Colin Moss

Uncompromising painter
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The Independent Online

Colin Moss was an artist who produced distinctive paintings, prints and drawings of honest and gritty realism. In the second half of the 20th century, he made a reputation as one of East Anglia's most uncompromising artists and teachers, and his work was acquired by national collections.

Moss should have had a national reputation by the time he died, as well known for his depictions of everyday life as John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith and others working in the Kitchen Sink School vein. Yet, when in 1984 the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, put on "The Forgotten Fifties" touring exhibition which did much to reawaken interest in the decade, Moss's work was absent.

It was partly that in Ipswich he was out of the mainstream, but his saturnine temperament must have contributed. Lawrence Self, a colleague of Moss's at Ipswich Art School, reckoned that Helen Lessore's Beaux Arts Gallery, which promoted the Kitchen Sinkers in the 1950s, should have been Moss's spiritual home. Moss did try, but, rarely without a collar and tie, he obviously made the wrong impression when he called on Lessore. He was dressed in his best Sunday suit,

like the man who'd just come out of a bank . . . I am sure it wasn't because the pictures weren't what she would have had, but because I didn't fit her image of what an artist should look like. So I just went away again and became more and more introverted over it all.

Colin Moss was born in Ipswich in 1914. He was one of two children - there was an older sister, Susan - of William and Gertrude Moss. William, who ran a grocery and off-licence, was a First World War conscript in 1917 and soon after died at Passchendaele. Gertrude continued running the off-licence for four years, then trained as a hairdresser and moved the family to Devonport.

Moss early showed a talent and secured a place at Plymouth College of Art. During his four years there from 1930, he was taught to draw by James Lucas, and this exacting discipline proved "the basis of everything I've ever done since". Moss next went to the Royal College of Art, 1930-38, where the Principal was William Rothenstein. Among the teachers were Gilbert Spencer, Percy Horton, Barnett Freedman and Cyril Mahoney, but Moss found the atmosphere dull. His interest in the art of the Fauves, Picasso, Matthew Smith and Ruskin Spear led to his being branded a difficult student.

London widened his circle of interests. He smoked, drank, had affairs, enjoyed rugby and table tennis and fenced for the Royal College. A temperamental contrast to him was the Bohemian fellow-student Mervyn Levy, one of a group from Swansea through whom he came to know Dylan Thomas. Reminiscing about his college days in 1992 to Chlöe Bennett for her 1996 biography Colin Moss: life observed, Moss penned a sketch of a hopelessly drunk Dylan, clinging to the railings of the house where Moss had his student digs.

Proud of his working-class background, Moss was a lifelong socialist, in the 1930s attending left-wing meetings. At his diploma show in 1937, judged by William Nicholson, he included a powerful 1936 oil on canvas, Hunger Marchers, based on the Jarrow march.

He taught briefly at Harwich Grammar School. He helped paint mural panels for the British Pavilion for the New York World's Fair, tried his hand at scraper-board illustrations and in 1939 found secure employment working on camouflage for the Air Ministry.

When he was called up into the Life Guards in 1941, this put an end to his artistic career for the rest of the Second World War. He served in Army Education in Palestine, achieving the rank of captain. Towards the end of 1946, he taught life painting temporarily at Southern College of Art, in Bournemouth, then, wanting to work in a small art school, joined the staff of Ipswich School of Art in 1948, staying for 31 years. The 1947-48 Arts Council exhibition of Vincent van Gogh's work at the Tate Gallery was a turning point:

I vividly remember standing in front of a painting of an apple tree in blossom and feeling that sudden involuntary tightness of the throat which happens when one is confronted by a profound and totally unexpected emotional experience. I think it was probably that moment which revealed to me the direction I wanted to follow as a painter.

Moss's love of bold new developments in art was not always appreciated in Ipswich, where he felt isolated and alone (a short first marriage ended with the war and he was not to marry again until 1974), groups such as the then rather stuffy Ipswich Art Club proving uncongenial. Yet many students found his honest, open approach to their taste. Maggi Hambling admired his integrity. She remembers how he painted the pubic hair of a red-haired female student "as a red triangle, and this seemed terrifically outrageous and modern".

His reputation grew. He showed with the Colchester Art Society. In 1958, he helped form the New Ipswich Art Group; he returned to the Ipswich Art Club, becoming its chairman in 1980-82; he was a founder-member of the Six in Suffolk Group in 1976 and took part in group shows in London.

An important event was his one-man exhibition at the Kensington Art Gallery in 1951, followed by another at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1955, both organised by the enlightened dealer Michael Chase. Although the first was only a moderate success and the second a commercial disaster, they brought Moss to the attention of the national critics and resulted in works' being acquired by public collections. Among those that eventually owned Moss's work were the British Museum, Tate Gallery Archive, Imperial War Museum and Government Art Collection.

Moss was a busy exhibitor from the mid-1950s with many mixed and solo show appearances. After his retirement from teaching in 1979, he continued to produce powerful murals, paintings, drawings and prints. They were not an old man's works, but vibrant images reflecting the life - often low-life - of the day. He also developed another career as an art critic.

Colin Moss had a retrospective at Ipswich School of Art in 1969, the first in a series, with one on paper at the Chappel Galleries in Chappel, Essex, in 1992. There were further Chappel Galleries shows in 1997 and 1998, plus others at the John Russell Gallery, Ipswich (1994 and 1996), and the Boundary Gallery, London (1994), a retrospective at Graham & Oldham's, Ipswich (2001), and camouflage paintings from the Imperial War Museum at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich (2004).

David Buckman

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