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Ithell Colquhoun (British, 1906-1988) Sunflower 56 x 46 cm. (22 x 18 1/8 in.) image 1
Ithell Colquhoun (British, 1906-1988) Sunflower 56 x 46 cm. (22 x 18 1/8 in.) image 2
Ithell Colquhoun (British, 1906-1988) Sunflower 56 x 46 cm. (22 x 18 1/8 in.) image 3
Thumbnail of Ithell Colquhoun (British, 1906-1988) Sunflower 56 x 46 cm. (22 x 18 1/8 in.) image 1
Thumbnail of Ithell Colquhoun (British, 1906-1988) Sunflower 56 x 46 cm. (22 x 18 1/8 in.) image 2
Thumbnail of Ithell Colquhoun (British, 1906-1988) Sunflower 56 x 46 cm. (22 x 18 1/8 in.) image 3
Lot 11AR
Ithell Colquhoun
(British, 1906-1988)
Sunflower 56 x 46 cm. (22 x 18 1/8 in.)
20 September 2023, 15:00 BST
London, New Bond Street

Sold for £79,140 inc. premium

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Ithell Colquhoun (British, 1906-1988)

signed and dated 'Colquhoun/36.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
56 x 46 cm. (22 x 18 1/8 in.)


With The Orion Gallery, Penzance, 1973
Private Collection, U.K.

London, Fine Art Society, Exotic Plant Decorations, 1936,
Exeter, City Art Gallery, Ithell Colquhoun: Paintings, Collages and Drawings, 26 September-21 October 1972,
Penzance, The Orion Gallery, Ithell Colquhoun: Flower and Plant Paintings, 4-22 September 1973,
London, Parkin Gallery, Ithell Colquhoun: Paintings and Drawings 1930-40, 9 November-3 December 1977,

Richard Shillitoe, Ithell Colquhoun: Magician Born of Nature, 2009,, p.214.

We are grateful to Dr Richard Shillitoe for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

Ithell Colquhoun knew from a very young age the direction that she wanted her life to take, writing that 'at ten, I said that when I grew up I never wanted to do anything but paint, and write and study nature. Already I knew my own mind.' Indeed, her very first art works showed this focus too, with her first being 'an oval rose on a triple stem, with a bud at each side; my second was a purple sun with orange rays setting behind a green slope.' (Ithell Colquhoun, 'Until Twelve', unpublished essay).

Colquhoun studied at the Slade School of Fine Art – which was then at the forefront of equal opportunities in artistic education, allowing women the same chance as their male counterparts to develop as artists – but turned to developments on the Continent for further inspiration, particularly Surrealism and the avant-garde artists who lived and worked in Paris at the time. During a stay in Paris in 1931, she saw paintings by Salvador Dali and other Surrealist artists, which had two main influences on her work. Primarily this influence was a technical one, as she absorbed the meticulous and detailed technique which Dali employed, which became apparent in her paintings of flowers and plants which followed. The influence of Surrealism itself would manifest later, and became apparent in her work after 1936.

Aside from very early work created when she was much younger, the first flower paintings which appeared in her mature work date from 1932, and were completed in watercolour. The first flower paintings done in oil appeared in 1935, and in fact these pieces formed the body of her first solo London show, Exotic Plant Decorations, held in 1936 at the Fine Art Society, and in which the present lot was included. Comprised of twenty-five works in total, the exhibition was the product of a sustained bout of creativity, and surveyed a number of different plant species, including orchids, begonias, anthuriums, lilies, gloxinia and fungi. For Colquhoun, flowers symbolised the cycles of life and death both in nature and in our lives, but also symbolised creativity and fertility, and the spellbinding power of the natural world.

The format of the present lot is typical of her flower paintings of this period: each species she chooses fills the picture plane, dominating the space. The composition and framing of each plant imbues them with a sense of irrepressible growth, as though their natural power is only just contained by the edges of the canvas; shortly, their growth will outstrip their current confines. In the present lot, the petals of the sunflower seem particularly unruly, rippling like golden ribbons, while the expansive and curling leaves luxuriate in the fresh air that flutters round them. While Colquhoun's later work becomes more overtly Surreal, there is nevertheless in the paintings from this period an anthropomorphic quality, a suggestion that these plants and flowers embody magical and metaphorical characteristics.

Colquhoun was attracted by the symbolism of different plant species, and the meaning traditionally held by the sunflower is no exception. Helianthus annus, to give it its Latin name, has long had a particular status in modern art and literature as a symbol of desire. For the Surrealists, the sunflower represented alchemical desire, while for William Blake, in his illustrated poem Ah! Sun-flower, it represents his notions on free love, as the flower reaches for the sunlight. In Double Coconut, also painted in 1936, Colquhoun was clearly drawn to the suggestive and erotic possibilities of the plant, which suggest both male and female sexual organs, with a double meaning that preceded her more overtly Surrealist later work.

Created at a pivotal time for Colquhoun and included in her first solo show, Sunflower is an important painting which is testament to her artistic development both technically and in terms of commercial and critical reception. As reappraisal of her work continues – which saw a new world record created with the sale of Anthurium (sold in these rooms for £258,600, 23 November 2022) - the appearance of Sunflower at auction is a particularly exciting event, and a rare opportunity to acquire a work of museum quality.

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