- Ithell Colquhoun and Occult Surrealism in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain and Ireland
Artist and writer Ithell Colquhoun (1906–88) has been on the margins of surrealist scholarship for many years. In the last few decades, the few who have discussed her have acknowledged her either as a minor figure in histories of surrealism or as a practicing occultist and author of a significant book on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.1 This neglect of the full range of Colquhoun’s creative output—and, indeed, of the relationship between her surrealism and her occult investments—is unfortunate. One of the first to appreciate these connections was Richard Shillitoe, who has recently argued that “one of the reasons why automatism became central to Colquhoun’s work was because it provided her with methods that linked the surreal with the hermetic both philosophically and technically.”2 Exploring the cultural contexts of these procedural affinities and the disciplinary boundaries Colquhoun sought to destabilize reveals the interrelationships she saw among several seemingly disparate strands of culture and thought in twentieth-century Britain and Ireland—from fin-de-siècle occultism, surrealist automatism, British and Irish archaeology, and a pan-Celtic cultural revival in the first half of the century to the esoteric literature and the imaginative syntheses of science, spirituality, and alternative therapeutics that we identify with the “New Age” of the century’s latter years.3 Moreover, while Colquhoun’s occultism clearly engaged with modern psychology, she emphasized the epistemological contributions of her occult surrealism, its production of sources of knowledge. [End Page 587]
Colquhoun’s dim presence in surrealist scholarship has to do, in part, with the dynamics of British surrealist groups during the Second World War. Colquhoun attended the Slade in the late 1920s and had been drawn into surrealism in 1936 upon visiting the International Exhibition of Surrealism in London. In 1939, she exhibited in Mesens’s London Gallery and published five writings in his London Bulletin. But in 1940 Mesens engineered her removal from the group after she refused to sign on to his new rules forbidding publication or exhibition in any nonsurrealist venues and membership in any secret societies.4 (These rules seemed to have been aimed at Colquhoun’s occult involvements.) Moreover, Colquhoun was on the losing side of a rift within the British surrealist scene during the war that pitted Toni del Renzio (with whom Colquhoun exhibited and to whom she was briefly married) against Mesens.5 Colquhoun continued to produce surrealist art and writings, not only using automatic processes in her work but also producing key articles on automatism. She also allied herself with a dissident group of surrealists in exhibitions and poetry readings and, later in her life, participated in new surrealist ventures through her exhibitions with the Continental-based Fantasmagie group and, in Britain, via the journal Melmoth.6
Like that of many modernists, Colquhoun’s thought surely owed a debt to the late nineteenth-century comparative mythology of James Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890). But her interests reveal critical intersections among the intellectual currents of the 1920s to the 1940s and beyond. These strands of thought included a syncretism that drew its shape from the Golden Dawn and its hermetic successors as well as from the Theosophical Society and its foundational texts by H. P. Blavatsky, Annie Besant, C. W. Leadbeater, and others. Moreover, they demonstrate the interpretive preoccupations of a later era—for example, the perennialism that Aldous Huxley most eloquently explored in The Perennial Philosophy (1946), Margaret Murray’s imaginative speculations about Stone Age cults, and Robert Graves’s Celtic-centered response to Frazer, The White Goddess (1948).7
As Colquhoun’s art and thought developed from her early years as a London-based surrealist painter in the 1930s and 1940s through her later life as an increasingly active writer living in Cornwall, it demonstrated an emerging understanding of automatism not simply as an aesthetic or even a purely psychological exploration but as an epistemological practice. In short, Colquhoun’s aesthetic practices were not meant simply to reveal the interior of the self or to explain subjective experience. Rather, they aimed toward a transpersonal epistemology...