Colin Moss “Sleeping Nude” Charcoal
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Life drawing “the activity or skill of drawing people from life, especially a model in an art class”, as stated simply in the Macmillan Dictionary. And yet its realisation is anything but simple.
Colin Moss’s engagement with life drawing is remarkable and something that can be traced across his entire career. On his retirement from teaching in 1979, Chloe Bennett (then curator for Ipswich Museum and Galleries) said:
“Colin Moss must surely rate as one of the finest exponents of the fully representational nude in post war Britain.”
Consequently, we can explore this by taking a look at it from three different perspectives in his life: as a student, as an artist, and as a teacher.
Colin Moss “Reclining Nude (Pat Moss)” (1974) pen and ink
A little bit of history
Life drawing has always been an important and historic part of an artist’s technical training and has gained a reputation because of this very ‘technicality’. In many ways, it is similar to the study of harmony and counterpoint that musicians undergo or the study of cases and declensions in Latin.
There is a rich and varied history of life drawing, both in its function as an artistic technique and in the interpretation of how it should function. It ranges from Stone Age artists drawing simple male and female figures, to the purely anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and its use as a plan for Michelangelo’s statues.
Colin Moss – Student Days
Plymouth School of Art
In the early 1930s, Colin Moss started his artistic education at Plymouth School of Art. Here life drawing was an integral part of that education – and intensively taught. The Board of Education drawing exam, which he took in 1933, required extensive knowledge of the “nuts and bolts” of anatomy.
This understanding of how a body is put together, how muscles relate to bones and how posture is underpinned by anatomy, can be seen in countless pieces of his work. In these two drawings (from later on in his career) the women’s reflections in their respective mirrors accurately reflect their pose. A technique that looks simple, but is fiendishly difficult to pull off!
Colin Moss “Washing her Hair” (c1980s) pastel and Colin Moss “Nude in a Mirror” (1997) charcoal
The Royal College of Art
In 1934, Colin Moss successfully applied to the Royal College of Art and started a new stage of his life as a student in pre-war London. Despite his joy at being able to study a subject he loved, like many artists before and since, he gained something of a reputation for being a “difficult” student.
Royal College of Art Year Group 1936 – Colin Moss – seated, second from left
A Difficult Student
In his third year at the College, it was his table tennis as well as his stubborn temperament that got him into trouble with the authorities. Ironically, the incident led to an intensive phase of working in the Life Room which would have a permanent effect on his skills as a draughtsman.
One afternoon, when he should have been in the Life Drawing class, the College Registrar caught Colin playing table tennis.
“He said, “What are you doing playing table tennis?” and I said, “Well I didn’t feel like drawing this afternoon.” He said “What do you mean, you didn’t feel like it, you’ve got to draw!” So I answered “Well I don’t see why you should draw …” and so on. I was very insolent you see.
He said “Now look here. I’m going to look for you in the Life Class from 4 till 6 every afternoon for the rest of the year … and if you’re not there I will expel you!”
So I did go every afternoon and drew, very often I was the only student in the studio sitting and drawing and he always looked in to see if I was there. I got to the end of the year and I had stacks of drawings, and it was marvellous because I could have every pose I wanted, nobody else was there to set the pose.”
Colin Moss: Life Observed
Colin Moss “Standing Nude” (1937) charcoal
Along with the long hours spent in the Life Room, the influence of his contemporaries such as Ruskin Spear and the work of acclaimed contemporary artists, such as Sir Matthew Smith with his sumptuous nudes, discovered during his time at the College, continued to influence and inspire Colin Moss throughout his career.
Colin Moss – The Artist
Colin Moss considered life drawing as the ultimate, indeed greatest, artistic challenge. Mastering life drawing meant mastering proportion and form, understanding how light will cast shade and shadow in some areas and highlight in others, how the model’s muscles will appear when they put their weight on this side or in this pose.
The Influence of Edgar Degas
An admirer of Impressionist painter Edgar Degas since student days, Colin eagerly attended a large exhibition of Degas’s work at the Tate Gallery in 1952. Degas is most widely known for his work depicting dancers but is also celebrated for his drawings and paintings of “women at their toilette”.
