Painter, draughtsman, camoufleur, printmaker, teacher and soldier
Colin Moss served as a camoufleur from 1939 – 1943, working on the concealment of civilian installations. During his service he designed a number of camouflage schemes for installations such as Stonebridge Park Power Station, London.
At the beginning of the war, the Germans already knew where several of Britain’s vital industrial targets were located. Recruited solely from the foremost artists of their generation, the aim of the Leamington-based camouflage officers (“camoufleurs”) was to guard Britain’s civil installations by confusing “a pilot at a minimum of five miles distant and 5,000 feet up throughout daylight.”
Camouflaged Cooling-Towers, 1943, Watercolour, 36.8cm x 54.6cm, (War Artists Advisory Committee purchase © Imperial War Museum)
The camoufleurs of the Camouflage Directorate were theatre set designers, practicing artists, sculptors, architects. All were recruited as “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.
Their designs featured strident patterns, in an array of colours, painted onto buildings. The aim 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).
The camouflage schemes they designed either hid the target, so it merged into its surroundings, or deceived the eye as to its size and placement.
More surreal techniques included adding road markers to roofs or standing concrete cows on them, to fool Luftwaffe bomb aimers or, at the very least, to make them to hesitate and so miss their target.
Smoke and Mirrors
The patterns were designed to break up and disrupt the objects outline and consisted of a mix of dark and light colours, painted next to each other. At power stations like Stonebridge, where Colin’s “The Big Tower” (below) was painted, the power station’s fuel was modified to emit darker smoke that would contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive colouration”.
(L-R) Stonebridge Park Power Station with camouflage scheme in place 1941 (B&W photo), Camouflaged Factory Buildings, 1941, Watercolour, Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, The Big Tower, Camouflaged, 1943, Watercolour 63.5 cm x 45.3cm, (War Artists Advisory Committee purchase © Imperial War Museum)
As the war went on, and the threat from the German air force decreased, the UK Government scaled back its commitment to civil camouflage. Inevitably, this meant that the work of the camoufleur unit was wound down. However, before the camoufleurs were reassigned to new war work, “the Ministry decided it wanted a pictorial record of aspects of camouflage and all the artists were given about a month’s paid leave to do paintings of whatever jobs they had designed.” Colin Moss : Life Observed.
Colin spent his month’s leave painting watercolours of the various camouflage schemes he had designed, before joining the Life Guards (part of the Household Cavalry) on active service in the Middle East. A number of those watercolours are in the ownership of the Imperial War Museum in London, others are housed by Leamington Spa Museum & Art Gallery.
Once the aerial threat from the German Airforce was over, Colin went on active service. He was initially deployed to North Africa (in 1943) and later, once the war was over, Palestine, as part of the effort to establish the state of Israel.
The images below are from a number of Colin’s sketchbooks, now kept in the Tate Archive in London. This is the first time they have been published.
(L-R) North African Refugees Pen, ink, gouache & wash, 24.8cm x 27.5cm, Two Soldiers Talking Pastel, 59.5cm x 42cm, Middle East Battle School Pencil, ink, gouache & wash, 37.7cm x 25.2cm
L-R North Palestine 1946, Lithograph, 37.5cm x 47.8cm, Portrait of an Officer, Seated, Palestine, 1946, Pencil, 51cm x 36.7cm
For his final for 6 months of military service (in 1947), he taught in the Army Education Corps (now the Educational & Training Services – ETS) gaining invaluable experience before commencing his post-war career, lecturing at the Ipswich Art School.
On the Tube 1947 Watercolour & ink, 24.5cm x 30.8cm
As Colin’s career at the Ipswich Art School came to an end in 1979, his war-time experiences bubbled to the surface. Over the next decade, he generated a series of sketches, drawings, paintings, linoprints and watercolours, reflective of his experiences, memories and opinions on “war and the pity of war”.
(L-R) Exodus, 1985, Charcoal and pastel, 48cm x 40.5cm, “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” 1978 Pencil 76.5 cm x 56 cm (Colchester & Ipswich Museums)
(L-R) Playing Soldiers, Oil & collage on board 99 x 120.5 cm Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service, Sentry Under Red Sun, Oil on board 91.8cm x 71.5cm
One of his most haunting paintings from this era is “Moonlight over the Third Reich”. The influence that camouflage dazzle techniques, and art movements such as cubism and surrealism, had on camoufleurs like Colin throughout their artistic careers, can be seen vividly throughout this work. The painting “Moonlight over the Third Reich” was donated to the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, London by Colin’s widow Pat in 2009.
Moonlight over the Third Reich, 1974-1982 Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, London, (L-R) Linocut, 50cm x 40.5cm, Oil on canvas, 91cm x 75.8cm, Pencil, 69.9cm x 51.8cm
The Camoufleur Alumni
At its peak, the Camouflage Directorate numbered over 230 staff, including a number who, post-war, went on to become some of the most significant and illustrious artists and designers of their generation.
Members of the group included:
- Christopher Ironside (designer of the UK’s decimal coinage)
- Janey Ironside (professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art)
- Richard Guyatt (professor of graphic design at the Royal College of Art)
- Eric Schilsky (head of the School of Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art)
- leading lights of the English Surrealist movement Julian Trevelyan and Roland Penrose
- set designer, painter and sculptor Victorine Foot
- Robert Goodden (professor of silver smithing at the Royal College of Art)
- Robert Darwin (principal of the Royal College of Art)
and, of course, Colin Moss.
In 2007, the Imperial War Museum in London put together a wide-ranging and extensive exhibition on camouflage. It was the first one of its kind in showing the history of camouflage and its use in wildlife, popular culture and, of course, how camouflage had been used in warfare. The exhibition featured the work of the Leamington Spa camoufleurs including four of the watercolours that Colin painted in 1943 of the camouflage schemes he worked on.
In 2016, the Imperial War Museum loaned these watercolours to Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum for its 2016 exhibition “Concealment & Deception”. The book accompanying the exhibition can be accessed online here .
(L-R) Captain Colin William Moss – Life Guards, 1943, Poster for the Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum 2016 Exhibition “Concealment & Deception” featuring Colin’s 1941 watercolour Camouflaged Factory Buildings