Social Realism & the Art of Colin Moss ARCA
Colin Moss was a social realist [who] applied firm draughtsmanship and the forceful vision of European expressionism to the docks and terraces of his native Ipswich. There he drew and painted scenes of ordinary life – men in the pub, women eating sandwiches in the park or bending on doorsteps to pick up milk. “I draw working-class people because they are more interesting than middle-class people,” he said. “I have no political allegiances.”
Ian Collins – The Guardian (January 2006)
Colin Moss, “Over the Garden Fence”, 1947
Colin’s passion for social realism dated back to his student days at the Royal College of Art. His 1936 painting, Hunger Marches, was part of his Diploma show in 1937. Based on the 1936 march to London by the unemployed men of Jarrow, Colin’s painting captures the dignity of the men, stoically walking through the rain in their capes.
Colin Moss, “Hunger Marchers”, 1936
His unconventional decision to paint the men as they were seen from behind, emphasised their upright determination as a body of humanity rather than as a collection of individuals. This was a device which would become something of a trade mark in several of Colin’s future work. Even though it is easy to draw some sort of political message out of his work, Colin never once joined a political organisation. His party neutrality meant that people could view his work as a document of post war life; rather than as party propaganda.
Colin Moss, “Uphill Workers”, 1955
Amongst the artistic community in 1930’s Britain there was an intent to show ordinary people doing ordinary things (often referred to as “kitchen-sink” art) and this fascination with the “everyday” became an essential part of Colin’s artistic drive.
Colin Moss, “London Pub Scene”, 1939
Returning to Ipswich after the war he was struck by how much the town resembled a Coronation Street style northern conurbation with little houses around the middle of the town and enormous pubs. In his own words “It was a very Arnold Bennett kind of town”. Post war Ipswich was one that was gritty and tough with rationing still a feature well into the 50s and the majority of the working men employed in heavy industry. Colin’s hostility to sensationalism, gave his work a much more relatable edge as when people would view his work they could see their own experiences reflected in his work.
For more information about “Window Cleaner” 1955, click here.
Post-war Ipswich’s industrial heritage included names that were widely known in Britain and across the world. Engineering companies such as Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries, Ransomes & Rapier and Cranes exported goods around the globe and employed generations of Ipswich workers. Colin’s 1950 ink and gouache drawing “Ipswich Cyclists” captures three workmates cycling home in the dark from work. One man leans across to chat to his fellow cyclists and the headlamps of the three bikes glow in the gloom. Interestingly, men on bikes appear quite frequently in Colin’s work as this was the main means of transport for workers before mass affordable cars. In fact, during the 50s, Ipswich was supposed to have more bicycles per head of population than any other town in the country!
For more information about “Ipswich Cyclists” 1950, click here.
Long hours working hard in the dust and heat at the Ipswich based Ransomes Sims & Jefferies engineering plant was the way of life for thousands of locals. The sound of the Ransomes’ bull horn would summon the men to the RSJ works, which, until the 1960s was on a vast site around Duke Street and Ipswich Dock. “The Bull” kept time, not only for staff of RSJ, but others all around town, including children in the local schools. Despite the above companies dominating life within the town, nowadays the industrial scene in Ipswich is a shell of what it is with most of the factories themselves being demolished.
As well as the industrial side of life, Colin also drew and painted domestic scenes – a woman hanging out washing or brushing the front step, his mother rolling out pastry. Each image a snapshot of a life from a bygone age but which captivates the eye, and the heart, with its “mundane” humanity.
Colin Moss “The Artist’s Mother Making Pastry” 1962
Colin’s kitchen-sink realism was just one strand of his extraordinarily multi-faceted career but possibly was the work that was closest to Colin Moss the man. And his interest in the lives of ordinary people carried on throughout his career in art. His in interest in the regular meant that he could portray life on the streets without the condescension that so many artists seem to do; and this ultimately makes his work so much more poignant.
From the artist’s sketchbook 1995
“As an artist Colin drew and painted what he saw around him. His work functions not only as great art but also as a valuable social document about what life was like in Ipswich and across the country from the late 1940s until his death in December 2005. His portraits of workers leaving the Ransomes & Rapier factory, prostitutes on street corners, old women walking to the shops, laden with bags are an important part of Moss’s artistic legacy to the town.”