“I think I owe an enormous debt to Degas, not only in giving me an immense number of ‘lessons’ in how to draw, but also because he initiated this thing of placing the nude in the bathroom … as opposed to the classical nude which was always put in some historical content in a painting, like Alma-Tadema and people like that.
Degas apparently shocked the public very badly by showing women in their bathrooms doing what you do in a bathroom! His technical style, his manner of drawing, I thought was wonderful and I’ve not doubt that some of my drawings may show that admiration and an attempt to give tribute to his brilliant handling of his materials.”
Colin Moss: Life Observed
Colin Moss “Bathing” (c1970s) Charcoal
Colin Moss “Woman washing her Hair” (c1970s) Charcoal
Colin Moss was a master draughtsman of the “old school”, which venerated learning the musculature and skeletal features of the human figure by heart, and he could also easily turn his attention to drawing a precise representation of the human form or painting an earthy and sensual female nude, using a dizzying variety of styles and mediums.
Colin Moss “Giant Figurescape” (1980s) Acrylic on canvas
Colin Moss “Reclining Nude (Pat Moss)” 1970s Coloured inks & wash
Colin Moss “Early Riser” (1964) Woodcut
Colin Moss “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” (1978) Pencil
Colin Moss “Mrs B” (1960) Pastel
In his eighties, Colin Moss was still producing a wide range of work depicting the human form. Age neither dimmed his eye nor crippled his hands as the intensive training of his youth stood in him in good stead for an artistic career spanning over 65 years.
Colin Moss at work in his studio in 1997 aged 83 (Photo credit: EADT)
Colin Moss – Art Teacher
Colin Moss joined Ipswich Art School in 1947 having been demobbed from the Army following his war service, first as a camoufleur and then as a captain in the Life Guards. He remained at Ipswich Art School until his retirement in 1979 and his influence was felt across generations of artists.
“But the point is that I think he was one of the most inspiring people, and I wish that we had had him more of the time… Drawing is the basis of all my work and everything I do, and it could very well have come from those early days”.
Ipswich Art School 1962-64
Some of the most moving statements about Colin as an artist/teacher come from those students who talk about Colin’s enthusiasm for life drawing and its impact on their own work.
Interview with award winning ceramicist Annie Turner, Loewe Craft Prize Finalist 2019 (and former Colin Moss student)
And some have that same formative inspiration from life drawing that Colin had when he was a student and which he continued to explore over the years, like Bev Parish in a lovely comment from a previous blog:
“I’m still drawing, still painting and still looking – fifty years after my art school days – due in no small part to Colin Moss.”
Bev Parish – former student
Heather Ling – former student NDD Life Painting Course
Watercolour from one of Colin Moss’s sketchbooks, showing Colin sketching in a life drawing class with a student looking on
Significant too are the numerous statements about discipline in his classes, more for seriousness of purpose rather than behavioural control. Maggi Hambling talks of him being “concise, clear, disciplined (ex-army of course)” or Richard Pinkney summing it up nicely with “just by his sheer presence and seriousness of attitude you were very quickly aware that art was no trivial pursuit, it was actually a very serious business”.
And despite being a teacher with a considerable artistic pedigree, Colin Moss was happy to be inspired in turn by the work his students produced.
In 2011, Ipswich Art School Gallery staged “The Class Of…” an artistic school reunion of those who spent many creative years toiling away in Ipswich Art School. Among the highlights of the exhibition was Colin’s drawing of a former student’s sculpture.
“Colin was so inspired by Ray Exworth’s sculpture that he wanted to do a life drawing of the piece.”
Emma Roodhouse, Collections & Learning Curator (Art)
(L) Sculptor Ray Exworth – Photo Credit Jem Southam Photographs Ray’s Sheds: The Hidden Work of Ray Exworth
(R) Ray Exworth’s sculpture alongside a charcoal drawing of the sculpture by his tutor Colin Moss Photo credit EADT
Colin Moss and a life of Life Drawing
Anyone browsing through a collection of Colin Moss’s life drawings cannot fail to notice the sheer variety of work that was produced. The idea of a circle of life drawing influencing Colin and then Colin influencing his students can be transplanted onto his artistic work: starting with the simple idea of life drawing, moving to the complexity and astonishing array of technical feats evident in the works, and returning to the same simplicity: whether it be the historic documentation of his social realist works, or the admiration and persistent desire to understand the female form in art.
