It’s an odd pairing: Stewart Lee, the acerbic award-winning stand-up comedian and co-writer of Jerry Springer: the Opera, and Ithell Colquhoun, the Surrealist painter, writer and occultist, who died in obscurity in rural Cornwall in 1988. But despite describing himself as “a fully signed up rationalist”, Lee is also a major Colquhoun fan and has just written the foreword to a new edition of her Irish and Cornish travelogues, which were first published in the 1950s.
Colquhoun’s writing first attracted Lee’s attention when he randomly picked up her account of her wanderings in Ireland, The Crying of the Wind (1955), while on a pre-gig forage in a provincial secondhand bookshop some 20 years ago. “I liked the look of it, and it was good to come to it not knowing anything about her,” remembers Lee. He describes the book as having “a strange disconcertingly oppressive nature to it—it’s a sort of travel book but it’s also an accidental experimental novel with a weird subtext, where her descriptions of the landscape and her experiences clearly reflect her own state of mind. She’s not taken the caution that a travel writer normally would to suppress that.”
Lee says that he “scours auction sites online” for Colquhoun’s work, “repeatedly missing the more affordable ones by mere months”, and is planning a collaboration with the Tate around her work.
Content Provider, Lee’s live show which is touring the UK throughout 2017, currently ends with a dramatic reconstruction of Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog (1818). But who knows, maybe in the future his grand finale might incorporate the suggestively phallic forms of Colquhoun’s great 1938 painting Scylla? The work currently hanging in Tate Britain was apparently inspired by the artist’s knees while lying in the bath.