Magazine article Tate Etc.

Quest for a Cure for Life

Magazine article Tate Etc.

Quest for a Cure for Life

Article excerpt

The intriguing correspondence between British Surrealist artist Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) and an Irish clairvoyant-healer captures the imagination of one visitor to the Tate archive

It's illegal to open someone else's post, which is perhaps why reading other people's letters - which one can do with relative impunity in the Tate archive-can feel like athrillingly clandestine activity. I spent a day in the archives eavesdropping on the correspondence of British Surrealist artist Ithell Colquhoun, exploring her own interest in shadowy things.

Colquhoun's best-known painting is probably Scylla (1938), currently on view at Tate Britain. Introduced as "an apparently simple image of a boat seen between rocks", the other side of its pictorial double entendre might be more immediately apparentto the Instagram generation as an early precursor of the "leg selfie", if that is the term for the contemporary trend for girls to photograph their damp thighs in the bath. In light of Colquhoun's fascination (both scholarly and personal) with the occult -a word whose Latin root, occultus, means "hidden"-the painting's exposure of what is normally concealed behind the bathroom door hints at her deeper interest in secret worlds.

In 1979the artist received several letters from clairvoyant-healer John Doran, with whom she had been corresponding in the hope of receiving treatment for an unspecified illness. As "the 7th Son of a 7th Son", Doran was apparently uniquely qualified (according to ancient beliefs, such people are born with supernatural powers), and his business, so his letterhead proudly claims, was offering "Ireland's Only Postal Service" in healing and advice. This was not the only occasion on which Colquhoun sought supernatural counsel -there are numerous letters among her papers from different organisations, including a heavily underlined copy of a long description of meditations to be used in a crisis, such as imagining oneself "clothed in protective symbols" if "psychic horror turns up". …

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