Margaret Ithell Colquhoun

Victoria Ferentinou



1906 (October 9):  Margaret Ithell Colquhoun was born to British parents in Shillong, Assam, India.

1907-1908:  Colquhoun and her family settled in Cheltenham, England.

1919:  Colquhoun was enrolled at Cheltenham Ladies College.

1923:  Colquhoun’s interest in occultism was stimulated when she read a newspaper account of Aleister Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema.

1926:  Colquhoun was enrolled at Cheltenham School of Arts and Crafts. She wrote the script and designed the costume for the alchemically-informed one-act play Bird of Hermes.

1928:  Colquhoun moved to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. In the same year, she joined the Quest Society, founded in 1909 by the Theosophist and former secretary of the Theosophical Society in England, G.R.S. Mead.

1929:  Colquhoun was awarded a joint first prize in the Summer Composition at the Slade School of Fine Art for her large-scale painting Judith Showing the Head of Holofernes.

1930:  Colquhoun published her first article, entitled The Prose of Alchemy, in the Quest magazine. She became a member of the Search Society, founded by her cousin E.J.L. Garstin.

1931:  Colquhoun visited Paris and became acquainted with the oeuvre of the Surrealists, including Salvador Dalí.

1936:  Colquhoun had her first solo exhibitions: Exhibition of Decorations, Paintings and Drawings, held at the Municipal Art Gallery in Cheltenham (8 February-7 March), and Exotic Plant Decorations at Fine Art Society in London (4-11 November). In the same year, she visited the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New York Burlington Galleries in London (June 11-July 4).

1937:  Colquhoun completed the mural decorations at the Morton in Marsh District Hospital, in Gloucestershire.

1939:  Colquhoun visited André Breton in his studio in Paris and they discussed about automatism. She met Roberto Matta, Gordon Onslow-Ford and Esteban Frances at Chemillieu, where she first encountered automatic methods, such as “psychomorphology.” She exhibited with the English Surrealists and joined the London surrealist group.

1940:  Colquhoun refused to conform to the strict directives set up by the Belgian E.L.T. Mesens, who acted as the leader of the London surrealist group. As a result, she was expelled from the group.

1941:  Colquhoun became acquainted with the New Apocalypse movement and started corresponding with the poet J. F. Hendry.

1943 (July 10):  Colquhoun married Toni del Renzio, a poet and painter of Russian and Italian descent. Her marriage lasted until 1947.

1949:  Colquhoun published The Mantic Stain, one of the first theoretical texts in English on automatic techniques. She rented Vow Cave as a studio in Lamorna Valley, Cornwall.

1952:  Colquhoun adopted the magical motto Splendidior Vitro. The same year she was admitted to the Ordo Templi Orientis.

1955:  Colquhoun was admitted to the New Isis Lodge. She published The Crying of the Wind: Ireland.

1957:  Colquhoun published The Living Stones: Cornwall.

1959:  Colquhoun acquired a cottage in Paul, south of Penzance, in Cornwall, which she later named Stone Cross Cottage.

1961:  Colquhoun published her novel Goose of Hermogenes. She travelled to France with fellow Druid Ross Nichols, befriended the chief of the Ancient Druid Order, Robert Watson MacGregor-Reid, and participated in rituals held by a Gorsedd in Brittany. She was ordained as a Deaconess in the Saint Église Celtique en Bretagne.

1963:  Colquhoun was initiated as a Master Mason in the Co-Masonry.

1964:  Colquhoun began experimenting with new techniques, such as the ready-made, enamel paint, and Merz collages.

1965:  Colquhoun was appointed a Lady of Honour of the Order of the Keltic Cross.

1966:  Colquhoun visited Egypt and wrote an illustrated travel book, The Blue Anoubis.

1975:  Colquhoun published The Sword of Wisdom, a biography of the founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers.

1976:  Colquhoun had a major retrospective exhibition, Ithell Colquhoun: Surrealism, Paintings, Drawings, Collages 1936-76, held at the Newlyn Gallery in Penzance, Cornwall.