Andrew Clarke – Arts Editor at East Anglian Daily Times
Colin Moss “On the Streets, Then & Now” 1992
When Colin Moss was training at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, drawing was an integral part of his education – and intensively taught. His Board of Education Drawing Examination was, in his words, ‘very difficult indeed’. One test involved drawing a figure in action as a skeleton and a muscle figure, showing all the bones and muscles. He also had to do a life drawing from memory.
It’s entirely possible that his study included drawing plaster casts, which had some advantages over drawing from life. Shadows, for example, were still present, but the white plaster made it easier to recognise them and to experiment with tones. Which may be why Colin was using them at the Ipswich Art School in 1978. By then exercises like this had rather fallen out of fashion.
“I was doing a project on anatomy with my students and the somewhat damaged casts were all we had… I had to do a lot of drawing of these casts in teaching these kids to draw.”
Colin completed the project, but became fascinated by the casts themselves. The head of one had broken off, so he put it near the figure, on the ground, and started drawing it. At which point one of his students brought in a book full of photographs taken during the First World War. And inspiration struck.
“I looked at them and thought ‘What an amazing piece of surrealism to put these casts into the battlefield…’ You can see the shells exploding in the air and so on, and it all came together as a complete idea. I didn’t set out with the concrete idea in my mind, it grew as the thing developed.’
Colin Moss “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” 1978 Pencil 76.5 cm x 56 cm
Colchester & Ipswich Museums
Restoring the art school’s plaster casts
As part of the ongoing Kiss & Tell exhibition, Ipswich Museums and Galleries have restored two of the old Ipswich Art School’s plaster casts – the Bruges Madonna (pictured below) and Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo. The conservation process for the Madonna began with a series of photographs to record the state of the cast before restoration. The work involved cleaning the surface, replacing essential missing parts, repainting the piece and then waxing it.
The restorers used melamine sponges, warm distilled water and conservation grade mild detergent to clean the cast. As expected, this revealed a considerable amount of detail, but there had also been much damage over time. After sealing any open edges with a solution of PVA glue in water, they used dental wax to control the plaster fills, modelling them using coarse sandpaper and then smoothing them with flexi grit paper before finishing with Polyfilla. After sealing the casts with the PVA/water solution they painted it with chalk paint, allowing the plaster to breathe, and finished it with a final coat of wax. You can read a detailed account of the process here.
Kiss & Tell at Christchurch Mansion
The exhibition itself is devoted to works of art showing the human body in its natural state and in movement. With Auguste Rodin’s iconic The Kiss as the star attraction, it also includes works by Suffolk sculptors including Thomas Woolner, RA (a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who was born in Hadleigh) and Maggi Hambling CBE, who trained under Colin at the Ipswich School of Art.
One of Colin’s paintings – ‘Standing Nude’ (1969) – is on display alongside works by artists such as Constable, Blake and Picasso.
The exhibition, reviewed here continues until 28 April 2019
At the start of the war, the Germans already knew where many of Britain’s important industrial targets were situated. Recruited exclusively from the most talented artists of their generation, the aim of the Leamington-based camouflage officers (“camoufleurs”) was to protect Britain’s civil installations by confusing “a pilot at a minimum of 5 miles distant and 5,000 feet up during daylight.”
Colin Moss “Camouflaged Cooling Towers” 1943 © Imperial War Museum
The camoufleurs of the Camouflage Directorate were artists, sculptors, architects, designers, – recruited because “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.
Their designs featured disruptive patterns, in a range of colours, painted onto buildings. The aim was to break up forms and outlines so objects were difficult to locate and detect, even against a shifting background (ie when looking down from a plane). The camouflage schemes they designed either concealed the target by causing it to merge into its surroundings, or deceived the eye as to its size and location.
