Surrealist Women: Ithell Colquhoun

Ithell Colquhuon-Man Ray 1932
Although Ithell Colquhoun distanced herself from the London Surrealist Group in 1940 she considered herself a Surrealist for the rest of her life. The schism occurred when Colquhoun was unwilling to submit to the group’s leader E.L.T Mesens dictates that any member was forbidden to belong to a secret society: Colquhoun was a serious occultist and was a member of several lodges and organizations including the Typhonian O.T.O, an order that had fallen under Aleister Crowley’s sway and which he had re-directed towards the practice of his own Thelemaic sex-magic. Colquhoun had her run-ins with the Great Beast, one time when she had rejected his advances Crowley chased her around his house.

As well as being a painter and occultist, Colquhoun was a gifted writer. Published by Peter Owen, the same independent firm that published Anna Kavan, Colquhoun wrote two idiosyncratic travel books on Ireland and Cornwall respectively; a brilliantly sustained Surrealist narrative dealing with alchemy,  The Goose of Hermogenes (with what must be the only description in literature of a Green-Light district, like a Red-Light district but with the important difference that the clientèle are phantoms) and a biography of MacGregor Mathers, one of the founder members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which numbered among it’s distinguished literary members Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gustav Meyrink,  Arthur Machen and W.B Yeats.

Ithell Colquhuon-Song of Songs 1933

59 thoughts on “Surrealist Women: Ithell Colquhoun

    1. I think Ithell could handle herself, there was hardly an occult order or masonic lodge she didn’t belong to, plus she was in the O.T.O which was one of the heaviest orders out there. Seriously why do I clutter my mind with a knowledge of mid 20 century secret societies?

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      1. Hmmm, I don’t really know. The O.T.O may still be in existence as well as the A.A (another Crowleyite order). However after Gerald Gardner published the Book of Shadows the whole emphasis moved to Wicca, which is flourishing today, especially in america. Another occultist artist featured on Cake is Austin Osman Spare who had some kind of occult duel with Gardner. I will send you the link to my post about him.

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      2. Wicca is a lot more egalitarian, plays very well for women and is environmental. the ritual high magic is elitist, darker and individualistic. Crowley comes across like a cross between Nietzsche and De Sade with a touch of Swinburne. As someone said, it was a counter culture but a conservative counter culture.

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      3. No, his credo was Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law, love under the will. Gardner did borrow several elements from Crowley, i think he belonged to a couple of orders. Wicca is neo-paganism with a lot of the actual paganism removed. Crowley was about the power. You got me started again.

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      4. Austin Osman Spare-Portrait of the Artist 1907Phil Baker’s excellent 2011 biography of the gloriously eccentric artist/magician Austin Osman Spare …
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      1. It could be, the Surrealists had no time for religion apart from blasphemy so you might be spot on, and Colquhoun, although she went to Cheltenham Ladies School was no respecter of tradition either.


    1. Well for some reason the surrealist ladies all tended to be lookers. If I was to respect the Crowley tradition I should have written sex-magick…but although Crowley was interesting (Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law, love under the will.) he was a very dangerous and harmful person.

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    1. Our Ithell certainly had one of those. she wasn’t going to let Mesens tell her she couldn’t be a surrealist and she was certainly as well versed as Crowley in matters esoteric. Her novel is fantastic. Is there anyone Man Ray didn’t photograph? And did he ever take a bad one?

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      1. Perfect, I love it! No he never took a bad photo, even when he was feeling bad. In my mind, most of his most memorable photos are of individuals in his immediate circle, he seemed to never have a shortage of beautiful and stunning models.

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    1. No problem Roger… I am glad you enjoyed. I try to highlight lesser known Surrealists though I have done a couple of posts on work by Dali and Magritte (I did a whole series on Max Ernst but he is one of my favourite artists). They all tended to live colourful lives which always helps to make them entertaining (hopefully).

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      1. I have referenced Magritte in the Empress of Ireland … cette pipe qui n’est pas une pipe. I don’t think, even now, that we have come to terms with the realities of Surrealism … well, some of us have … but not many …

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      2. It is one of my favorites. The blending of the Latin Mass and the English translation works for me, but others will feel differently. This is a shorter version of the one available at Amazon. I worked with a translator to produce a bilingual version French / English, but we never managed to achieve a satisfactory result. It is a great series of poems to read in public and usually leaves the audience somewhat stunned.

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      3. For all its influence on the visual arts and literature, advertising remains the field where Surrealism  (or its techniques anyway, the question of …
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