Colin Moss “Half and Half” (1951) Pastel
Throughout his entire career, Colin Moss’s mastery of observational drawing was the bedrock for much of his artistic output. Schooled in the 1930s, at a time when observational drawing was the cornerstone of art education, his training at Plymouth Art School and The Royal College of Art profoundly influenced his long career in art.
However, during the “swinging 60s”, this once central part of the curriculum was marginalised and quickly assumed a subsidiary role in how art was taught in this country. In today’s blog, we trace how observational drawing came to prominence in the UK and then lost its place in the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
In the UK, Slade School of Art Professor Henry Tonks was instrumental in shaping the way that students were taught. Under his long tenure (1892-1930), students had to draw constantly throughout their early years and were given regular lectures in perspective, for example, and regularly went to museums to make copies.
Colin Moss – “Museum Study – Cockerel” c1932
The art historian Jacob Willer argues that Tonks’ emphasis on observation and drawing was a legacy of the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements of the early to mid 19th century that, in turn, drew on the traditions of the early Renaissance.
Royal College of Art
Similar ideas also ran through The Royal College of Art, which was founded in 1837 as the Government School of Design. At the RCA, the approach differed from the Slade, which was established to train fine artists. The RCA offered students a thorough grounding in drawing from using plaster casts of natural forms, ornamental designs and fragments of architecture and sculpture above life drawing.
Although by Colin Moss’s time, the RCA did as much life drawing as students at the Slade, close observation through anatomical casts remained an integral a part of the curriculum as it had in the College’s foundation a hundred years before.
Royal College of Art interior showing plaster casts of classical sculptures dated 1910
© Victoria & Albert Museum
Board of Education Drawing Exam
In order to qualify for entry into the RCA, Colin Moss had to pass the Board of Education drawing exam in the early 1930s. This tested students on their ability to draw from memory subjects chosen by the examiner such as a skeleton and muscle figure across seven different categories including as antique drawing and measured perspective. Colin Moss later said that this drawing exam was
“a wonderful sort of basic grammar, nobody would ever consider doing any of those things in an art school now of course… but I maintain that it gave a grasp of drawing which was the basis of everything I’ve ever done since.”
Colin Moss: Life Observed
Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield
It was this grounding that enabled Colin Moss to compose drawings such as “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” – a drawing that:
“could only have been done by someone of Colin’s generation, who had been rigorously trained within the disciplined 1930s art school tradition with its emphasis on learning the musculature and skeletal features of the human figure by heart.”
Chloe Bennet, Colin Moss: Life Observed
Colin Moss “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” (1978) Pencil
Colchester and Ipswich Museums Collections
Battlefields and Surrealism
“I was doing a project on anatomy with my students and these somewhat damaged casts were all that we had…I had to do a lot of drawings of these casts in teaching these kids to draw.
When the project was finished I was fascinated, I found I quite liked drawing these casts very carefully and precisely in pencil, so I started to draw the left hand figure, and then thought, that’s interesting I’ll make another one.
I drew this figure, which would got its head knocked off, but the head was still around so I put it on the ground in front of it. By a strange coincidence, a student brought in a book which was full of photographs of the 1914-18 war.
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 a concrete idea in my mind, it grew as the thing developed.”
Colin Moss: Life Observed
The disciplined environment that Colin Moss spent his formative years in, started to disappear in the post war period, as new ideologies spread rapidly throughout art education.
Henry Tonks, the man who did so much to emphasize close observation through anatomical casts and life drawing, commented that even in the 1930s the demands for change to the curriculum were strong. When describing the approach of a modern student, he said that they
“saw that no great power of drawing was necessary to produce a picture of ideas, so they made the plunge – perhaps plunge is too violent a word, they sidled into art.”
Colin Moss was committed to the values of Tonks throughout his career but started to find himself at odds with the prevailing mood of students and fellow practitioners. The academic training that he had received was seen to be somewhat restrictive by students who wanted to develop their own interpretations.
Colin Moss – Sketch for self-portrait “Inward Looking” (1966) Watercolour
Jacob Willier’s view is that this was the result of a change in attitude and ideology from the 1930s through to the 1960s that saw:
“art becoming more of a matter of taking a stand and making a novel statement and less a matter of making a good picture to the best of the painter’s knowledge and ability.”
Ipswich Art School in the 1960s
This pressure for change led to the creation of the new Diploma in Art and Design, which was introduced across art schools during the 1960s. At the Ipswich Art School where Colin Moss was senior lecturer, Roy Ascott was appointed to lead the School’s implementation of the new diploma and he appointed a team of new lecturers to assist in this task.
Colin Moss with a group of students and tutors in The Octagon, Ipswich Art School, 1960
Photograph courtesy of the East Anglian Daily Times
One such person was Stephen Willats, whose studio was next to Colin Moss’s. He expected to find an “ageing reactionary entrenched in tradition” he discovered the “breadth and depth of Colin’s vision and intellect.”
Indeed Colin “might have been a master draughtsman of the old school but he did accept the radical, if not mind blowing, ideas… when art schools universally were becoming more informal and free expression was the vogue.”
Despite the changes that occurred within art and art education, Colin Moss’s disciplined training in close observation as provided by anatomical casts and life drawing endowed him with the firmest of foundations. It enabled him to approach every piece of work secure in the knowledge that he could depict the human figure in its true form and apply his own creativity and expression on top of that foundation layer.
Colin Moss “On the Streets, Then and Now” (1992) Pencil
To see how Colin Moss actually used this in his drawing, and how his style evolved over his long career, head over to our Instagram page to view some of his best work.
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
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
The work of one of the most controversial artists of the mid-19th century, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), is featured this summer at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The exhibition, which continues until September 8, centres on the cityscapes for which Whistler is widely celebrated as a printmaker.
James Abbot McNeill Whistler – Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter c1872
Born in the USA in 1834, Whistler’s family travelled between the USA, Europe and Russia due to his father’s occupation as a civil-engineer. In 1859, aged 25, Whistler settled in London, choosing to reside alongside the working people of Wapping and Rotherhithe, frequenting the pubs and theatres, backstreets and riverside wharves where they lived and worked. Before settling in London, Whistler had spent three years at the US Military Academy at West Point where, despite being dismissed by the then superintendent Robert E Lee, he became highly proficient in map drawing and was employed in the etching office of the US coastguard after his dismissal. The precision that he learned at West Point and with the Coastguard would greatly benefit him in his later career.
James Abbot McNeill Whistler – Limehouse 1959
The exhibition also includes work from Whistler’s travels in Europe, but undoubtedly it is the work that depicts London, a London that has long passed into history, that most captures the attention. Whistler was able to capture this ramshackle world of wooden jetties and wharves through spending time observing the intimate details of everyday life and shunning any sensationalism that might distort the real lives of the people he drew.
James Abbot McNeill Whistler – The Barber’s Shop 1887
‘…the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil – and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky – and the tall chimneys become campanile – and the warehouses are palaces in the night – and the whole city hangs in the heavens’ James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1885.
James Abbot McNeill Whistler – Rag-Shop Milman’s Row 1887
To find out more information about the exhibition, click here.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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).
And this belief in the primacy of drawing was passed onto his students:
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.