Colin Moss “A Camouflage Scheme in Progress” 1943 © Imperial War Museum
Smoke and Mirrors
The disruptive patterns consisted of a mixture of dark and light colours being painted next to each other to break up the object. At power stations like Stonebridge (where Colin’s “The Big Tower” was completed), the fuel was changed to produce darker smoke that would contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive colouration”.
Colin Moss “The Big Tower, Camouflaged” 1943 © Imperial War Museum
Camouflage netting (known as scrim) was used as a cheap and reliable way to camouflage factories, power stations and other civilian installations. Netting would be positioned over the roofs of buildings and across the streets. On top of the netting there would be fake structures, such as housing and trees, so from the air it would look like a residential area. This was used to great effect during the Battle of Britain with many installations, vital to the war effort, escaping the attention of the Luftwaffe.
A view across a water enclosure outside a power station covered with suspended camouflage nets
Colin Moss “Water Camouflage” 1943 © Imperial War Museum
The more complex camouflage schemes were tested on scale models in the Rink in Leamington Spa. Requisitioned by the government in 1939, the (Skating) Rink was located at the bottom of the Parade in Leamington.
As Colin explained many years later to his biographer, Chloe Bennett “You worked on a scale model and … there was a turn-table which you could put it on and a moving light, which represented the sun, and you got up on a platform, which was about the height that a bombing pilot would come in at, and turn the thing around to see how it reacted to different times of day.”
Colin Moss “Turntable” 1939 Leamington Spa Museum & Art Gallery
Journalist Virginia Ironside (daughter of camoufleur Christopher Ironside) memorably described the Rink as “a giant studio” where “artists slaved away over enormous turntables on which they had constructed models of factories and aerodromes, lit by ever moving moons and suns attached to wires”.
Edwin La Dell “The Camouflage Workshop, Leamington Spa, 1940” © Imperial War Museum
Waste not, Want not
The ideal paint substances that were used for the camouflage schemes were products derived from oil installations. Henrietta Goodden (daughter of camoufleur Robert Goodden ) says in her book “Camouflage and Art, Design for Deception in World War 2”, “Camouflage was a natural consumer in the wartime ethic of “waste not, want not” and much industrial refuse was recycled in the effort to conceal roads, buildings and scarred ground.”
Colin Moss “A Camouflage Scheme in Progress” 1943 © Imperial War Museum
After the Darkest Hour
As the war went on, and the threat from the Luftwaffe diminished, the British Government scaled back its commitment to civil camouflage and the work of the camoufleur unit was wound down. However, before the camoufleurs were reassigned to other war work, “the Ministry decided it wanted a pictorial record of aspects of camouflage and all the artists were given about a month’s paid leave to do paintings of whatever jobs they had designed.” Colin Moss : Life Observed.
Colin spent his month’s leave producing several paintings of his camouflage work before joining the Life Guards (part of the Household Cavalry) on active service in the Middle East. Many of the paintings are now held by the Imperial War Museum in London, others by Leamington Spa Museum & Art Gallery.
Captain Colin Moss, 1943
Colin Moss “Playing Soldiers” Ipswich Borough Museums & Galleries, depicting men in desert kit playing cards before the next manoeuvre
The Camoufleur Alumni
At its peak the Camouflage Directorate employed over 230 staff, including several who, post-war, went on to become some of the most influential and distinguished artists and designers of their generation.
Members of the group included Christopher Ironside (designer of the UK’s new decimal coinage) , Janey Ironside (professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art), Richard Guyatt (professor of graphic design at the Royal College of Art), Eric Schilsky (head of the School of Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art), leading lights of the English Surrealist movement Julian Trevelyan and Roland Penrose, set designer, painter and sculptor Victorine Foot, Robert Goodden (professor of silver smithing at the Royal College of Art), Robert Darwin (principal of the Royal College of Art) and, of course, Colin Moss.
To see more images from Colin’s time in the Camoufleur Unit, click on the album below:
Cinema in Ipswich
Post war Ipswich had five main cinema buildings, some of which were purpose built, plus several halls and theatres which regularly showed films. Few people owned a television and so The Gaumont in St Helen’s Street (now known as The Regent Theatre) would be packed with people who wanted to be entertained and informed.
