The Mystical Symbolism of Ithell Colquhoun’s Tarot Deck

Tate has acquired 5,000 works by the late surrealist artist and writer

Ithell Colquhoun, ‘The Princess of the Echoing Hills. The Rose of the Palace of Earth’, 1977, tarot card. Courtesy: National Trust and Tate

Ithell Colquhoun, ‘The Princess of the Echoing Hills. The Rose of the Palace of Earth’, 1977, tarot card. Courtesy: National Trust and Tate

Rivers of cobalt flow into a swirling indigo and purple lagoon. At the centre, 16 silver dots sketch a circle and, below, an inscription reads: ‘The Princess of the Echoing Hills. The Rose of the Palace of Earth’. What is the meaning of this strange image imbued with powerful ritualistic significance? Welcome to Ithell Colquhoun’s surreal and mystical universe, in which, as the late writer and artist once said, ‘the laws of ordinary existence do not apply’.

The object is one of a set of 78 tarot cards which Colquhoun made in 1977, after years of magical practice and occult studies. Eschewing the famous Rider-Waite deck in favour of her own abstract designs, Colquhoun’s tarot cards embody her intertwined interests of surrealism and esoteric thought.

Informed by automatist techniques popularized by the surrealist movement, Colquhoun made the tarot deck by pouring enamel paint onto paper and, occasionally, gently swirling the liquids with the handle of her paintbrush. The result was, in large part, left to chance, allowing, as Colquhoun thought, the natural rhythms of the universe to speak. ‘After I had completed the pack, I saw some slides showing nebulae in outer space and the birth of stars. These recalled my designs and confirmed my conviction of their cosmographic function,’ she wrote in her 1978 essay, ‘Taro as Colour’.

Colquhoun’s tarot deck is also influenced by the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occultist secret society formed in 1887. Following the group's colour symbolism, her deck ascribes colours to each of the four suits: swords are pale yellow, cups deep blue, wands scarlet and disks, or pentacles, are indigo. Colquhoun’s ‘Princess of the Echoing Hills’ is one of the minor arcana cards and is known more commonly as the Page of Pentacles. Interpretations of the card vary; however, many readings associate it with youthful opportunity, dreams and desire.

On 15 July, Tate announced their acquisition of more than 5,000 artworks by the artist, including pieces made using fumage (painting with smoke) and decalcomania (blotting paint between folded paper). While Colquhoun’s work was little-known during her own lifetime, Tate hopes its acquisition will finally give this mystical artist the recognition she deserves.

Figgy Guyver is editorial assistant of frieze, based in London, UK. She is co-founder and editor of CUMULUS journal. Follow her on Twitter: @FiggyGuyver.

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