Colin Moss “Reclining Nude” (1978) charcoal on canvas
Reading Time : 6 minutes
“Colin Moss has always been something of a cultural icon in his native East Anglia. Not only was he one of the nation’s great contemporary artists – his death warranted fulsome obituaries in the national broadsheets – but he was also a passionate teacher.
He was senior lecturer in figure drawing at the highly regarded Ipswich Art School for 33 years. Among his students was Maggi Hambling, who opened a major retrospective of his work”.
Andrew Clarke art critic East Anglian Daily Times (2010)
“He [Colin Moss] shows the unprivileged, indeed underprivileged, members of our society – men and women on the street corner, outside the pubs, marooned on the park bench… Somehow Moss, in his great parade of people and situations is most concerned with the very basic facts of existence – the struggle to survive, to find a degree of comfort, to work, to love, and to discern, hopefully, some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Michael Chase, The Minories Gallery (1983)
L-R : ‘The Mulberry Tree Pub’, ‘Cattle Drovers’, ‘Boy Blue’, ‘Discussing Terms’, ‘The Window Cleaner’ (c1950-1990)
“Colin Moss is that rare being – a happy Expressionist … He slashes and whirls his pigment into thick, ecstatic confections; they sing out from the walls, like rich base baritones, drenching everything in a cascade of boisterous colour; palpitating reds – an almost unbelievably skillful range of violet-mauve-purple vein-shattering blues – and vibrant falsetto greens…”
Mervyn Levy, Arts Review, February 1955
“An accomplished draughtsman, practitioner and teacher of life drawing since his early training at Plymouth Art School and the Royal College of Art, and master of what he called “the artist’s greatest challenge”
Chloe Bennett – Art Curator, Ipswich Museums (1978 – 1992)
L-R ‘Pastel Nude’, ‘Woman on a Red Drape’, ‘Female Nude’, ‘Rolling Nude’, ‘Bathers’ (c1950-1980)
“I made drawings such as The Guardroom in the immediate post-war years, but then I gradually moved out of the war ethos and it wasn’t until very much later indeed that I suddenly had an inclination to do more of these memories of the war. I found that although it was 30 or 40 years after I remember them quite vividly.”
Colin Moss: Life Observed
Although Colin Moss’s work as a camouflage designer for the Ministry of Home Security is now acclaimed, with watercolours in the Imperial War Museum and Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, it was his experiences as a soldier on active duty in north Africa and Palestine during WWII that led to the production of some of his most powerful pieces.
Religion & Society
Once his teaching duties at Ipswich Art School were finished for the day, Colin Moss would cross the road to The Arboretum pub for a drink. Very much a “fireplace and floorboard” pub, with little in the way of creature comforts, Colin felt at home amongst the working men and the “down at heel” who drank there and the camaraderie of its rough and ready clientele is reflected in many of these works such as The Last Supper and Carrying the Dead Christ. In 1990, an exhibition of this work entitled ‘Paintings, Religious & Profane’ was held at the Chappel Galleries in Essex. The exhibition received a great deal of media attention, including an interview for BBC News.
Colin Moss ‘The Last Supper’ 1950
“Retirement in 1979 after 32 years of teaching at the Ipswich School of Art brought Colin greater freedom to paint at a time when he was still at the height of his powers. The 1980s saw him take special pleasure in painting oil studies of his garden and a wonderful series of flowers in vibrant watercolours.”
Chloe Bennett – Art Curator, Ipswich Museums (1978 – 1992)
Colin Moss ‘Irises in a Landscape’ 1986
“I was very much obsessed with Rembrandt … the fact that he did so many self-portraits from being very young influenced me in the same direction”.
