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Why there is still life in Still Life

Why there is still life in Still Life

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.


Oil painting of a wine bottle with oranges on the left and lemons on the right in the style of

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).


Still Life Oil painting of a reclining clay figure of a women with a bowl of fruit in the background by Sir Matthew Smith dated 1939

Sir Matthew Smith, “Still Life with Clay Figure, 1” (1939)
© By permission of the estate of the Sir Matthew Smith, photo © Tate


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.


Photo of Royal College of Art students 1936 and colourful oil painting of Mervyn Levy by Colin Moss

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!”

Still Life gouache of herrings lying on a newspaper with an apple by Colin Moss

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.


Still life oil painting of two dead pigeons on a yellow plate waiting to be plucked by Colin Moss

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 skullsJonathan 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.


Still life oil painting of fruit on a colourful Spanish plate on a chequered cloth by Colin Moss

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.


Pencil sketch of ornamental lilies and a watercolour of a purple flowering pot plant by Colin Moss

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.


Still life oil painting by Colin Moss of a pair of brown, well used gardening boots alongside garden bulbs

Colin Moss “Lawrence Self’s Gardening Boots” Oil on Board



Hiding in Plain Sight – Camoufleurs of the 21st Century

Hiding in Plain Sight – Camoufleurs of the 21st Century

Hiding in Plain Sight – Camoufleurs of the 21st Century


Hiding in Plain Sight

Photo Credit:

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”.

Hiding in Plain - Stonebridge Power Station

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




Ipswich Art Society – Ken Cuthbert at 90  

Ipswich Art School Gallery, High Street, Ipswich, running till the 30th June.

An engaging mini-retrospective exhibition of the work of Suffolk artist Ken Cuthbert features as part of this year’s Ipswich Art Society annual exhibition (now in its 142nd year). 

Back Garden in the Snow, 1972

Ken is a former President of the Society and teacher to many of the Art Society members, including this year’s winner of the Mayor’s Award, David King, whose work “Felixstowe Cranes” shows a shared interest with his teacher in the industrialised landscape.

Dykes, Canals, Rives and Beaches

One of Ken’s earliest memories was of a holiday as a young boy in Thorpeness in 1937 where “at the mere’s edge the water and grass were one. Thus, one of my recurring themes took root, in dykes, canals, rivers and beaches.” Featured in the exhibition are a number of works reflecting this, including a very recent oil “Royal Military Canal, Warehorn” painted in 2018 from an original conté crayon drawing produced in 1957, one of many versions of that drawing reflecting Ken’s fascination with this theme.

Royal Military Canal, Warehorn, 2018

Cor Visser and Dock-End

Working in Ipswich as a government inspector (Weights and Measures), Ken’s formal art training began in the early 1950s when he met Ipswich-based Dutch artist and tutor, Cor Visser. Ipswich Docks was where Cor Visser’s boat and studio were situated and Ken “felt a deep and immediate response” to the romantic dereliction of the Dock End of Ipswich Port. In the 1969 documentary “Painters in the Modern World”, Ken is shown walking through the run-down Dock End amongst “discarded metal, machines that die, to be revived in his imagination.”

“Dock-End Scrapheap” 1959, a large and complicated oil where lines and form come out of the chaos.

Certainly, the heavily industrialised dock area of Ipswich inspired many of Ipswich’s post-war artists, including Colin Moss whose “Ipswich from the New Cut” is owned by Colchester & Ipswich Museums.

For more information, click .


Painters in the Modern World

Much of the work was (and still is) completed in Ken’s own studio usually from drawings made on the spot, (drawings that are “immaculate and worthy of exhibition” according to gallery owner Denis Taplin). The “Painters in the Modern World” documentary gives a fascinating glimpse of the artist at work.

British Film Institute (BFI) Player “Painters in the Modern World

For Ken inspiration came not only from the Dock End, but from the wider industrialised landscape in Suffolk and beyond. A number of the works in the exhibition reflect this featuring everything from “tank traps and blockhouses on the Suffolk coast to harbour walls in the South … hard, brutalist shapes set in romantic landscapes.”