1977:  Colquhoun exhibited paintings of her “Taro cards” at the Newlyn Gallery. She was ordained as a Priestess of Isis by the Fellowship of Isis.

1988 (April 11):  Colquhoun died of heart failure at the Menwinnion Country House Hotel in Lamorna, West Cornwall, England.


Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) was one of the most important British women Surrealists, [Image at right] although her contribution to British art and Surrealism attracted attention only in the last two decades. Colquhoun produced an art, visual and textual, which became known only posthumously and was informed by her eclectic and often idiosyncratic involvement in esoteric and various spiritual currents of the postwar period in Great Britain.

Colquhoun’s preoccupation with esotericism was wide-ranging. It encompassed alchemy, magic, Rosicrucianism, the Kabbalah, Gnosticism, the Tarot, astrology, Theosophy, Neoplatonism, Christian mysticism, Celtic lore, Eastern spirituality, Wicca, Neo-Druidism and Neo-Paganism (Ferentinou 2016:365). Colquhoun was acquainted with the work of the Austrian psychoanalyst and Freemason, Herbert Silberer (1882-1923) and the Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). She occasionally commented on the interrelationship between occultism, and most specifically alchemy, and psychology, advancing a kind of psychologised spirituality (See Ferentinou 2016:368).

Although interested, Colquhoun did not gain admittance to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, nor to Dion Fortune’s (1890-1946) Society of Inner Light, but she became a member of Aleister Crowley’s (1875-1947) Ordo Templi Orientis, Kenneth Grant’s (1924-2011) New Isis Lodge, Tamara Bourkhoun’s (1911-1990) Order of the Pyramid and the Sphinx, the Theosophical Society of England, French and English Druidical Orders, the Ancient Celtic Church, several Co-Masonic lodges, and the Fellowship of Isis. Her literary and visual oeuvre can be therefore appreciated as a product of her lifelong, thorough research of the esoteric, philosophical and psychoanalytical discourses and practices of her era.

Colquhoun was born in Shillong, Assam, India on October 9, 1906 to a British military family. As an infant, she travelled to England with her mother and brother, where she received her first education in Cheltenham. According to Colquhoun’s autobiographical notes, she could not read until she was eight, showing a propensity for painting and studying nature, which she chose as her vocation two years later (TGA 929/2/1/68/1). Her animistic appreciation for nature as a locus of creative energy would become a vital component of her art throughout her life. It was also at this age when Colquhoun claims to have visualised the divinity as an androgynous entity, a fusion of “the red-hearted Jesus with the blue-cloaked Mary” (TGA 929/2/1/68/1), thus departing from Catholicism and alluding instead to an alternative cosmology.

Colquhoun’s interest in what she called the “tradition of secret knowledge” was triggered in 1923, when she read a newspaper account of Aleister Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema, while she was attending Cheltenham Ladies College (Colquhoun 1975:15). Her fascination was pursued a year or two later, after her reading of William Butler Yeats’s (1865-1939) early essays (Colquhoun 1975:15). Soon, she began perusing “all the alchemical texts [she] could lay [her] hands on” (Colquhoun 1975:16).

In 1926, Colquhoun was enrolled at Cheltenham School of Arts and Crafts. There, she wrote the script and designed the costumes for the alchemically-informed one play act, Bird of Hermes. In 1928, during her studies at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, Colquhoun became a member of the Quest Society, an esoteric group with theosophical underpinnings (Colquhoun 1975:16). Her art at the time was figurative, portraying classical and biblical themes. In 1929, Colquhoun shared the Slade’s First Composition Prize for the large-scale painting Judith Showing the Head of Holofernes, a work explicitly informed by the Book of Judith that is part of the Septuagint and the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament [Image  at right].

