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 the concealment of 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.
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 for the concealment of 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 concealment 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.”
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 © IImperial 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 concealment of civil installations 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 and concealment 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.
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.
“Ipswich was a town of bicycles. In the 1950s it was supposed to have more bicycles and motorcycles per head of population than any other town in the country. There was a wonderful wave of workers coming out of the factories …. They had the Bull, the steam whistle which would tell people the time in Ipswich when they finished the shifts, and we knew they would come surging out until they got to the hill, then they’d get off and push.” Peter Underwood The Ipswich Society.
Colin Moss, Uphill Workers 1955
Colin’s interest in portraying the lives of ordinary people dates back to his student days at the Royal College of Art. His 1936 painting, Hunger Marches, was part of his Diploma show in 1937. “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 almost a trade mark in several of Colin’s future paintings and drawings.” Colin Moss: Life Observed (Chloe Bennett).
Colin Moss Hunger Marches 1936
Ipswich’s industrial heritage included names that were widely known. Engineering companies such as Ransomes Sims & Jeffries, Ransomes & Rapier and Cranes exported goods around the world 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.
Colin Moss Ipswich Cyclists 1950
The picture of the cyclists below was taken in the late 1940s at the bottom of Bishops Hill with Fore Hamlet in the background. Round the corner from the sprawling Ransomes Sims and Jefferies plant, a loud steam-powered horn, known to the people of Ipswich as “The Bull”, would summon people to work.
David Kindred, Ipswich Fore Hamlet
Today the area around Bishops Hill and Fore Hamlet is largely unrecognisable. The road was widened in the 1960s to make way for four wheeled traffic, rather than two wheeled, and new buildings have sprung up on both sides of the road.
Fore Hamlet from the bottom of Bishops Hill Photography Michael Jolly
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For many years, Tuesday was market day in Ipswich. The thriving livestock market saw cattle, sheep and pigs being auctioned. The streets surrounding the market area thronged with people and the numerous pubs in the area (now all closed) did a roaring trade on market day.
The Tithe gift sale at the Ipswich Cattle Market (photo by David Kindred )
The men who worked with the livestock had a tough job. The work was hard and the conditions often unpleasant. Colin’s 1956 pastel “Cattle Drovers” depicts two cattle drovers whose job it was to drive the livestock down Princes Street, from the railhead near Princes Street bridge, towards the livestock market in Portman Road.
Colin Moss “Cattle Drovers” 1956
“Lots of people in the period after the war, and who’d been in National Service, wore clothes they’d got in the army as uniform because clothing was rationed. One of them is wearing an ex-army greatcoat. A lot of people used to wear these gumboots with socks that came over the top of them. These men are quite typical of working men at that time. No man went about bareheaded in the street”. Colin Moss: Life Observed
From Jarrow to Ipswich
Twenty years earlier, whilst a young student at the Royal College of Art, Colin had seen the Jarrow Hunger Marchers as they walked through London. His 1936 painting “Hunger Marchers” was the first of many images he produced throughout his long career depicting ordinary men and women. “I like to draw working-class people because they are more interesting than middle-class people”. Colin Moss: Life Observed
Colin Moss “Hunger Marchers” 1936
The End of the Cattle Market
The cattle market was part of Ipswich’s history for centuries. Its location changed several times over the years as the town expanded. In 1856 the cattle market moved to its final site on (what was then) the town marshes, the area which is now between Portman Road and Princes Street. The last livestock market was held in the town in January 1985.