Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones: Cornwall

Ithell Colquhoun (1906-88), The Living Stones: Cornwall. Peter Owen, 2017. First published 1957

Ithell Colquhoun was a surrealist painter who became increasingly interested in the occult and arcane esoterica – to such an extent that she was expelled from the English Surrealist Group in 1940 – which must have taken some doing. She was a member of the Druidic Order, and the one to which WB Yeats belonged: Stella Matutina. The Goose of Hermogenes (1961), also published by Peter Owen, is her work of surrealist fiction.

Colquhoun Living Stones She writes here, describing herself as ‘an animist’ rather than a ‘pantheist’, of the mystical qualities of Cornwall, in particular in the wild, rugged landscape of West Penwith, where she kept a studio in the 1940s and moved there permanently in the fifties, partly restoring a near derelict hut at Vow Cave near Lamorna. It’s this move that forms the backdrop to The Living Stones. She writes with passion and poetic fervour about the dramatic windswept moors, with their standing stones, strange stone circles still fizzing with atmosphere and mystery, the outcrops and huge granite boulders that look sculpted by some ancient surreal artificer, redolent of an ‘unattained past’.

It’s best I think just to give a few examples of her unique take – I’m reminded of the almost equally committed, entranced response to Penwith’s savage beauty of DH Lawrence, whose stay near Zennor during WWI I wrote about a few times a year or so back here. Here’s an early description of her local valley:

It is not so much that individual buildings are haunted as that the valley itself is bathed in a strange atmosphere. The weirdness spreads up through the Bottoms to Tregadgwith and up through that more open branch of the valley which runs under Bojewan’s Carn, spreads, indeed, all over West Penwith, thinning out here, coagulating there. One could make a map with patches of colour to mark the praeternatural character of certain localities, but these would intensify rather than vary the general hue. So it is not surprising to find eerie places beyond the confines of Lamorna.

The chapter ‘The Living Stones’ begins memorably:

The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum, for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and the animal life that feeds on this and finally through the type of human being attracted to live there. In a profound sense also the structure of its rocks gives rise to the psychic life of the land: granite, serpentine, slate, sandstone, limestone, chalk and the rest have each their special personality dependent on the age in which they were laid down, each being co-existent with a special phase of the earth-spirit’s manifestation.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of thing as New-Age hippydom, but anyone who’s lived in this beautiful peninsula, as I have for over twenty years, will attest to the special quality of its land, air, sea – and the stones; she goes on:

West Penwith is granite, one of the oldest rocks, a byword for hardness, endurance, inflexibility. That is the fundamental fact about Cornwall’s westernmost hundred, and, unless you like granite, you will not find happiness there.

It’s not just the prehistoric aura that she describes; she also writes well about the Celtic Christian layers of mystical presence in Kernow. She cites the old saying, ‘there are more saints in Cornwall than in heaven’, and has clearly researched meticulously those saints, many who crossed from Ireland (in St Piran’s case, by means of a highly unorthodox millstone), and gave their names to so many towns, villages and hamlets. She likes to speculate on the pre-Christian origins of many of the places made holy by these Celtic missionaries – not only the churches and chapels but also the caves and especially the wells and springs with which the county is liberally supplied.

She writes of a group of free-thinking young people, nowadays we’d probably call them travellers or hippies, who try to establish a sort of commune near her hut. It doesn’t end well.

She also records, with varying levels of approval, some of the traditions and festivals of the region, from the Obba Oss of Padstow to the Furry Dance of Helston (Flora is a more modern invention that obscures its misty Celtic origins). She describes the bards and their Gorsedd (the Cornish equivalent of eisteddfod), the Arthurian legends that intrigued Lawrence (not surprisingly she can’t abide the modern commercial exploitation of Tintagel with its ersatz tourist tat).

Although this mystical lyricism can get a bit wearing, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Colquhoun’s palpable love for the living landscape of this region. Let me finish with one of my favourite passages in a book filled with highly evocative, poetic descriptions; she’s been trying to trace the holy well of St Germoe:

The track here was dank, shadowed by soughing trees full of violence and sadness. I hurried upwards, relieved to get clear of the valley. How much primeval gloom can still lurk almost within earshot of a busy road!

See: she does have a sense of humour – though there’s a lot of grumpy railing against the barbaric incursions of modern consumerism: she hates the blare of radios and polluting racket of trippers’ cars. Most of us in Cornwall, I’d have to admit, have been guilty of this kind of curmudgeonly intolerance of incomers as we commune with our pilgrim saints and haunted moors and chough-guarded cliffs, with that ‘tingling magnetism’ that flows along this landscape and that Colquhoun felt and loved.

PS: There are interesting woodcuts by Colquhoun at the end of every chapter, and several WG Sebald-esque grainy black-and-white photos. I’d be grateful if anyone could tell me how her name is pronounced; is it similar to ‘Ethel’? or ‘eye-thul’? The guide at Tate St Ives who showed a group of students and staff around the recent Virginia Woolf exhibition (I wrote a post about it here) pronounced it (for there were several of Colquhoun’s surreal landscapes in the excellent exhibition) somewhere between these two possibilities.

