Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I is for Ithell Colquhoun

Photo by Man Ray
"Who?" you may ask?  Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) certainly isn't a household name, but she was one interesting person.  She was a surrealist artist, author, playwright, poet, and secret magician.

(I hope I'm not getting too repetitive with the surrealists and the magicians... I've gotta go with where my passion lies!)

I first came across Ithell's name as the author of a biography of S. L. MacGregor Mathers (who was a founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn).  That bio also is part auto-bio, since it describes her own attempts to contact the various offshoots of this fin de siècle occult club in the 1930s and 1940s.  She met enough of the movers and shakers to eventually be given a rather important painting of Mathers (well, important to this small community) as an inheritance.  When it arrived at her house, it had a major impact...
"In a surge of strange emotion I kissed the portrait's lips; then, crouching on the floor beside it, I burst into tears.... During subsequent days the painted figure changed from angel to knight; later I saw in it the face of a martyr."
Her prose could run a bit purple, but the feeling and intensity was honest and unmistakable.  See also her description (from a recent collection of her magical writings) of the process of ceremonial magic initiation:
"Our Order is now about to bring light into the tenebrific estuaries of the occult and to illustrate the Stygian recesses of this material world with an ineffable golden effulgence of spirituality. It is a process comparable to the rising sun at dawn casting its rays on the opaque waters of ignorance."
She also joined up with Aleister Crowley's (*) Ordo Templi Orientis for a while, and she was one of the few to write a detailed thesis describing its ultimate secret practices.  Actually, this manuscript, "Liber Plenitudinis Lunae sub figura XV, Notes Towards the Apprehension of the Secret of the IX Degree O.T.O.," is one of the few bits of occult secrecy that hasn't yet seemed to show up online.  I'd love to someday get my hands on a copy.

Her life as a painter was also quite lively.  She met Dali, Breton, and many of the other surrealist masters, and kept painting over 7 decades.  Have a look at a tiny sample...

Judith showing the head of Holofernes
Dark Fire
Title unknown
I've read that Ithell Colquhoun invented several new surrealist composition techniques known as graphomania, stillomania, and parsemage -- but I have no idea in the world what those mean!  :-)

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(*) Happy Third Day of the Writing to my Crowleyan peeps out there, by the way!


  1. Seven decades? Now *that's* honing your craft!

    1. From everything I can tell, that's right -- late 1920s to early 1980s!

  2. Wayyy coool.

  3. You already know I'm right there with you regarding the surrealists. I love the paintings.

    1. I'm trying to remember whether I've got any more on tap... I don't think any more painters per se, but definitely a few more with the same mindset.