Colin Moss: Life Observed
Art News & Review (now known as ArtReview) began publishing artists’ self-portraits on its front pages in 1949. There was usually a short biography alongside the self-portrait, often written by a friend of the artist. Colin’s was featured on 18th August 1956. In 1982 the Tate Gallery Archive acquired 122 of these original self-portraits, including Colin’s ink & brush self-portrait from the August 1956 edition.
Colin Moss ‘Colin Moss in a Roll Neck’ 1960
“I have always thought of him as the supreme strong man among Suffolk painters. In this he is a constant expressionist, observing and committing swiftly to paper the essentials of a subject.”
Bernard Reynolds – Sculptor
Colin Moss Biography – Bonhams London
Colin Moss was born at 28 Cemetery Road, Ipswich and spent his formative years there. The family moved to Plymouth in 1921, following the death of his father in action during World War One. It was in Devon that he first became absorbed in fine art and drawing, and he attended Plymouth Art School from 1930-1934. A scholarship to study at The Royal College of Art followed, seeing him graduate in 1938. As his style developed, his influences included Degas, Van Gogh and the German Expressionists.
At the outbreak of World War Two Colin was working for the Camouflage Unit of the Air Ministry. Together with one hundred and fifty other artists he was tasked with disguising factories and power stations. After two years he received his papers and joined the Life Guards, spending the remainder of his war in the Middle East. Although never an official war artist he sketched prolifically and was keen to document his experiences; a number of his pictures from this period are represented in The Imperial War Museum. Colin continued to revisit War as a theme in his work throughout his career.
L-R ‘The Big Tower Camouflaged’, Art.IWM ART LD 3025, ‘Water Camouflage’ Art.IWM ART LD 3027, ‘A Camouflage Scheme in Progress’ Art.IWM ART LD 3028 (1943)
Life in Civvy Street saw a return to his Ipswich roots when, in 1947, Colin accepted a post as Senior Lecturer at Ipswich Art School. He was to occupy this position until his retirement in 1979. In the interim years, and long after his retirement, he was increasingly recognised as a leading figure in the Regional Art scene. In 1980 he was elected Chairman of Ipswich Art Society and later became President, a position occupied by many great East Anglian artists before him, including Edward Seago, Alfred Munnings and Anna Airy.
Colin’s decision to pursue a dual career as artist and teacher perhaps illustrates the difficulties facing many professional artists. Though his painting career was never sidelined, there was inevitably some compromise as a result of the financial stability that teaching proffered. When teaching, his army background manifested itself in his disciplined and orderly classes. This approach, together with his firm belief in the importance of sound draughtsmanship and keen observation, influenced a generation of students, including Maggi Hambling and Brian Eno.
Interview with award winning ceramicist Annie Turner, Loewe Craft Prize Finalist 2019 Cavaliero Finn
He also taught by example, with his own work everpresent in the studio alongside that of his students, and would seek opportunities for his own work between classes. In his painting career he was a reluctant self-promoter, however initial forays into the London art scene in the 1950s saw some critical acclaim with representation through The Kensington Art Gallery and later The Zwemmer and Prospect Galleries. He shared exhibitions with the likes of John Bratby, Patrick Heron, Kyffin Williams and John Minton. In 1954, and again in 1956, he took time-off from teaching to concentrate fully on painting, his 1950s social-realism paintings culminating in his ‘big pictures’ of working men and women produced at the height of his artistic powers, as exemplified in the present collection.
L-R ‘Man with a Drill’, ‘Over the Garden Fence’, ‘Two Workmen’ ‘The Cattle Drovers’ (1947-1960)
His work is represented in many national collections : The British Museum, The Tate Archive Collection, Norwich Castle Museum, the Ben Uri Art Gallery, Leamington Spa Art Gallery, Nottingham Art Gallery and The Colchester and Ipswich Museums
Colin Moss ‘Cubist figures’ (1950) Oil on Board
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Cubism, with its all complexity and restrictions, and with its links to Colin Moss’s wartime work as a camoufleur, provided a rich artistic vein that the artist could mine in the post-war years. Following his demobilization from the Army in 1947, Colin Moss returned to the UK and restarted a career that the war and the army had put on hold.
