It is well-known that during the 20th century St Ives in Cornwall was home to some of the world’s leading modern artists. Now Plymouth College of Art and the Black Mirror research network are working to raise awareness of the presence of influential female Surrealists in Cornwall, through the Seeking the Marvellous: Ithell Colquhoun, British Women & Surrealism symposium, which will be held at the college on 22 and 23 March 2018.
Artist Ithell Colquhoun (1906 – 1988), whose contributions to Surrealism and to British modernism and occultism form the focus of the upcoming conference, spent much of her life in the Lamorna valley, near to Penzance, Cornwall.
During her lifetime Colquhoun was widely respected, both as an artist and an occultist, but since her death her oeuvre has been largely lost from public view. Her intellectual and artistic contributions to Surrealism and to British modernism and occultism have seen some scholarly attention, but very little intensive investigation.
Renowned pagan Jo O’Cleirigh spent many years living in a wooden caravan in the Lamorna valley, near to Colquhoun’s first studio, and is thought to be one of the last people alive to collaborate with the artist.
Staff from Plymouth College of Art were working with O’Cleirigh on a new documentary film based on his memories of working with Colquhoun, to screen at Seeking the Marvellous, when he informed them that he had been told a rare painting by the great British Surrealist artist was for sale in Penzance.
The painting, Water Flower (1938) was subsequently acquired by Plymouth College of Art, to contribute to the rich learning environment for creative students offered by the college.
A period of rapid change for Colquhoun
Independent scholar Dr Richard Shillitoe, who will be speaking at Seeking the Marvellous and is one of the world’s foremost experts on the work of Colquhoun, said: “Water Flower provides an early and subtle instance of Colquhoun’s lifelong interest in boundaries. In both her art and writings, she continually explored ways of overcoming the barriers between opposing and apparently irreconcilable states.
“These include the rational and the irrational, consciousness and the unconscious, dreaming and wakefulness, male and female; the worldly and the spiritual.
“In this painting the opposition takes physical form: between air and water. The aquatic plant, with its flower above and roots below, successfully straddles the boundary of the water surface.
“The 1930s were a period of rapid change in Colquhoun’s artistic style. In the middle of the decade her preferred subject matter was plants and flowers.
“These she painted in a detailed, naturalistic manner, often focussing on exotic blooms and foliage, viewed from unusual vantage points. Water Flower is one of the last to be painted in this style as she had, by 1938, become increasingly influenced by surrealism.
“She had already begun to paint the strange, unsettling, images that are best associated with her. Water Flower, therefore, was painted at a pivotal moment in her development.”
Water Flower, which will be on display throughout Seeking the Marvellous, now forms part of the college’s study collection of original works by artists including Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Gareth Neal, Anthony Frost, Martin Parr, Irvine Peacock and Brian Griffiths, displayed throughout the campus to enrich its creative learning environment and the research opportunities available to students, staff and visitors.
Seeking the Marvellous
Seeking the Marvellous seeks to re-examine Colquhoun and her place both in art history and in the history of occultism from a variety of perspectives. There will also be a major strand on Leonora Carrington and contributions on other women connected with Surrealism in Britain.
The symposium will acknowledge and celebrate the connections between Surrealism and the occult and magic: concepts which have informed and enriched the work of Colquhoun and Carrington and other surrealist artists.
Leading international scholars will contribute keynote speeches, not only on Colquhoun, but also on other women connected with Surrealism in Britain, including Valentine Penrose, Virginia Woolf, Velona Pilcher, and Leonora Carrington, who was the subject of a BBC documentary that was released December 2017.
Renowned experts Susan Aberth, Amy Hale and Victoria Ferentinou will speak at the symposium, as will Joanna Moorhead, whose biography of her great aunt The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, has added greatly to scholarship on Carrington.
Also contributing will be independent scholar Richard Shillitoe, whose pioneering work on Colquhoun has done much to bring her work back into the public domain, and Adrian Glew, Head of Tate Archives.
The symposium will also include a screening of a new documentary film based on the memories of Jo O’Cleirigh, and a performance of Colquhoun’s poetry.
What: Seeking The Marvellous, Ithell Colquhoun, British Women & Surrealism conference
When: Thursday 22 March 2018 – 9am-6pm & Friday 23 March 2018 – 9am-6pm
Where: Studio Theatre, Plymouth College of Art
Cost: The conference fee is £90 (£40 concessions) and includes all sessions, including evening events on 22 March. Lunch and refreshments will also be included.
Tickets: Now on sale via Eventbrite.
(from a press release)