For a period during the late 1940s, the story of Santa Warna exercised a great influence on Colquhoun, being the subject of a number of gouaches (including Santa Warna’s Wishing Well; Santa Warna Lands; St Elmo and Linked Islands I and Linked Islands II as well as a lengthy poetic sequence. (1)
The origin of the legend is obscure. Standard hagiologies offer no information. There appears to be no references to the saint or to her story outside of Scillonian folklore and the more comprehensive gazetteers of holy wells. She is the patron saint of St Agnes, one of the larger islands that make up the Scilly Isles which lie off the south west tip of Cornwall. It is said that she arrived there from Ireland in a wicker boat covered with hides, landing at the place now marked on maps as St Warna’s Bay. Like many saints, she had her holy well and, perhaps in an inverted memory of her method of arrival, became associated with wrecks and wreckers. It is said that the inhabitants of St Agnes used to throw crooked pins into the well and pray to her to send them a rich wreck.
I propose three reasons why the myth exercised such a hold on Colquhoun’s imagination.
The first is that it enabled her to explore the alchemical fusion of sexual differences. The key works are Linked Islands I and Linked Islands II. Depending upon the state of the tide, St Agnes is two-in-one. At low tide it is one island. At high tide it becomes separated from Gugh, which forms a separate land mass, linked to St Agnes only by a slender sand bar. The sea both unites and separates. Each island has its own gender identity. With its prehistoric, phallic, menhir, the Old Man, Gugh is the male counterpart of St Agnes, where Santa Warna’s Well symbolises the female. When the two are united at low tide they become, in an alchemical sense, the hermaphrodite whole.
Second, the series is also to be understood within the wider context of Colquhoun’s conception of woman as intimately and imaginatively linked to nature and the earth itself. In her poetic sequence Colquhoun writes:
“Where does the turf end and Santa Warna begin?
Rocks breathe springs circulate; now is the change
complete. She is absorbed into the body of the Island,
visible to the seer’s eye alone.”
The series highlights the interconnectedness of all things, the gendering of the elements and identifies the inner creative life with the generative creation of nature. In Santa Warna coming ashore in a boat there is also an echo of Venus, born of the sea, coming ashore on her shell.
The third reason – autobiographical - is more conjectural. In The Living Stones, Cornwall (2) Colquhoun describes looking out to sea near Penzance and seeing the pale crescent of the Scilly Isles just visible in the horizon’s haze: “it seemed to me like an earthly paradise; and I remembered, years ago, having a dream of arrival in a tiny boat on just such a shore”. (p.13) Did Colquhoun –who journeyed by sea from India to England as a child before finding her spiritual home in Cornwall – identify with Santa Warna? Earlier in the chapter she had described her memory of the captain of the ship that brought her from India: “he brought me away from home and I have never returned” (p.11). In exploring the myth was she replaying her own trauma and, by projective identification, triumphing over it?
1. Colquhoun, I. 1948. The Myth of Santa Warna. The Glass, No. 1,
2. Colquhoun, I. The Living Stones: Cornwall. Peter Owen, London, 1957.