As well as the main film, there would be a supporting (or B film) plus a news reel from Pathe News. Smoking was permitted everywhere in the auditorium.
Colin Moss, The Gaumont Cinema Audience, 1948
The cinema goers of Ipswich in person
“This painting records a different kind of absorption: that of a weary, ration-fed audience in silver screen fantasy. Three or four bodies are picked out in profile by the projector’s reflected light, slouching down, expressionless. There’s nothing to say about them, no more than about the out-of-focus crowd behind them. They are self-contained, fixated on the same thing. Captivated in isolation, glued to the screen.” The Junket.
Today in Ipswich, the Regent occupies the site of the Gaumont Cinema and is, instead, a performance arts theatre which hosts a multitude of shows and events each year. It has been recently refurbished and seats up to 1,551 people.
The interior of the Regent today
Talking about this painting to Chloe Bennett in the early 1990s, Colin talked about his influences at this time. “I had come across Daumier’s work in the V&A as a student and I acquired a big illustrated book about him in 1941 … His beer drinkers, smokers and theatre audiences probably had some influence on me … I used to go to the cinema a lot. Of course everybody smoked in cinemas in those days, there was a thick haze of tobacco smoke…” Colin Moss: Life Observed.
Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) was a French painter, caricaturist and draughtsman whose work often reflected upon the social political conditions of 19th century France. Daumier’s caricatures often mocked the social conventions of the French middle class and also the incompetency of the French Government. Daumier contributed to the journal Le Charivari for many years and arguably his most controversial lithograph was his depiction of the French king Louis Phillippe “Gargantua” – for this he was imprisoned for six months. In his later career, Daumier was one of the pioneers of realist subjects which probably explains why Colin was so interested in him.
Honoré Daumier, Gargantua, 1831
In 1939 Colin found secure employment with the Air Ministry before being transferred to the Ministry of Home Security. Looking back on that period in 1990, Colin commented “they knew the war was going to happen and they knew that they were going to need to camouflage factories and power stations and that the best people to do this were artists.” Colin Moss: Life Observed
All the camoufleurs working at Leamington Spa were artists, architects, sculptors, set designers and so on. The directorate represented the largest concentration of artists in the country at the time. Many of the camoufleurs went on to have successful post-war careers in the creative arts. People such as Eric Schilsky, Edward Seago, Cosmo Clarke, Richard Guyatt and Christopher Ironside.
A portrait of Eric Schilsky by Colin Moss (1941)
Disruptive patterns were at the heart of the camoufleur’s work. Painted onto buildings, to break up forms and outlines, disruptive patterns made objects more difficult to locate and detect, even against a shifting background (ie when looking down from a plane).
The ideal paint substances that were used were products derived from oil installation. The patterns consisted of a mixture of dark and light colours being painted next to each other to break up the object. Also, at power stations like Stonebridge (where Colin’s cooling tower painting was done), the fuel was changed to produce darker smoke that would blend with its surroundings.
Stonebridge Park Power Station – on the right is the cooling tower, bottom left is the rail yard and top left is a contemporary photo of the whole station (1941)
The brushes the painters used were made out of rope strands that were bound together by scrap tin to allow the painter to be able to cover a large area with one stroke. There was an emphasis on practicality rather than finesse and not wasting materials; hence the use of scrap tin.
A camouflage scheme in progress (1943), Colin Moss
Ground patterning was applied first and then representations of buildings in an overall disruptive pattern of dark and light shapes that masked the entire area. The simple equipment allowed painters to work quickly, often able to cover 110 square metres a day. In addition to the paint effects, scrim was used on many camouflage schemes. Scrim is a strong and coarse hessian based fabric. Colin used scrim containing different colours to cover buildings to change the building’s appearance.
Textured roofs with scrim (1943), Colin Moss
Scrim was also used to tape windows to protect damage to the inside of houses from bomb blasts and on artillery emplacements to make the battery look like natural foliage from the air. Scrim was cheap to manufacture and this was why it was so widely used. Colin’s painting of textured roofs shows scrim being used on buildings.
To see more of Colin’s war time water colours and paintings held by the Imperial War Museum, click on the link here.