Part of the retrospective is devoted to Ken’s recording of the construction of significant buildings in the area such as the maternity block at Ipswich Hospital and a number of drawings detailing the construction of Sizewell A nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast.

Inspiration in Dordogne

In the 1980s Ken, and his wife Mavis, bought a cottage in the Dordogne, captivated by both the colour and the landscape of the area. Colin Moss, then art critic at the EADT, felt the move to France enhanced and intensified Ken’s use of colour, taking his work to a new level. As the owner of one of Ken’s paintings from this period, I wholeheartedly agree! The work, “Prieu Dieu”, enlivens the wall of my sitting room and never fails to delight the eye on even the most downcast day.

“Prieu Dieu” 1993, pictured with the artist Ken Cuthbert

Now in his 90th year, Ken Cuthbert continues to paint, exhibit and teach and this mini retrospective exhibition gives a just glimpse of the breadth of his work.


Ken Cuthbert’s retrospective continues at the Ipswich Art School Gallery until June 30th alongside Ipswich Art Society’s annual members’ exhibition. The exhibition features 275 paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures by Members, Friends and the general public, spread over both floors of the gallery.

Shout it from the rooftops; drawing is back!

Having been out of fashion and overlooked for several decades, perhaps not by artists but certainly by art schools and art dealers, drawing is once more being celebrated for its role at the heart of artistic practice.

David Hockney quote on drawing

Drawing is what makes art “tick”. It “includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting…drawing contains everything, except the hue” declared Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In other words, its importance cannot be overstressed. This weekend’s Draw Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery in London is the first of its kind in the UK. Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, its aim is to encourage people to look at drawings “as more than pencil on paper”. And to ask the question “what is drawing in the digital age?”, says the Fair’s strategic director Jill Silverman van Coenegratchts.

Art Fair London

“Less like a shopping mall, more like a museum”

Although the focus is on drawing, exhibitors were able to include related sculptures, paintings, photos, videos, providing the drawings were 70% of their offering. Undoubtedly, the 50 odd galleries were there to sell but the fair was intended to be more like a curated event. Jill Silverman van Coenegratchts  “[the aim is] to create a space that feels less like a shopping mall, more like a museum”.

Draw Art Fair certainly offers a comprehensive look at drawing in all its aspects. The works of modern masters like Matisse, Kandinsky, Cocteau, Picasso, Moore are featured alongside contemporary artists such as Irene Lees. Lees extraordinary hand-written, researched “artwork-essays” are certainly like nothing I have seen before. Click here to view them on the Candida Stevens gallery website.

Laura Gascoigne for Irene Lees exhibition quote on drawing

Draw Art Fair also features performance events such as Harald Smykla’s Movie Protocols – pictographic shorthand notation of films (utterly fabulous in my opinion!) and Simon Heijdens’s laser driven Water Drawings.

Harald Smykla Movie Protocols - line drawings

And alongside the individual gallery offerings, exhibits from international collections including an exhibition of drawings and sculptures by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi brought to my mind the work of local Suffolk sculptor Bernard Reynolds, who was also an accomplished artist and draughtsman.Isamu Naguchi and Bernard Reynolds

Colin Moss’s own views on the importance of drawing came from his rigorous art school training in the 1930s. Then, students covered life and antique drawing, figure composition and measured perspective. The demanding Board of Education Drawing Exam was, for Colin, “a wonderful sort of basic grammar [and] was the basis of everything I’ve ever done since” (see below).

Colin Moss Still Life

And this belief in the primacy of drawing was passed onto his students:

Maggi Hambling on drawing

Here’s to next year?

So let’s hope the Saatchi Gallery’s Drawing Art Fair is not a one-off and that drawing is back in the limelight, where it belongs. For those unable to get to the fair this weekend, all the work is being shown on Artsy. To  find all the related info and articles, click here. And do read Laura Cumming’s in-depth article from April’s Guardian on the absolute enduring joy of drawing.

Grayson Perry