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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