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.


Middle Ditch said...

That was a really interesting read. Thank you and thank you also for being a follower. I had no idea and am honoured.

Peter Brown said...

Hi middle ditch,

Thanks for your comments - I keep meaning to pop up to the Oxford University Press - the archivist there has some files on Colquhoun - though not much biographical material.

I have a number of articles to put on the blog - but they are all still unfinished - that said I like blogs - because they are always in constant draft - and can be added or changed as new information becomes available.


Peter said...

I was his student at the British Institute in Seville and, as a matter of fact, one of the characters in a novel of mine is fashioned after him.

Peter Brown said...

I would be very interested to have the bibliographical details - so that I can obtain a copy - though I suspect that it is in Italian. said...

In Spanish only, I am afraid. Title: "Las máscaras furtivas". Pre-textos. Valencia, Spain. 1995

Nelly Orange said...

Thank you really much for this brief but accurate account on Archibald Colquhoun. I am ann Italian student and I am wrting my final dissertation in English about Colquhoun's translation of The Leopard. Could I ask you if you have further material about that? For example some comments or notes he left about his translation. Thank you for your help

Peter Brown said...

Many thanks for your enquiry.

Archibald Colquhoun did write a Translator’s note (1962) and this has been reprinted in a number of editions, though not all, and can be seen here using Amazon’s Look Inside facility:

In 2009 there was a conference at the University of Edinburgh, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Il Gattopardo in English. You can see a short film introducing to the conference here:

Looking at the day’s proceedings it does not seem likely that Colquhoun was commented upon, however I’ve ordered a copy – and I’ll let you know what transpires.

I note that new translations use the revised 2006 text published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore. Colquhoun is still acknowledged as the translator in the 2010 Harvill Secker edition, but suggest you also check out (no doubt you have) the revised Vintage Classics edition (2007).

As I don’t speak/read Italian I’ve no idea how good the translation is. Certainly his translation of Manzoni’s The betrothed has been superseded. Other critical comments are not hard to find, such as these - if you dig further into this blog you’ll find some alternatives to Colquhoun:

I imagine that Collins will have letters in their files from Colquhoun about his translation – but a search here will have to wait until I retire later this summer. Probably too late for your dissertation – when is it due for submission?

If I can be of further assistance – let me know.

Bob said...

Thanks so much for the information on Colquhoun. I'm in no position to evaluate his translation of The Leopard; but for me the book was magnificent.

Nelly Orange said...

Yeah, I am afraid this summer will be too late, as the dissertation has to be finished by the first week of June. Anyway, I found useful the links you gave me. Do you think I can search on the Collins? Could you give me some references so that I can try?

Thank you for your help

Peter Brown said...

Sorry - no I have not - try emailing them.



Anonymous said...

I'm writing my PHD thesis on an italian film project that involved Archibald Colquhoun in the 50s. I'm looking for information and details from UK. Could you tell me anything more about the files in the Oxford University Press Archive? Thank you very much. Silvia Moretti

Peter Brown said...

Hi Silvia,

I imagine the film project you are talking about is Visconti's adaptation of 'The Leopard' for which Colquhoun was a dialogue consultant, is that correct?

I have not yet looked at the files in OUP archive, however the archivist told me that it was primarily letters about the Oxford Library of Italian Classics series that he edited from 1961 to 66. I do intend to look at this archive soon - particularly now that I'm retiring in a couple of weeks. This is not exactly a priority at the moment, though - when is your PHD theses due to be completed? I will be in and out of Oxford over the next few months, my parents live nearby, so hope to view fairly soon.

Christian Stegen said...

I first saw Archie when he landed on the beach at Positano from a speed boat a few days after the Allied landing at Salerno on 9th September 1943. He was a liaison officer between the Allies and the Italian partisans and usually moved a few days ahead of our liberators. His bodyguard consisted of two huge Canadian (?) paratroopers. Obviously his identity and movements were top secret and one can imagine his dismay when he was called by name by my uncle, the painter Kurt Craemer, who had met him on Ischia before the war. Archie often returned to our house in Positano after the war. I last saw him in Rome in the early '60s, when we talked about his involvement in the Gattopardo film.

Harry Bland said...

