Saturday, 21 June 2008

Archibald Colquhoun - A biographical outline

I've had a request [see comments below] from Harry Bland, Archibald Colquhoun’s wartime driver during the Italian campaign, for more biographical information. I've commenced by digging into The Times digital archive and also been in touch with Dr Martin Maw, archivist at Oxford University Press. He tells me that they have several files in their archive, though little pertains to his life.

The dozen or so entries in The Times give an outline, though hardly a picture of the man, who died at the age of 51 in 1964. In short: public school, water-colour artist, diplomat, active service during WW2 in North Africa and Italy, writer, translator and editor of many Italian Classics.

Born November 16th, 1912, the son of Arthur Phayre Colquhoun, educated at Ampleforth and Oxford (Christ Church) followed by the Royal College of Art. This was in the 1930s and afterwards, probably just a few years before WW2, he went to live in Ischia in Italy. The Times records [March 9th, 1938] an exhibition of his paintings, ‘Water-colours of Southern Italy’ at the Palser Gallery, King Street, St. James, London, SW1.

In 1940 he was appointed acting director of the British Institute in Naples. During the war he was an intelligence officer in the Western Desert. Assigned to the Eight Army he undertook a variety of roles in Sicily and Italy. Clearly his facility with Italian enabled him to play a key role liaising between ‘refugees, officials and the population’ [The Times, Obituary, March 24th, 1964], and was put ‘in charge of Civil Liaison’ [ibid.].

He did a lot of very effective work with the Garibaldi Brigade at Ravenna for which he was made an honorary freeman of Ravenna. After the war he was briefly Director of the British Institute at Seville and thereafter concentrated on his writing, editing and translating.

Colquhoun’s major contribution to the English understanding of Italian literature was to write a biography of Alessandro Manzoni [Manzoni and his times, 1954] and translate Manzoni’s The Betrothed, the first modern Italian novel, though the translation is no longer the standard one. Bruce Penman, the translator of the currently available Penguin edition, notes that Colquhoun's translation 'contains a surprising number of mistakes of interpretation. It is also sometimes too literal, with extensive passages in the historic present - a device which never sounds right in modern English' [Penguin Classics, 1972].

The first five volumes of The Oxford Library of Italian Classics [see below for a full bibliography] were savaged in The Times [November 9th, 1961] for their horrendous misprints leading the anonymous reviewer to conclude:

‘The fact that these volumes were printed in Italy is no excuse. The worst of them at least should be withdrawn for the honour of Oxford.’

Colquhoun’s translation of Lampedusa’s The Leopard which appeared two years after its posthumous publication in Italy in 1958 has faired better. It was reprinted in the standard Everyman edition in 1991. Colquhoun went on to be the dialogue consultant on Visconti’s filming of The Leopard.

The New York Times has a travel article on Lampedusa's Sicily by Adam Begley with an interesting slide show - mention of Visconti, but not Colquhoun:

Sicily through the eyes of the Leopard

A bizarre incident reported in The Times British Author Gaoled in Venice [October 9th, 1954] details an altercation in Venice’s Piazza San Marco with a policeman when ordered ‘not to cross the square while a film was being shot’. He was cleared the following April of the four month suspended prison sentence for being ‘found guilty of contempt of a State Official.

As a painter The Times describes him as in the style of Rex Whistler, and as a writer in the style of Norman Douglas ‘whom he knew well’ and ‘Like many painters he wrote a most vivid English’ writes his obituarist. At the time of his tragically early death he left two uncompleted works: a war novel and a history of Risorgimento.

He was married in 1935 to Elizabeth Joan Holford (b.1909) and they had one daughter – Mary Jane Grannina (b.1937) spelt in The Times Marriages column (April 16th, 1970) as ‘Giannina’. The marriage was dissolved.