In 1930, Colquhoun published her first occult essay in The Quest magazine (Colquhoun 1930:294-303) and joined the Search Society, founded by her distant cousin Edward Langford John Garstin (1893-1955) after Mead had decided to close down the Quest Society (Colquhoun 1979:11). Encouraged by Garstin, who was the Secretary of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, she also applied for membership to the Order, “the most genuine occult group in Europe in recent times” (Colquhoun, cited in Ratcliffe 2007:306), but her candidature was rejected, most likely because she showed independent thinking (Ratcliffe 2007:30, 32). Through Garstin, Colquhoun also became acquainted with The Kabbalah Unveiled by Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918), which was based upon a seventeenth- century text by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689: Colquhoun 1975:17, 18; Ferentinou 2016:368, n. 23).

It was at the beginning of the 1930s that Colquhoun identified her spirituality more precisely: she characterised herself as a “natural Animist,” who did not believe in the Gods or a Supreme Being, although she “was open to conviction” (Colquhoun 1975:20-21). Of pivotal importance for her development was her encounter with Surrealism in 1930, when she lived briefly in Paris. Colquhoun was first acquainted with the movement through the booklet What is Surrealism by Peter Neagoe (1881-1960), and through “small mixed exhibitions,” where she had the chance to see paintings by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) (Colquhoun 1976). In 1936, she visited the first International Surrealist Exhibition in London and was impressed by Dalí’s illusionistic double images (Colquhoun 1976).

In 1939, she exhibited with the English Surrealists and paid a summer visit to the Paris apartment of the theoretician and leader of Surrealism, André Breton (1896-1966). There, she was introduced to surrealist automatism and to a new creative technique invented in 1938 by the surrealist artists Gordon Onslow-Ford (1912-2003), Roberto Matta (1911-2002), and Esteban Francés (1913-1976), and called “psychological morphology” (Colquhoun 1976; Ferentinou 2015:164). The term was used to describe a creative technique that sought to depict the four-dimensional space-time as conceived by both science (Albert Einstein, 1879-1955) and occultism (Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky, 1878-1947) (Ferentinou 2015:165-66). In the same summer, Colquhoun visited the Paris Surrealists at the chateau they rented at Chemillieu in the Ain, near the Swiss border, and was informed about their artistic experimentations (Ferentinou 2015:165; Sawin 1995:57, 59).

It was in this period that Colquhoun produced artworks in a style she called “magic realism” or “super-realism” and which she first expressed in her 1930s paintings of floral, vegetal, or organic forms (Colquhoun 1976). [Image at right] Colquhoun’s artistic explorations of nature can be situated within her project to go beyond phenomena, and give form to the invisible life forces, animating matter through the fusion of the botanical with the human world. This is a Bergsonian interpretation of physis, which goes back to German Romanticism and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s (1775-1854) Naturphilosophie, and in particular to Philipp Otto Runge’s (1777-1810) Times of the Day (1803), which depicts the unity of man and organic nature. Colquhoun’s “magic realism” can be therefore read as an idiosyncratic Neo-Romanticism informed by her early occult studies, which foreshadows her association with Surrealism and its appropriation of occult tropes through Romanticism from the 1940s onward.

Colquhoun weaved together Surrealism and the occult, alongside several Surrealists working in France at the time, such as Max Ernst (1891-1976), Victor Brauner (1903-1966), Pierre Mabille (1904-1952), Kurt Seligmann (1900-1962), Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), and André Masson (1896-1987) (see Warlick 2001:Chapter 4, Ferentinou 2007:Chapter 1, Bauduin 2014). This double interest was, however, severely criticised by her British counterparts and especially the Belgian Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens (1903-1971). In 1940, when a meeting of those associated with the London surrealist group was held at the Barcelona restaurant in Soho’s Beak Street, Mesens, who acted as the leading figure of the group, demanded that those present adhere to certain rules, including not participating in any other group or secret society (Ray 1971:228; Remy 1999:210-11, 226). Colquhoun’s refusal to comply with Mesens’s rules led to her expulsion from the London surrealist group in 1940, one year after she had joined it (Remy 199:211; Ferentinou 2011:2). As a result, she was not included in the group’s exhibitions or publications (Remy 1999:211-13).