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to the Tate St Ives

Mrs TD and I treated ourselves to a short break this weekend, going to the Tate St Ives yesterday, and driving on to stay at the quirky and charming Artist’s Residence hotel in Penzance. I was going to write briefly about both aspects of this trip here, but on researching the first part of it (as always happens) I got sidetracked, so shall focus here just on the Tate part; more on Penzance next time.

We wanted to take a look at the recently opened extension to the beautiful gallery, dramatically located overlooking the even more beautiful Porthmeor beach.

Porthmeor Beach

Porthmeor Beach seen from the ace café on the top floor of the Tate – hence the slight reflection in the glass. Arguably better than Miami Beach when the sun shines like this!

I wanted to visit an exhibition being held there: Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition inspired by her writings, Tate St Ives (until 7 April) – link is to the Tate’s page on the exhibition, with some lovely images from it (of course Woolf’s long association with St Ives is well known). My colleagues and I are going there again next week with our students, so I was keen to get a preview.

Do take a look at those images at the Tate site; it’s a fascinating set of exhibits – not just the variety of artworks reflecting aspects of Woolf’s life and work, but also letters and other interesting pieces. Dora Carrington, for example, was clearly a terrible speller, and had very large, dramatic handwriting (there are some of her works on display, even more dramatic).

Another artist (and writer) well represented in the exhibition, one I’ve been intending investigating further for some time, partly because of her writings about Cornwall, is Ithell Colquhoun. I hadn’t realised how yonic her art was…

But the one work that particularly drew my attention was this: Louise Jopling’s (1843-1933) Self Portrait, 1877:

Jopling, Self Portrait

Jopling, Louise; Self Portrait; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-205303; public domain Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND

She was born in Manchester, studied art in Paris for a time – she exhibited at the Salon there – and her work featured in shows at the Royal Academy from the late 186Os or certainly by 1870 (depending which source one consults). She worked vigorously on behalf of women artists and of the Suffragists. She struggled all her life against the restraints imposed by Victorian and later societies on women and women artists, and succeeded in forging a professional career and reputation that few of her women contemporaries achieved. She campaigned for the right of women artists to work with live models without the prudish constraints of the Academy that such models be ‘carefully draped’ – which surely ruined the whole point of life drawing!

Like the portrait by Ingres I wrote about seeing at the National Gallery last month, this one drew my gaze with its forthright, full on contemplation of the onlooker: poised and self assured, intelligent, slightly amused perhaps – look at her right eyebrow. And that hat is at such a rakish angle. It’s a remarkable image.

When I looked her up online, I discovered there’s a Louise Jopling research project website, University of Glasgow (started 2005):

 The project aims to document her career as a leading female artist and her close-knit artistic, literary and theatrical world of late 19th century London and Paris. It also seeks to understand better the climate in which women then practised as artists and, more generally, the climate for women’s growing participation in the workplace and in public life.

[There follows a list of ‘core aspects of the project’, such as compiling catalogues raisonnées and databases of all her artistic and written works, transcripts of her correspondence, and the online edition of her autobiography, Twenty Years of My Life, 1867-1887 (1925).

The project also cites Louise JoplingA Biographical and Cultural Study of the Modern Woman Artist in Victorian Britain, by Patricia de Montfort (Routledge-Ashgate, 2016).

There are links at this site to a brief biography, with photos, a catalogue of works with links to the galleries holding them, and a bibliography. Well worth a look.

It’s interesting to compare the handsome portrait 1879 at the NPG of Mrs Jopling (link only, for copyright reasons) by family friend John Everett Millais; a lengthy account of how it came to be painted, with extracts from the writings of artist and subject, is at the NPG site here

Whistler’s portrait ‘Harmony in Flesh Colour and Black: Mrs Louise Jopling’, at the Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow, reflects the fashionable social and cultural life this remarkable woman led, mixing with these artists who painted her, Oscar Wilde, and other notables of the time. She deserves wider recognition.

It’s possible to see an image and account of Jopling’s Self Portrait at the Manchester Gallery site. While there I noticed this: John William Waterhouse’s famous (and rather twee) painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) was removed from Manchester Art Gallery last month on the grounds of its sexist objectification of the semi-naked female forms depicted, as widely reported in the media; the Gallery’s website gives a strikingly different account:

The painting – part of the gallery’s highly prized collection of Pre-Raphaelite works – was temporarily removed from display as part of a project the gallery is working on with the artist Sonia Boyce, in the build-up to a solo exhibition of her work at the gallery opening on 23 March 2018. Boyce’s work is all about bringing people together in different situations to see what happens. The painting’s short term removal from public view was the result of a ‘take-over’ of some of the gallery’s public spaces by a wide range of gallery users and artists on Friday January 26th.

The event was conceived by Boyce to bring different meanings and interpretations of paintings from the gallery’s collection into focus, and into life…In its place, notices were put up inviting responses to this action that would inform how the painting would be shown and contextualized when it was rehung.

 

I suppose this is what would have been called Fake News in some quarters…

Seagull

Outside the Gallery