The Birth of Cubism
The term Cubism was inadvertently coined by the French painter Henri Matisse. Matisse was a juror for the Salon d’Automne in 1908 and, on seeing George Braque’s painting “Maisons à l’Estaque” (Houses at L’Estaque)” remarked “They’re made of little cubes!” and promptly rejected the work. His comment was later relayed to art critic Louis Vauxcelles and Cubism was born.
The Cubist Revolution
At the beginning of the 20th century, Cubism stood European art, with its devotion to perspective and realistic portrayal, on its head. Influenced by Paul Cezanne, George Braque and Pablo Picasso broke objects down into separate planes and then placed multiple versions of them within the same space on the canvas. Whilst at first glance their work appeared flat and two-dimensional, it actually depicted different viewpoints and perspectives within a single confine.
Pablo Picasso ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) Oil © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Museum of Modern Art
Cubism gives birth to Camouflage
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Cubist ideas of breaking objects, and bodies, into fragments and splinters suddenly took on a new relevance. Whilst armies in previous conflicts had flaunted their soldiers in uniforms with brightly coloured coats and hats, combatants of the first global conflict wanted to disappear. The advent of airplanes that could fly over soldiers huddling in trenches gave urgency to the need to disguise and dissemble.
And so Cubist ideas of breaking up line and form, distracting with patterns and disrupting with colour gave birth to strategic camouflage. Pablo Picasso is said to have exclaimed, on seeing a camouflaged canon in Paris in 1917, “It was us [the Cubists] who created that!”.
Officers serving in the French military camouflage unit became known as camoufleurs and the term was subsequently used in both world wars by all branches of the military and by all allied nations.
The Royal Navy and Merchant Navy also adopted Cubist ideas, to protect warships and merchant vessels from German torpedoes, as did the US Navy. Ships were painted with various designs intended to distort the tell-tale features of a ship. Some designs distorted perspective, others made it difficult for attackers to focus on the ship as a target, creating delay or hesitation in the order to fire.
Roy Behrens, in the Encyclopaedia of Camouflage, refers to the dazzle ships as resembling ‘Cubist paintings on a colossal scale’.
A schematic drawing for Dazzle camouflage for the Royal Navy ‘Drake class’ armoured cruiser/converted minelayer HMS King Alfred (1917) Art.IWM DAZ 0029 2 © Imperial War Museum
Colin Moss – Camoufleur
Colin Moss served as a camoufleur from 1939 – 1943, working on the concealment of civilian installations. The camoufleurs of the British Camouflage Directorate were theatre set designers, practicing artists, sculptors, architects. They were recruited as “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.
The idea was to break up forms and outlines so that objects on the ground were difficult to spot, even against a shifting background (ie looking down from a plane) thus confusing “a pilot at a minimum of five miles distant and 5,000 feet up throughout daylight.” During his service in the Camouflage Directorate, Colin Moss designed a number of camouflage schemes for installations such as Stonebridge Park Power Station, London.
The influence of Cubism on the camoufleurs of World War II is easy to spot, not just in the desire to disrupt appearance and shape, but in the earthy, muted colour schemes. Early Cubist painters used restricted colour palettes to enhance the flattening effect. Camoufleurs (on both sides of the conflict) adopted similar colour schemes to further flatten and distort appearances.
German paint sample case for camouflaging aircraft runways “Camouflage” by Tim Newark
Life After Camouflage
Following his years in the Camouflage Directorate, in 1943 Colin Moss joined the Life Guards, part of the Household Cavalry, and served in the Middle East and Palestine until he was demobbed in 1947. This period largely put his artistic endeavours on hold, as life became swamped by the practicalities and harsh relentless discipline of soldiering. However, a few months before he was demobbed, Colin Moss produced three versions of a Palestinian landscape – one in pencil, then as a lithograph and finally, a hand coloured version of the lithograph.
Having spent four years working as a camoufleur, it is not surprising that he chose to produce work in a similar, Cubist, manner as life began to return to normal. The influence of the “analytical cubists” such as George Braque and Issachar Ber Rybak is evident.
