in Lamorna, Cornwall 1988.
I first met Ithell Colquhoun in the early 1950s, in a Soho pub called the Wheatsheaf, an establishment frequented by impecunious bohemians when they could afford to do so. Soho at that time was the haunt of writers, painters, down-and-outs, drunks, drug addicts and people on the fringes of the arts, some of whom subsequently became successful. I was there with the poet Thomas Blackburn and some others with an interest in writing. Ithell was of that party.
At the time she was in her forties and still a very attractive woman: slim, with a soft and unaffected voice, ash-blonde hair and a fair complexion. She also had an endearing giggle. I was told that she was a painter and that she also wrote poetry.
I bumped into her a number of times in the Wheatsheaf and I grew to like her. She was multi-talented, affable, with a vivid and unconventional imagination. Coming from a well-to-do family, she had a private income, and her background and education at Cheltenham Ladies’ College gave her a veneer of respectability, but this was tempered by her exceptional creativity. She told me that she had written a short novel called Goose of Hermogenes, and I agreed to read it. The book was unusual and memorable, very well written, with a strong mystical element.
I had only just started publishing under my own imprint and had very little money, and I wasn’t sure about whether I would be able to sell the novel. It was short, which at that time was problematic, as bookshops did not like books of only a hundred pages or so. I told her I would think about it, which I did, and from time to time she used to press me for an answer.
I got to know Ithell better after my marriage in 1953, as she became friends with my wife Wendy, and she often visited us in Holland Road, near Shepherd’s Bush, for coffee. She once invited us to a dinner given by the PEN Club at the Rembrandt Hotel in South Kensington. It was there that I first met Peter Vansittart, whom I later published. Ithell and I continued to meet periodically at parties – in the 1950s and 1960s the less well off among our friends, many of them writers and artists, were famous for hosting so-called ‘bottle parties’, at which each guest contributed a bottle (a favourite was strong, cheap Merrydown cider), and Ithell often accompanied us or came over to our flat. Sometimes Wendy and I visited her studio in Windmill Hill, one of the most attractive parts of Hampstead, near the High Street. It was large and comfortably furnished, and Ithell lived there most of the year except for the periods when she stayed in her Cornish cottage. She was a good hostess, easy to talk to and with a good sense of humour, and we would sit surrounded by her paintings in the studio. These were mostly bleak landscapes, probably of Cornwall, the majority of which incorporated some sort of phallic symbol.
Ithell was unpretentious and on the surface appeared relatively conventional – although she sometimes wore a caftan – but we knew she had leanings towards the occult and that she had had some dealings with Aleister Crowley. (She once told me that Crowley had tried to seduce her and had chased her around his house.) We also knew that she had previously been married to an art historian and critic.
In the mid-1950s Ithell suggested to me that she write a travel book about Ireland, so I commissioned her to do so. The book, The Crying of the Wind, was distinctive and highly original, and Ithell supplied her own illustrations and designed the cover. The book, although unusual, sold reasonably well, and we followed it with The Living Stones, a book about Cornwall. Distinctly out of the ordinary, both books incorporated Ithell’s interest in the occult and Celtic lore. However, partly because of Ithell’s reminders, I couldn’t get Goose of Hermogenes out of my mind, and in 1961 I decided to publish it. Yet again Ithell designed a very good cover, and the novel eventually sold out.
I had known that she was a painter of distinction but did not have a chance to see her earlier surrealist paintings until she had an exhibition at the Parkin Gallery in Sloane Square in the 1970s. This exhibition was an eye-opener for me; I came to the conclusion that her early work was her best. At any rate, it was a breakthrough for her, and on the strength of it the organizers sold Ithell’s work on to major galleries.
By this time Ithell, who suffered from asthma, had, on her doctor’s advice, moved permanently to Cornwall. After this Wendy and I saw very little of her, and the Parkin exhibition was the first time that I’d seen her in a long time – it turned out to be the last. She offered me a fine painting at a good price, but I stupidly did not take up her offer. This was, of course, an indication that there was not yet any great demand for her paintings, and it was only after her death in 1988 that real national and international regard for her work came about. I believe she was aware of her unusual ability and disappointed that she did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. But she was never bitter.
I miss Ithell. She was one of the few really brilliant and exceptionally talented people I ever met who was good company, genuinely unassuming and always a pleasure to be with.
Peter Owen, 2003
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