In 1941, she also came into contact with another gathering of British poets and artists who shared a neo-romantic and mystical vision of the arts, the New Apocalypse movement, and corresponded with James Findlay Hendry (1912-1986) on a possible collaboration that never materialized (TGA 929/1/864-888). In 1942, her relationship with the Italian-Russian surrealist Toni del Renzio (1915-2007) whose initiatives challenged Mesens’s authority, widened the division with the latter’s circle (Remy 1999:226; Levy 2005:24). Colquhoun participated in del Renzio’s surrealist ventures and was boycotted by the leading members of Surrealism in Britain. A striking example is her exclusion from the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris in 1947, which was grounded upon the search for a new myth informed by magic, alchemy and other heterodox tropes, a theme so central to her artwork.

Despite her marginalisation, Colquhoun continued on a surrealist trajectory, gradually incorporating an esoteric imagery and poetics into her visual and textual work. She also wrote texts for what it would become her first novel, entitled Goose of Hermogenes, “an allegory for the reconciliation of opposed forces within the psyche” that would be published only in 1961 (Ferentinou 2011:16; see also Ferentinou 2007:Chapter 5). Her novel and short poems, such as the series Diagrams Love, are heavily influenced by surrealist poetics as well as alchemical, Kabbalistic and Christian imagery (Ferentinou 2016:374-75). In particular, Colquhoun became fascinated with Israel Regardie’s (1907-1985) books, which posited that occultism and Jungian psychology share as their objective “personal transformation and the perfection of the self” (Ferentinou 2011:16, Ferentinou 2016:387). Colquhoun was very productive ,creating automatic paintings and drawings that are significantly informed by her double involvement in Surrealism and occultism [Image at right].

In 1948, she appeared in an episode on “Fantastic Art” aired as part of the BBC television program “The Eye of the Artist,” in which she demonstrated several automatic techniques. She further reviewed automatism in her text “The Mantic Stain” (1949), which drew parallels between the “mind-pictures” brought up by surrealist automatic methods and the interpretations involved in divinatory practices and alchemy. She also described a new technique named “parsemage,” in which powdered charcoal or chalk is sprinkled over a bowl of water, and then a board or paper is passed just below the water surface (Colquhoun 1949:15-21). In the early 1950s, Colquhoun delivered lectures about automatism to the Oxford Art Society and the University of Cambridge Art Society (Ratcliffe 2007:85) and published a second, more extensive essay on automatic methods, such as decalcomania, fumage, frottage, stillomancy, parsemage, and superautomatism (Colquhoun 1951:29-34).

From the 1950s, Colquhoun spent considerable amounts of time in Cornwall, until she moved permanently into a new studio, the Stone Cross Cottage, in Paul, south of Penzance, in 1959. In Cornwall “she found her physical and spiritual habitat and was devoted to her artistic endeavours that culminated in exhibitions in Great Britain and abroad” (Ferentinou 2011:3). In the 1950s, Colquhoun devoted most of her time to an inner search predicated upon occultist and psychological exploration. For example, in the early 1950s, Colquhoun underwent psychotherapy with Jungian psychoanalyst Alice Emily Buck (1908-1999), familiarising herself with the field of Psychodynamics, while she also designed the cover for Buck and Frank Claude Palmer’s (1907-1977) The Clothes of God: A Treatise on Neo-Analytic Psychology (1956) (Ferentinou 2016:317-18). [Image at right]

In 1952, Colquhoun adopted the magical motto Splendidior Vitro, which means “more sparkling than crystal” (Ratcliffe 2007:98; Shillitoe 2009:46). The same year, she was admitted to Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis and in 1955 to Kenneth Grant’s New Isis Lodge. She also grew an interest in witchcraft, Gardnerian Wicca and ideas expressed in Robert Graves’s (1895-1985) The White Goddess (1948), contributing to the contemporary discourse on Celtic spirituality and matriarchal theories (see Ferentinou 2017). Her fascination with Cornish and Irish landscape is elaborated in the two travel books she published at the time: The Crying of the Wind: Ireland (1955) and The Living Stones: Cornwall (1957), where she evinced her animism and neo-vitalistic appreciation of the cosmos.

