Ithell Colquhoun’s fecund, fleshy paintings were soaked in mysticism. But was she running my life from beyond the grave?

I am a travelling entertainer. I spent decades in secondhand bookshops in shabby sidestreets, filling the sick-stomach void between station and show with palliative possibility, panning for gold. Somewhere at the end of the last millennium, a few measly pounds bought me a signed first edition of the Irish travelogue The Crying of the Wind (1954), simply because I liked the accompanying archaeological etchings of its author, one Ithell Colquhoun. More than 20 years later, it’s £300 unendorsed on eBay, I got to write the introductions to the 2016 reprint, and a lifelong fascination with this most mysterious of pan-disciplinary artist-writer-mystic saw me asked to be an unworthy speaker at the launch of an exhibition pairing her paintings with work for sale by comparable contemporary artists at Unit London, Song of Songs. Colquhoun and I, it seems, are trapped in the same cramped Ford Fiesta on Google’s algorithmic roundabout, and I very much doubt she is at all happy about it. But who was Ithell Colquhoun, what inspired the fecund fleshy forms and prehistoric undulations of her work, and how is she creeping back into the collective consciousness?

Amy Hale, author of the most recent Colquhoun study, Genius of the Fern Loved Gully, explains: “Historically, surrealism has been utterly dominated by big male personalities. Women were thought of as either muses or monsters who may have been artists on the side, but they can no longer be relegated to those roles. Self-promotion takes swagger and bravado. Colquhoun was quite terrible at it.”

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