As I was with Archie in Positano several times I would be pleased to hear from Christian Stegen. Merry Christmas to all. Harry Bland

Peter Brown said...


Many thanks for your very interesting comments - and apologies for the delay in replying. I'll do a bit more digging on your questions - and see what I can find.


Christian Stegen said...

For Harry Bland
Sorry for late reply. Would like to hear from you:
Yesterday Italy commemorated the 67th anniversary of the liberation to which Archie in some measure contributed.
Christian Stegen

Alice Holt said...

Archibald was the great grandson of my great-great-grandmother and her first husband. The Colquhouns have always fascinated me as I have heard several stories about them over the years. I am looking for his obituary, burial location, etc., and would appreciate any information I can get. Thanks.

Peter Brown said...

Hi Alice,

I have no more information than what I've written above, a while ago now, and what other commentators have added in the interim. The biographical information was largely extracted from an obituary in The Tmes, if I remember correctly.

you say you have some stories about your relation, so it would be very useful if you added them here for all to enjoy.

Unknown said...

This is really a nice informative blog in which you discuss a biographical outline which is really fabulous.

Italian Translations Consultant | Package of Italian Dual Citizenship

H. Sollberger said...

I'm responding to others' posts which seek information about A. Colquhoun's death or obituary. I have no certain information about this but recently found the following mention of him in an article (in Italian) by Alberto Arbasino published in the newspaper, La Repubblica. The article is called "Memorie quasi indiscrete" ("Almost Indiscreet Recollections"). Arbasino is not always 100% accurate, but his mention of A.C. is certainly provocative. Here it is in my translation:
"In the evenings we liked to dine at Cesarotto's with Flaiano and Comisso and La Capria and the elegant Giovanni Urbani and Sandro Viola and Antonio Delfini and leftover relics of D'Annuzio's Fiume adventure who were vaguely diabolic and Catholic such as Henry Furst and Archie Colquhoun, translator of Manzoni and Soldati who ended-up throwing himself out the window of the Hotel des Palmes in Palermo." Until further clarification, that'll have to do.

johnm107 said...

I have just finished reading "The Day of the Owl" by the acclaimed 20th century Sicilian author Leonardo Sciasa. The translation of the novel is listed as being by Arthur Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver. The translation was published by Jonathan Cape in 1963. My version of the book was published by The New York Review of Books, who list four additional Sciasa novels under Titles in Series. I believe "The Day of the Owl" was Sciasa's first book so presumably this was the only one of his works with which Colquhoun was involved. And based on H. Sollberger's information Arthur Oliver's involvement may have been due to Colquhoun's early death.

Peter Brown said...

I was not aware of this early translation, so thanks for bringing it to my attention; I’ll get hold of a copy.

Mark Kelly said...

Hello Peter Brown
I met Harry Bland as I came to know him through OSS Society. And Roy from Harry.
Harry told me my father (Richard Kelly) would have dinner with Archibald once a week in Ancona area in 1944-45. Along with Alphonse Thiel of OSS.

Interesting that these 3 young men from disparite backgrounds worked so well together.

Have been looking for 8th Army records as Archibald had issues with SOE and SOE ended up writing Archibald out of history.

I wonder who or where Archibald’s papers might be. Particularly, war time.

Hope you are well.

Peter Brown said...

Many thanks for your additions to Archibald Colquhoun biography - I do know that some papers are with OUP, and although I’ve not seen them I’m told by OUP that they very much relate to his books with them.

I’m well, and may that continue.

Happy New Year,


Dan Gunn said...

Thanks for all this useful information on Archibald Colquhoun. I am an admirer of his translation of The Leopard which I think has dated rather well - and it is not an easy book to translate, by any means.

Now, however, I wonder if anyone can help me with a query. I am currently editing the letters of Muriel Spark for a future edition, and in a letter from 1958 she is visiting Allington Castle, which is a religious retreat in Kent. She says in a letter: "He is staying at Allington where Archie Colquhoun is librarian (the Sisters have gone & it is now a guest-house)." Of course, it could be a quite other Archie Colquhoun, but that would seem rather a coincidence. So my question is, for anyone who might be able to help: Did Archibald become the librarian at Allington Castle? This is much more like to have been the case if he was a Catholic, of course, but I can't find any reference to this. Help please!

Dan Gunn