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.
Social Realism & the Art of Colin Moss ARCA
Colin Moss was a social realist [who] applied firm draughtsmanship and the forceful vision of European expressionism to the docks and terraces of his native Ipswich. There he drew and painted scenes of ordinary life – men in the pub, women eating sandwiches in the park or bending on doorsteps to pick up milk. “I draw working-class people because they are more interesting than middle-class people,” he said. “I have no political allegiances.”
Ian Collins – The Guardian (January 2006)
Colin Moss, “Over the Garden Fence”, 1947
Colin’s passion for social realism dated back to his student days at the Royal College of Art. His 1936 painting, Hunger Marches, was part of his Diploma show in 1937. Based on the 1936 march to London by the unemployed men of Jarrow, Colin’s painting captures the dignity of the men, stoically walking through the rain in their capes.
Colin Moss, “Hunger Marchers”, 1936
His unconventional decision to paint the men as they were seen from behind, emphasised their upright determination as a body of humanity rather than as a collection of individuals. This was a device which would become something of a trade mark in several of Colin’s future work. Even though it is easy to draw some sort of political message out of his work, Colin never once joined a political organisation. His party neutrality meant that people could view his work as a document of post war life; rather than as party propaganda.
Colin Moss, “Uphill Workers”, 1955
Amongst the artistic community in 1930’s Britain there was an intent to show ordinary people doing ordinary things (often referred to as “kitchen-sink” art) and this fascination with the “everyday” became an essential part of Colin’s artistic drive.
Colin Moss, “London Pub Scene”, 1939
Returning to Ipswich after the war he was struck by how much the town resembled a Coronation Street style northern conurbation with little houses around the middle of the town and enormous pubs. In his own words “It was a very Arnold Bennett kind of town”. Post war Ipswich was one that was gritty and tough with rationing still a feature well into the 50s and the majority of the working men employed in heavy industry. Colin’s hostility to sensationalism, gave his work a much more relatable edge as when people would view his work they could see their own experiences reflected in his work.
For more information about “Window Cleaner” 1955, click here.
Post-war Ipswich’s industrial heritage included names that were widely known in Britain and across the world. Engineering companies such as Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries, Ransomes & Rapier and Cranes exported goods around the globe and employed generations of Ipswich workers. Colin’s 1950 ink and gouache drawing “Ipswich Cyclists” captures three workmates cycling home in the dark from work. One man leans across to chat to his fellow cyclists and the headlamps of the three bikes glow in the gloom. Interestingly, men on bikes appear quite frequently in Colin’s work as this was the main means of transport for workers before mass affordable cars. In fact, during the 50s, Ipswich was supposed to have more bicycles per head of population than any other town in the country!
For more information about “Ipswich Cyclists” 1950, click here.
Long hours working hard in the dust and heat at the Ipswich based Ransomes Sims & Jefferies engineering plant was the way of life for thousands of locals. The sound of the Ransomes’ bull horn would summon the men to the RSJ works, which, until the 1960s was on a vast site around Duke Street and Ipswich Dock. “The Bull” kept time, not only for staff of RSJ, but others all around town, including children in the local schools. Despite the above companies dominating life within the town, nowadays the industrial scene in Ipswich is a shell of what it is with most of the factories themselves being demolished.
As well as the industrial side of life, Colin also drew and painted domestic scenes – a woman hanging out washing or brushing the front step, his mother rolling out pastry. Each image a snapshot of a life from a bygone age but which captivates the eye, and the heart, with its “mundane” humanity.
Colin Moss “The Artist’s Mother Making Pastry” 1962
Colin’s kitchen-sink realism was just one strand of his extraordinarily multi-faceted career but possibly was the work that was closest to Colin Moss the man. And his interest in the lives of ordinary people carried on throughout his career in art. His in interest in the regular meant that he could portray life on the streets without the condescension that so many artists seem to do; and this ultimately makes his work so much more poignant.
