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.

 

 

 

 

 

Penzance, Egypt, Denis Johnson and Gandhi

Mrs TD and I stayed Saturday night after our visit to Tate St Ives in Penzance, seven or eight miles away across the ancient granite-boulder-studded West Penwith moors (see my posts on DH Lawrence and this part of Cornwall), just a few doors down from one of the most extraordinary buildings in the southwest, if not in England: the Egyptian House, Chapel Street –

Egyptian House Penzance

The façade

Early C19 stucco Egyptian extravagance. 3 storeys. 3 windows Battered half round corded pilasters, windows and glazing bars. Lotus bud columns flanking entrance. Coved cornices above windows. 2 obelisk caryatids. A coat of arms crowned by an eagle. Heavy coved crowning cornice. [Historic England website description (it has Grade I Listed status – for its ‘special architectural or historic interest’)]

 

It was built ca 1835 in the Egyptian Revival style – which became popular after the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt, and his defeat by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, bringing the culture of ancient Egypt into the European consciousness. Napoleon had taken a scientific investigative team with him on his campaign, and they began publishing the results of their studies into the sites and artefacts of Egypt in 1809. But Egyptian style had been imitated in European architecture and design to a lesser degree ever since the Renaissance. Here’s a detail of that amazing façade:

Egyptian House Penzance

The main central façade

The Landmark Trust, which owns the building, rents out three apartments there as holiday accommodation. The house was built originally as a museum and geological repository. The Trust is a charity ‘that rescues important buildings that would otherwise be lost’ (their website).

Egyptian House portico

The portico

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at Artist Residence hotel, ‘a slice of eccentric charm’ as it describes itself, 22 rooms designed in eclectic taste, full of quirky features like a cobbler’s last acting as toilet roll holder in the en suite bathroom, or ‘distressed’ ancient French-style wooden window shutters which serve as the wardrobe doors. There are several hotels in this group across England; the first was started in Brighton, and was named because the young owner couldn’t afford to renovate the place, so invited the thriving local artistic community to come and decorate in return for board. This principle is what gives each location its own individual, innovative and engagingly idiosyncratic identity.

It was a delightful place to relax in after the rigours and excitement of the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Tate St Ives during the day on Saturday, about which I wrote here yesterday.

I took with me to read Denis Johnson’s last book, a collection of short stories published in 2018 posthumously (he died last year). I’m about halfway through, and the style and subject matter are very like the gritty realism of Jesus’ Son, his 1992 collection whose title from the Velvet Underground song ‘Heroin’ says it all.

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

I wrote an elegiac piece for him here a week after his death, with a brief note on the four of his works I’d read at that time.

This new collection has his usual lyrical and hypnotic style and strung-out characters. I hope to post about it fairly soon, once I clear the backlog of posts on books already finished: there’s a May Sinclair and the Miklós Bánffy Transylvanian Trilogy.

Just to finish, I’d like to illustrate the lovely bookmark Mrs TD brought me back from her recent trip with her sister to India. She bought it at the Mahatma Gandhi museum in Delhi; it’s a delicate filigree representation of the great man in his loincloth, walking with his long stick.

Gandhi bookmark

It’s a humbling and inspiring way to mark my progress through my books.