When Colin Moss was training at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, drawing was an integral part of his education – and intensively taught. His Board of Education Drawing Examination was, in his words, ‘very difficult indeed’. One test involved drawing a figure in action as a skeleton and a muscle figure, showing all the bones and muscles. He also had to do a life drawing from memory.
It’s entirely possible that his study included drawing plaster casts, which had some advantages over drawing from life. Shadows, for example, were still present, but the white plaster made it easier to recognise them and to experiment with tones. Which may be why Colin was using them at the Ipswich Art School in 1978. By then exercises like this had rather fallen out of fashion.
“I was doing a project on anatomy with my students and the somewhat damaged casts were all we had… I had to do a lot of drawing of these casts in teaching these kids to draw.”
Colin completed the project, but became fascinated by the casts themselves. The head of one had broken off, so he put it near the figure, on the ground, and started drawing it. At which point one of his students brought in a book full of photographs taken during the First World War. And inspiration struck.
“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 the concrete idea in my mind, it grew as the thing developed.’
Restoring the art school’s plaster casts
As part of the ongoing Kiss & Tell exhibition, Ipswich Museums and Galleries have restored two of the old Ipswich Art School’s plaster casts – the Bruges Madonna (pictured below) and Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo. The conservation process for the Madonna began with a series of photographs to record the state of the cast before restoration. The work involved cleaning the surface, replacing essential missing parts, repainting the piece and then waxing it.
The restorers used melamine sponges, warm distilled water and conservation grade mild detergent to clean the cast. As expected, this revealed a considerable amount of detail, but there had also been much damage over time. After sealing any open edges with a solution of PVA glue in water, they used dental wax to control the plaster fills, modelling them using coarse sandpaper and then smoothing them with flexi grit paper before finishing with Polyfilla. After sealing the casts with the PVA/water solution they painted it with chalk paint, allowing the plaster to breathe, and finished it with a final coat of wax. You can read a detailed account of the process here.
Kiss & Tell at Christchurch Mansion
The exhibition itself is devoted to works of art showing the human body in its natural state and in movement. With Auguste Rodin’s iconic The Kiss as the star attraction, it also includes works by Suffolk sculptors including Thomas Woolner, RA (a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who was born in Hadleigh) and Maggi Hambling CBE, who trained under Colin at the Ipswich School of Art.
One of Colin’s paintings – ‘Standing Nude’ (1969) – is on display alongside works by artists such as Constable, Blake and Picasso.
The exhibition, reviewed here continues until 28 April 2019