There are four letters from Ithell Colquhoun to Ruth Borchard. The first three, dated between December 1965 and January 1966, relate to the purchase of Colquhoun’s self-portrait, and were sent from the artist’s Cornish home, Stone Cross Cottage, Green Lane, Paul, Penzance. It was a poetically appropriate address for someone so concerned with mystical and (often Cornish) ecological issues. The fourth letter, from January 1970, is by far the longest, part of a larger correspondence between the two women, discussing spiritual matters, especially the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition.
Colquhoun’s self-portrait was painted around 1929, when she was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art. The palette inclines to a certain green-tinged, muddy hue characteristic of much early twentieth-century British art. At the Slade (where she studied from 1927-31), her tutor Henry Tonks had encouraged closely-observed, anatomically correct yet sensuous drawing of the human form.
This is a daringly unabashed female self-portrait for its time. The short skirt is upraised somewhat by the figure’s casually seated posture, showing sturdy legs and the inner right thigh, and the breasts are revealingly modelled by the tight sweater. What the formidable Professor Tonks – if he ever saw it – made of such a work, is unknown.
The somewhat dun palette is relieved and heightened by the subtle use of white to highlight and illuminate flesh, clothes and surging water and sky. The figure’s expression is reflective, watchful, ‘luxuriating in quiet’ – a phrase Colquhoun used in a much later book, translating the Gaelic word suaimhneas. Though somewhat melancholically withdrawn, the figure’s gaze does engage with that of the spectator. It cannot be said for certain where this landscape is, or whether it was imaginary or partly so, yet the human figure seems to grow organically out of the elements, to be composed out of the same primal stuff as the rocks and waterfalls. Everything in the picture has a dynamic, sculpted look – even flesh and water appear as if modelled out of stone.
Two ink-and-wash self-portraits by her are in the National Portrait Gallery Collection. In one, where she is seen in noble semi-profile, her long cascading hair unmistakably suggests the appearance of a waterfall, and also a sense of inspiration generously flowing.