From the artist’s sketchbook 1995
“As an artist Colin drew and painted what he saw around him. His work functions not only as great art but also as a valuable social document about what life was like in Ipswich and across the country from the late 1940s until his death in December 2005. His portraits of workers leaving the Ransomes & Rapier factory, prostitutes on street corners, old women walking to the shops, laden with bags are an important part of Moss’s artistic legacy to the town.”
Andrew Clarke – Arts Editor at East Anglian Daily Times
Colin Moss “On the Streets, Then & Now” 1992
“Ipswich was a town of bicycles. In the 1950s it was supposed to have more bicycles and motorcycles per head of population than any other town in the country. There was a wonderful wave of workers coming out of the factories …. They had the Bull, the steam whistle which would tell people the time in Ipswich when they finished the shifts, and we knew they would come surging out until they got to the hill, then they’d get off and push.” Peter Underwood The Ipswich Society.
Colin Moss, Uphill Workers 1955
Colin’s interest in portraying the lives of ordinary people dates back to his student days at the Royal College of Art. His 1936 painting, Hunger Marches, was part of his Diploma show in 1937. “His unconventional decision to paint the men as they were seen from behind emphasised their upright determination as a body of humanity rather than as a collection of individuals. This was a device which would become almost a trade mark in several of Colin’s future paintings and drawings.” Colin Moss: Life Observed (Chloe Bennett).
Colin Moss Hunger Marches 1936
Ipswich’s industrial heritage included names that were widely known. Engineering companies such as Ransomes Sims & Jeffries, Ransomes & Rapier and Cranes exported goods around the world and employed generations of Ipswich workers. Colin’s 1950 ink and gouache drawing “Ipswich Cyclists” captures three workmates cycling home in the dark from work. One man leans across to chat to his fellow cyclists and the headlamps of the three bikes glow in the gloom.
Colin Moss Ipswich Cyclists 1950
The picture of the cyclists below was taken in the late 1940s at the bottom of Bishops Hill with Fore Hamlet in the background. Round the corner from the sprawling Ransomes Sims and Jefferies plant, a loud steam-powered horn, known to the people of Ipswich as “The Bull”, would summon people to work.
David Kindred, Ipswich Fore Hamlet
Today the area around Bishops Hill and Fore Hamlet is largely unrecognisable. The road was widened in the 1960s to make way for four wheeled traffic, rather than two wheeled, and new buildings have sprung up on both sides of the road.
Fore Hamlet from the bottom of Bishops Hill Photography Michael Jolly
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For many years, Tuesday was market day in Ipswich. The thriving livestock market saw cattle, sheep and pigs being auctioned. The streets surrounding the market area thronged with people and the numerous pubs in the area (now all closed) did a roaring trade on market day.
The Tithe gift sale at the Ipswich Cattle Market (photo by David Kindred )
The men who worked with the livestock had a tough job. The work was hard and the conditions often unpleasant. Colin’s 1956 pastel “Cattle Drovers” depicts two cattle drovers whose job it was to drive the livestock down Princes Street, from the railhead near Princes Street bridge, towards the livestock market in Portman Road.
Colin Moss “Cattle Drovers” 1956
“Lots of people in the period after the war, and who’d been in National Service, wore clothes they’d got in the army as uniform because clothing was rationed. One of them is wearing an ex-army greatcoat. A lot of people used to wear these gumboots with socks that came over the top of them. These men are quite typical of working men at that time. No man went about bareheaded in the street”. Colin Moss: Life Observed
From Jarrow to Ipswich
Twenty years earlier, whilst a young student at the Royal College of Art, Colin had seen the Jarrow Hunger Marchers as they walked through London. His 1936 painting “Hunger Marchers” was the first of many images he produced throughout his long career depicting ordinary men and women. “I like to draw working-class people because they are more interesting than middle-class people”. Colin Moss: Life Observed
Colin Moss “Hunger Marchers” 1936
The End of the Cattle Market
The cattle market was part of Ipswich’s history for centuries. Its location changed several times over the years as the town expanded. In 1856 the cattle market moved to its final site on (what was then) the town marshes, the area which is now between Portman Road and Princes Street. The last livestock market was held in the town in January 1985.