Colquhoun’s Quest

Ithell Colquhoun: Genius Of The Fern Loved Gully
Amy Hale
304 pages, with numerous full-colour illustrations
Published by Strange Attractor Press

In a nutshell: Essential reading on a towering figure in the history of Surrealism and occultism.

This is going to be a gushingly enthusiastic review. So let me get my one big complaint out of the way first.

Visually and tactilely, this book is gorgeous. The illustrations are lavish, the font and layout are exquisite, the paper stock is superb, and it’s lovely in the hand. But the condition of the text is a disgrace. Either it has not been professionally copy-edited at all or someone really needs to ask for their money back, because there are typos and inconsistencies on almost every page. Plus, the index is so amateurishly constructed as to be almost unusable. I simply don’t understand why any publisher would take such pains with the visuals and yet be so cavalier with the text. It’s a discourtesy to the reader, and it’s a disservice to the author, and there’s just no sodding excuse.

The disservice to the author is especially galling because Hale has invested two decades of research in this project, and the results are magnificent. As she recounts in the opening chapter, Colquhoun’s artworks and papers are scattered among various collections, in both public and private hands. Hale has spent years hunting them down and poring over the contents, but there seems to be plenty that has still not come to light. It’s a tremendous achievement to have gathered such disparate sources and pieced together even a coherent overview, let alone the depth of discussion that Hale provides.

Given the enormous breadth of Colquhoun’s work, Hale has decided to present this biography thematically rather than chronologically. This strategy is what enables that depth and coherence. (It enables some weird oversights too, not least the failure to mention the date or even year of Colquhoun’s birth in chapter two – another copy-editing snafu, perhaps).

The three big themes that organise the book are Surrealism, Celticism and occultism. In all three cases Hale’s treatment is admirably lucid and even-handed. Very relevant here is the fact that her academic background is in anthropology rather than art history. She brings an ethnographer’s sensibility to the material, trying to see movements and organisations from an insider perspective rather than imposing outsiders’ concepts and value judgements. It’s wonderfully refreshing by comparison with, say, common art-historical approaches to such material.

For example, during the 1940s Colquhoun found herself at the eye of an internal storm within the Surrealist movement in the UK. Hale’s account of that storm is respectful of all sides. She recognises it as a serious dispute over principles and strategy, rather than relegating it to the level of personalities and gossip. It would have been all too easy to demonise “difficult” individuals and mock “outdated” ideas, but Hale does neither. Speaking as a difficult individual full of outdated ideas myself, I salute her for it.

Similarly, the section on Celticism is clear and balanced. Indeed, when Hale started this project she did so as an expert on Celtic nationalisms and identities: it was while she was conducting anthropological research in Cornwall that she first heard about Colquhoun. That expertise pays dividends in the discussion of Colquhoun’s love of Cornwall and her sense of herself as a Celt. Hale treats all of it sympathetically and sensitively, but without taking any of it at face value. Uncritically romanticised Celticity remains a strong current in parts of the Surrealist movement today; it is to be hoped that participants will draw on Hale’s account to add nuance and reflexivity to their own practice.

Unsurprisingly, though, it’s the section on occultism that’s the longest and most substantial. Colquhoun’s esoteric learning was eclectic and profound, and yet she never wrote any explicit or systematic outline of her thinking on the topic. Her complex ideas must have been difficult to piece together, let alone to analyse, and Hale’s work here is a triumph. In particular, the in-depth discussion of Colquhoun’s use of geometry and colour theory – which culminated in her Taro and Decad Of Intelligence – marks the climax of the book, and at times borders on mind-blowing.

There’s a short coda on Colquhoun’s “legacy” that examines some contemporary esoteric and/or feminist artists who explicitly draw on Colquhoun in their own work. I didn’t find any of it wildly interesting, but perhaps you’ll get more of a kick out of it than I did. Personally I’m more interested in contemporary Surrealist-esotericist women such as Casi Cline and S.Higgins, but I’ve banged that drum before, so let’s drop the subject.

After 300 pages of intricate research and fascinating discussion, I came away still feeling that I had barely scratched the surface of Colquhoun. That’s not any kind of criticism of Hale; rather, it’s a reflection of Colquhoun’s immensity. Perhaps there will always be more to say about her, even after all of her scattered works and papers have been located and examined.

Colquhoun was, indeed, a genius. And Hale has done her proud.

Book cover image reproduced under fair use.

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