Re-thinking my Career
“I had to re-think my whole career when I came back from the war. I started again with a totally different approach … I was doing lots of different things because I didn’t know what I wanted to be and it took me several years to form a personality!” Colin Moss: Life Observed
Having returned to his home town of Ipswich, and now working as a lecturer at Ipswich Art School, Colin Moss continued to experiment with different techniques and ideas. But his cubist-influenced, camoufleur background still resurfaced and those early days after the war saw a number of excursions into familiar territory.
Colin Moss ‘Cubist Landscape’ (1948) Oil
The unnamed piece below is thought to date from the late 1940s and illustrates the Cubist practice of using contrasting shading (known as chiaroscuro), dense cross hatching and patterning and, of course, multiple and contrasting vantage points.
Colin Moss, ‘Untitled Cubist Landscape’ (c1949)
Colin Moss ‘Cubist Still Life’ (c1949)
Colin Moss ‘Cubist figures’ (1950) Oil on Board
Moonlight Over the Third Reich
Following his retirement from teaching in 1979, Colin Moss revisited his wartime experiences after a gap of nearly four decades. During this time he produced a number of works (such as Playing Soldiers, Infantry and Self-Portrait as a Soldier) that capture the grim existence of an infantry man. One of the most haunting works he produced during this period was “Moonlight over the Third Reich”. During a trip to Poland, Colin Moss visited both the Auschwitz death camp and the Museum of Warsaw. He was profoundly moved by what he saw there.
“The painting arose from, I think, a feeling that I too must make some kind of record of the Holocaust.” Colin Moss: Life Observed
Three versions of this piece exist, each deeply affecting and troubling – these are not easy works to look at. And once more we see the artist returning to his wartime, camoufleur/cubist roots with “jumbled” perspectives, flattened palettes and strongly delineated patterning.
The linocut version of “Moonlight over the Third Reich” was acquired by Colchester & Ipswich Museums in the 1980s whilst the oil painting was generously gifted to the Ben Uri Museum in St John’s Wood, London by Colin’s widow, Pat in 2009.
Two Flavours of Cubism
The Cubist movement emerged in 1908 and lasted into well into the 1920’s. During that time two distinct forms of Cubism developed. The Tate website defines the two movements in its section of Art Terms:
Analytical cubism ran from 1908–12. Its artworks look more severe and are made up of an interweaving of planes and lines in muted tones of blacks, greys and ochres.
Synthetic cubism is the later phase of cubism, generally considered to date from about 1912 to 1914, and characterised by simpler shapes and brighter colours.
Synthetic cubist works also often include collaged real elements such as newspapers. The inclusion of real objects directly in art was the start of one of the most important ideas in modern art.
And if you want to try Cubism yourself …
Below is a link to a 4-minute tutorial by the talented Aaron Wemer who skilfully illustrates many of the ideas that infuse Cubism, whilst producing a wonderful, analytical cubist drawing.
Reading time: 5 mins
In English, we call it Still Life. The Dutch know it as “stilleven”, a phrase that originates from the 1650s. And the French name is “nature morte”. Not necessarily a theme that sets the art world alight but an art genre that has stood the test of time.
The National Gallery’s definition says that “inanimate objects such as fruit, flowers, food and everyday items” are the main focus of interest in a still life work.
And it is the everyday element of still life that has undoubtedly led to its designation as “less than exciting”. Yet few artists have ignored it and many, like Colin Moss, have returned to it throughout their artistic careers.
Colin Moss “Still Life of Fruit and Bottle” Oil on Board
Still Life in the 1930s
Following early training as a teenager at Plymouth Art School, Colin Moss became a student at the Royal College of Art in the mid 1930s. Whilst there, he was taught by the painter and typographer, Barnett Freedman, CBE. Freedman was known for a sharply observed, highly detailed style of still life painting. It was said his work was so realistic that “the fruit could be picked and eaten, and the musical instruments played upon” (JC Trewin).
