Scene from Marlowe’s ‘Dr Faustus’

Ithell Colquhoun (1906 - 1988)

Oil on canvas


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  • About the work
    Country: Other
    City: storage

    Blending stylised forms with garish, almost artificial, colours, a performance unfolds on stage in this painting by Ithell Colquhoun. The scene depicts a moment from the opening of Scene V of Doctor Faustus, a morality play written c. 1592–93 by the English playwright, Christopher Marlowe. The play tells the folktale of George or John Faustus, a mid-16th century travelling German scholar and fortune-teller of immoral reputation, who made a pact with the demon, Mephistopheles. Marlowe is believed to have based his play on a popular 1592 English translation of an earlier German version of the life of Faustus (1587). The tale was famously adapted in the early 1800s by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

    Colquhoun’s painting is composed of a series of layers: against a backdrop of a mountainous landscape, and set within a stylised theatrical set, is a performance watched by an audience of listless, disinterested young adults. We in turn, observe the audience and the drama. The young people’s bodies have a fleshy pink sheen. Pencil drawings in Colquhoun’ sketchbooks, (now owned by the National Trust), include a sketch of a young woman whose pose closely resembles the woman with thick dark hair in the audience who clasps her knees at the right of the scene.

    On stage is Faustus’s study in which, painted on the wall, is a serpent coiled around the tree of knowledge. Faustus (in red), stands inside a pentagram drawn on the floor. Before him are his good and bad angels, who, in the play, vie for his soul. The good angel, dressed in white, points heavenwards and appears and disappears through the closed door above which the inscription reads ‘Ego Dominus tuus’ (‘I am your Lord’). Behind the bad angel in black, the door is by contrast open and, bearing the inscription ‘Diabolus deus inversus’ (‘The devil is God stood on his head’) leads down to the red fires of hell. The bad angel motions downwards, and together with Faustus who brandishing a wand, turns his back on the communion bread and wine, conjures up Mephistophiles. In Marlowe’s scene, the bad angel conjures up the demon who is represented as a Franciscan friar. Colquhoun uses motifs such as the stunted tree of knowledge, choked by the serpent, bare trees (one in the foreground is covered in fungus), and a sawn-off tree stump, all of which accentuate a sense of disease and death, symbolising Faustus’s own moral decay.
  • About the artist
    Ithell Colquhoun, painter and writer, was born in Assam, India, and studied at the Slade School, London. Between 1930 and 1940, she lived in London and Paris. For a period, she was closely involved with the British Surrealist movement, including writing Surrealist poetry in the 1940s. However as she became more drawn to esoteric and magic beliefs, she moved away from the Surrealists. In 1950 she settled in Cornwall near Penzance. This painting shows her technique, devised at the Slade, of ‘matching the drawing in monochrome with superimposed glazes of colour’.
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  • Details
    Scene from Marlowe’s ‘Dr Faustus’
    Oil on canvas
    height: 121.00 cm, width: 90.00 cm
    Purchased from Sotheby's, 27 June 1979
    bl: COLQUHOUN; signed and dated on verso.
    Sold through Sotheby's, London, 'Modern British Drawings, Paintings and Sculpture' sale, on 27 June 1979 (Lot 123), as 'Marlowe's Faust, 1931'; from which sale purchased by the Department of the Environment
    GAC number