Tate acquires archives and art of British surrealist Ithell Colquhoun

Watercolor and gouache artwork by Ithel Colquhoun (British, 1906-1988), from the uncatalogued archive transferred to Tate from the National Trust, 2019. Copyright Tate

LONDON – Tate has acquired a significant body of archives and artworks by British surrealist artist, Ithell Colquhoun, gifted by the National Trust.

The collection of approximately 5,000 sketches, drawings and commercial artwork covering Colquhoun’s career from the 1930s-1980s, which she bequeathed to the National Trust, reunites her work with the bequest of occult and other papers she left to Tate in 1989.

The drawings in the archive in ink, graphite and some with gouache and watercolor wash, vary from small jottings and sketchbooks to highly worked drawings, prints and designs. They include architectural drawings, life paintings, portraits, abstract works and surrealist paintings, and pieces which reflect Colquhoun’s interest in the occult and mythology.

In recent years there has been growing interest in Colquhoun’s work, which has been selected for surrealist exhibitions, and a steadily increasing number of researchers exploring her art.

For the first time related drawings, previously divided between Tate and the National Trust, have been brought together allowing Colquhoun’s ideas and working practices to be traced more easily.

An early sketch for the oil painting Scylla, 1938, on display at Tate Britain, is one of the pieces that is reunited with the finished work which was bought by Tate in 1977. Scylla is one of a group of seven works which straddled a crucial moment in Colquhoun’s career as she made the transition from what she termed her ‘magic realism’ to Surrealism.

The collection includes a complete record of Colquhoun’s experiments with surrealist automatism (a method of art-making in which the artist suppresses conscious control over the making process), esoteric compositions exploring occult ideas, and illustrations for poetic sequences, as well as her little-known commercial work and print-making. The surrealist experiments represent the most comprehensive and art historically significant representation of such work in a British artist’s archives.

In addition, the National Trust has donated key paintings by Colquhoun to Tate which will improve her representation in the museum’s collection and gallery displays.

Watercolor and gouache artwork by Ithel Colquhoun (British, 1906-1988), from the uncatalogued archive transferred to Tate from the National Trust, 2019. Copyright Tate

Ann Gallagher, Director of Collection, British Art, Tate said: “Ithell Colquhoun was one of the key figures of British surrealism and we are delighted that the National Trust has transferred the remaining archive and other works by Colquhoun to Tate. We are extremely grateful that the integrity of the archives can be preserved at Tate in this way and be made available to scholars and for display to the public.”

David Taylor, Head Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the National Trust, said: ‘We are very proud to transfer our Ithell Colquhoun archive, as well as various works by her, to Tate.  This material will be reunited with the archive already bequeathed to Tate by the artist, where it will now be preserved and made accessible in one place.  As well as Colquhoun being better represented at Tate, the great public benefit of this collaboration between our two organizations is that new generations of scholars and visitors alike will be able to discover and appreciate this important British surrealist.”

Ithell Colquhoun, 1906-1988, was a painter, writer and poet. She studied art at Cheltenham Art School and the Slade School of Fine Art. In 1936 she held her first solo exhibition at the Cheltenham Art Gallery, and exhibited regularly in London, in regional galleries and abroad.

Colquhoun joined the British surrealist group in 1939, holding a joint show with Roland Penrose at the Mayor Gallery in the same year. As the investigation of the occult became increasingly important to her work she was expelled from the group, working independently with her husband Toni Del Renzio. Her work featured in several surrealist retrospectives in the 1970s and 1980s and she had solo shows in Newlyn, Exeter and London in the 1970s.

On Colquhoun’s death in 1988 her artworks were mainly bequeathed to the National Trust and her archive of occult works were left to the Tate.  There is overlap between the two parts of the collection, with archive material in the care of the Trust and similar visual art items also held by the Tate.

As the bequest was not associated with a particular historic property, the National Trust has transferred Colquhoun’s archive, and the copyright of works it has held, to Tate reuniting the two collections in one institution to the benefit of researchers and visitors.  The collection will be checked and re-housed by conservators prior to being sorted by archivists and stored in Tate Archive.  Registered researchers will be able to request specific items to consult in the Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms at Tate Britain later this year.

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