Certainly this type of ultra-realistic still life painting was very much in vogue in the 1930s. The Welsh painter Alfred Janes, like Freedman, was known for his meticulous still life work. This was much to the despair of fellow Welshman, the poet Dylan Thomas, who lamented Janes’s “apples carved in oil”, “his sulphurously glowing lemons, his infernal kippers!” (Dylan Thomas: A Centenary Celebration by Hannah Ellis).
Like Dylan Thomas (who was a friend in those pre-war days in London), Colin had little patience with this laborious method of working. He often produced his own work in a single, day-long, stream of concentrated activity. He particularly admired the sumptuous nudes and still life compositions of Sir Matthew Smith (1879-1959).
Influence of les Fauves
In the previous decade, Matthew Smith had championed a more personal and intuitive style of painting, inspired by the extravagant colouring of Fauve artists, such as Maurice de Vlaminck. Colin found Smith’s vibrancy and the freedom with which he painted, exciting, inspiring and radically different from anything he had seen by a contemporary British artist. Matthew Smith’s influence extended throughout Colin’s career.
Undergraduates at the Royal College of Art – 1936
Seated, second from the left – Colin Moss, fourth from the left – Mervyn Levy
Colin Moss “Mervyn Levy” (1965) Oil on board
Two decades on from his time at art school, the art critic Mervyn Levy wrote of Colin’s work that colour sang “out from the walls, like rich base baritones, drenching everything in a cascade of boisterous colour; palpitating reds – an almost unbelievably skilful range of the violet-mauve-purple vein-shattering blues – and vibrant falsetto greens.” (Mervyn Levy, Art News & Review, 5.2.1955 – now known as ArtReview)
Inspiration in Unexpected Places
Following his seven years of war service, first as a camoufleur with the Camouflage Directorate and later as a soldier in the Middle East, Colin returned to his home town of Ipswich in 1947 starting work as a lecturer at Ipswich Art School. His teaching schedule was extensive, working five days and three evenings a week, covering Life Drawing, Anatomy, Perspective, Portrait classes and, of course, Still Life.
During this time, inspiration for his own art came from the most unexpected of places:
“I was walking along Norwich Road in Ipswich and there used to be a big fish shop called Rush’s there years ago. They’d got an enormous pike lying on a slab in the window, and it was this wonderful colour, all sparkling … it wasn’t really for sale; it was just there to attract attention. Anyway, I bought it and ran back to the art school with it, laid it out and kept the room cold, and I painted it in a day. I was so taken with painting this fish that afterwards I did every fish in the sea!”
Colin Moss : “Fish” (1958) Gouache
And his fascination with still life didn’t just extend to fish. Pigeons waiting to be plucked on a plate, baskets of vegetables, hogs heads, loaves of bread alongside earthenware jugs, flowers in a jar, lobsters, wine bottles, bowls of fruit. Anything and everything could act as a source of inspiration.
Colin Moss : “Pigeons” (1954) Oil on board
Is it easy to master Still Life?
Throughout the centuries, still life has very much been the “poor relation” of the art genres, subordinate to the “higher form” of art where “man was the measure of all things” according to the French Royal Academy in the 17th Century. As still life did not involve a human subject, it was regarded as a lower form of painting.
Some artists certainly disagreed with this. Édouard Manet once called still life “the touchstone of painting”. However, there is certainly a dismissive complacency around the genre. Still life is seen as undemanding, something amateurs and professionals can dabble with for light relief from the serious business of creating “proper” art.
As so often happens, pride does indeed come before a fall. Damien Hirst, possibly the most well-known and most notorious of the Young British Artists of the 1990s, decided to venture into the still life sphere in 2009.
His exhibition at the Wallace Collection was very poorly received by critics. Art critic Adrian Searle in the Guardian described Hirst’s work as “positively amateurish”.
A further exhibition in 2012 was also panned. “Hirst, it turns out, is trying to become a master of still-life painting. He has been hard at work, alone and unaided, on canvases of fruit and foetuses, flowers and skulls” Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian, following it up with:
‘If Hirst did not try to paint an orange accurately, no one would know he can’t do it. But he has tried, at least I think it’s an orange, and the poor sphere seems to float in mid-air because of the clumsy circle of shadow below it.”
