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.