The 1960s saw the intermingling of all these strands of thought, as is apparent in her unpublished novel I Saw Water, which wove together Kabbalah, Neo-Paganism, alchemy, Theosophy, Catholicism, strands of heterodox Christianity, and Neo-Druidism. Her participation in rituals held by French and English Druidical Orders, her trip and tour to Brittany with Ross Nichols (1902-1975), and her membership in several Co-Masonic lodges, shaped the imagery, structure and aesthetics of the novel. It is based upon the Theosophical concept of a second astral life (a liminal   stage between physical death and rebirth), as well as the idea of initiation and spiritual advancement (Shillitoe and Morrisson, in Colquhoun 2014:5-8). In her visual work, Colquhoun became more experimental, turning to different art forms, such as Marcel Duchamp’s (1887-1968) idea of the readymade, enamel paint to invoke Breton’s “convulsive landscape,” and Kurt Schwitters’s (1887-1948) Merz collages (Colquhoun 1976), all related to automatism and the aesthetics of chance effects. [Image at right] She also wrote and illustrated a third travel book, The Blue Anoubis, after her trip to Egypt in 1966, which remained unpublished.

Colquhoun was very productive in the late 1960s and the 1970s, having several solo exhibitions, the most important of which was her retrospective at Newlyn Orion Gallery in Penzance (1976). She further collaborated to British periodicals that aspired to re-launch surrealist activity in England, such as TRANSFORMAcTION and Melmoth. She also published or authored significant texts and prose. One was Grimoire of the Entangled Thicket (1973), a series of eight poems related to “the thirteen months and the nine yearly festivals,” which was accompanied by automatic drawings evoking “the spirit of various trees” (Colquhoun 1987:3). A second significant book was Sword of Wisdom (1975), a biography of S.L. MacGregor Mathers, one of the leaders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which included autobiographical notes and sections on “Magia,” “Enochiana,” “Alchemia,” and “Tantra.” Colquhoun also wrote Decad of Intelligence (1979), a collection of poems and enamel paintings, based on the Kabbalistic treatise known as Sefer Yetzirah, which served as an invocation to the ten Sephiroth of the Tree of Life through the juxtaposition of incantatory words and vividly coloured images (Colquhoun 2017). These works can be seen as tools to aid contemplation and meditation, i.e. they assume a magical function. [Image at right]

Colquhoun’s esoteric use of color and abstraction was also manifested in the Tarot deck she designed in 1977, “following the instructions given by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn about colour symbolism and its metaphysical value” (Ferentinou 2016:374 n. 51). Spelling it as “Taro,” Colquhoun’s deck comprised 78 cards, divided into four suits of fourteen cards along with twenty-two trump cards (Shillitoe 2009 112-14). As she noted in the essay she wrote for the exhibition of her Tarot pack in 1977 at Newlyn Gallery in Penzance, which was published the following year with the title “The Taro as Colour,” the abstract figures “render the essence of each card by the non-figurative means of pure colour, applied automatically, in the manner of the psycho morphological movement in surrealism” (Colquhoun 1978:31-33). It is important to note that she configured the cards as “meditation-glyphs” and viewed their titles “as ‘Mantra’ to the design’s ‘Tantra’” (Colquhoun 1978:31). [Image at right] Colquhoun not only dialogued with contemporary color theories but meaningfully linked abstraction, automatism and spirituality, echoing the modernist and occultist discourses on visual art and the representation of the ineffable or unseen.

In the early 1970s, Colquhoun joined Tamara Bourkhoun’s Order of the Pyramid and the Sphinx, from which she resigned in 1975. The last esoteric organisation Colquhoun joined was the Fellowship of Isis in 1977, whose objective was to raise awareness of the Divine Feminine in all her manifestations (Ferentinou 2017). Colquhoun was ordained a Priestess of Isis by the Fellowship, a testament to her preference for Goddess spirituality and images of female divinity, coupled with her growing ecological concerns and feminist Neo-Paganism (Ferentinou 2017). All these preoccupations were evident in her prose and visual work from the 1940s onward, and came to full circle in the 1970s, at a time when feminist spirituality and the eco-enchantment movement were in vogue.