Colin Moss, from an older generation of artists, brought up in a tradition of sound draughtsmanship and keen observation, found still life a rewarding and stretching genre of work. He returned to it again and again throughout his career, using every medium from oil paint to watercolour to charcoal and pencil.
Colin Moss “Fruit on a Spanish Plate” (1954) Oil on Board
A solo exhibition of Colin’s vibrant flower paintings in 1989 at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich, showed a more relaxed, almost reflective, side to an artist more widely known for his gritty social realism and sumptuous nudes.
And with age came enjoyment of the “stillness” that can, sometimes, be found in [still] life.
Colin Moss “Lilies” and “A Pot Plant” c1980s
Endnote – just what is the plural of Still Life?
An interesting question – you’re not pluralizing lives, but works of art.
In fact, even though it ends in life, still life takes a regular –s plural: still lifes according to publisher Merriam-Webster (of dictionaries and reference book fame).
Possibly the easiest way to think of it is that the term is an abbreviation for “a still life painting” so “one still life painting”, “two still life paintings”; “one still life”, “two still lifes”.
Another colourful, eccentricity of the English language perhaps. Rather like the allure of still life itself.
Colin Moss “Lawrence Self’s Gardening Boots” Oil on Board
Hiding in Plain Sight – Camoufleurs of the 21st Century
The Big Tower, Camouflaged, Colin Moss 1943
Of the top ten most surveilled cities in the world, only two cities are outside China – Atlanta and London1. With an estimated 420,000 CCTV cameras operating in our capital city, we are “on camera” for much of the time – often unwittingly.
London based group The Dazzle Club2 brings together art, politics and activism to question and explore this “normalisation” of surveillance in our public spaces, through the use of dazzle camouflage techniques.
Since August 2019, the group has staged silent hour-long walks through different various parts of the city with each member decorating their face with anti-facial recognition patterns. Their ideas echo methods first developed by the camoufleurs of World War I and II and, more recently, CV Dazzle created by Adam Harvey3, an artist whose work explores the impacts of surveillance technologies.
Camoufleurs Hiding in Plain Sight
Colin Moss was part of the Camouflage Directorate from 1939 – 1943. Recruited solely from the foremost artists of their generation, the aim of the camoufleurs was the concealment of civilian installations, confusing “a pilot at a minimum of five miles distant and 5,000 feet up throughout daylight” using techniques such as dazzle.
“We’re hiding in plain sight,”
Emily Roderick “The Dazzle Club” 4
During his service in the Camouflage Directorate, Colin designed a number of camouflage schemes for installations such as Stonebridge Park Power Station, London. The key to “dazzling” is to break up the surface of the object whether it’s a power station or a face:
“You’re trying to obscure the natural highlights and shadows on your face. Cameras will reduce you down to pixels. They’ll pick up the bridge of your nose, your forehead, your cheekbones, your mouth and chin. So you have to flatten your face and obscure it.”
Georgina Rowlands “The Dazzle Club”5
The camoufleurs had similar aims, creating designs that featured disruptive patterns, in a range of colours, painted onto buildings. Their aim too 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 patterns consisted of a mixture of dark and light colours being painted next to each other. At power stations like Stonebridge (where The Cooling Tower was painted), the fuel was even changed to produce darker smoke that would contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive colouration”.
Stonebridge Power Station
21st Century Camouflage
Ultimately the Dazzle Club’s aim is not to fool the cameras and other surveillance technology in use on our streets. It’s about highlighting, through art, the creeping normalisation of surveillance in our towns and cities – to start a debate and make us aware of how ubiquitous this tech is.
“If someone steals your credit card, you can cancel it and get a new one … [but] most of us are not going to do plastic surgery to rearrange our identity.”
Scott Urban, designer of anti-facial recognition glasses “Reflectacles”
The Dazzle Club – Exploring surveillance in public spaces. Sign up to Dazzle Club’s newsletter if you’d like to receive details of the Club’s upcoming walks eepurl.com/gEGvnb.