Colquhoun continued working in the 1980s, although her health started deteriorating; she published her occult poetic collection Osmazone in 1983 and wrote the foreword for Rosicrucian Secrets of Dr. John Dee (1985), edited and with an introduction and comments by Garstin. In her final years, Colquhoun felt weak and lonely and moved to Menwinnion Country House Hotel in Lamorna, West Cornwall, where she died of heart failure in 1988 (Ratcliffe 2007:185). Colquhoun bequeathed her cottage and its contents, including her artwork, to the National Trust, while part of her writings, paintings and drawings were received by the Tate Gallery Archives after legal interpretation of her will.

Colquhoun’s personal papers (including essays and notes on esoteric symbolism, divinatory practices, magical rituals and paranormal phenomena) and her collection of books cover a wide spectrum of topics, from Western esotericism to Eastern spirituality (Buddhism, Hinduism) and practices (Yoga, Tantra, I Ching) to comparative religion, mythology, archaeology, folklore, philosophy, fantastic literature, surrealist publications and psychology (Ferentinou 2011:20, n. 38). Her work, significantly informed by her wide interests, attests to her syncretism, eclectic attitude toward her sources, and merging of artistic, occult and scientific modes of research to explore human consciousness but also what lies beyond the phenomenal world. Her researches should be situated within the surrealist political and poetic project for the transformation of the world, but also in dialogue with contemporary occultism, heterodox spiritualities, and Neo-Druidism, and their psychologised notions of subjectivity and nature.

Colquhoun’s motivation for her involvement in occult organisations was her search for “enlightenment” (1975:30). It is this quest for knowledge beyond rationalist epistemologies and her multiple and idiosyncratic experimentations with automatism, chance effects, abstraction, and color theories that render Colquhoun’s visual and textual work a significant contribution to both twentieth-century British art and post-war Surrealism in both text and image. Her output further provides a unique synthesis of modernist and occult poetics and is exemplary of this trend within Modernism.

All images are clickable links to enlarged representations.

Image #1: Ithell Colquhoun.
Image #2: Ithell Colquhoun, Judith Showing the Head of Holofernes, 1929. Oil on canvas, 121.92 x 91.44cm, College Art Association, University of London. © Samaritans, © Noise Abatement Society & © Spire Healthcare.
Image #3: Ithell Colquhoun, Canna, ca 1936. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 46.7 cm, Municipal Art Gallery, Cheltenham. © Samaritans, © Noise Abatement Society & © Spire Healthcare.
Image #4: Ithell Colquhoun, Gorgon, 1946. Oil on board, 58 x 78 cm, Private Collection. © Samaritans, © Noise Abatement Society & © Spire Healthcare.
Image #5 Colquhoun, Book Jacket for Alice R. Buck and Claude Palmer, The Clothes of God: A Treatise on Neo-Analytic Psychology, London: Peter Owen, 1956.
Image #6 Ithell Colquhoun, Construction, 1965. Oil, cardboard and wood construction, 55.3 x 34.9 cm, Private Collection. © Samaritans, © Noise Abatement Society & © Spire Healthcare.
Image #7 Ithell Colquhoun, “Absolute or Perfect Intelligence,” from Decad of Intelligence (1978-1979). © Samaritans, © Noise Abatement Society & © Spire Healthcare.
Image #8 Ithell Colquhoun, Four Cards from Taro Pack, 1977. © Samaritans, © Noise Abatement Society & © Spire Healthcare.


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TGA 929/2/1/68/1: Ithell Colquhoun, “Until Twelve – Notes for an Autobiography” (1967-1977). Ithell Colquhoun Papers, Tate Archive.

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11 August 2017


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