Gallery: Colin Moss: Man of contrasts

The legacy of Colin Moss casts a huge shadow across East Anglia's art landscape.

Andrew Clarke

The legacy of Colin Moss casts a huge shadow across East Anglia's art landscape. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke had a sneak preview of a new exhibition which pulls together the various strands of Colin's long career.

Colin Moss has always been something of a cultural icon in his native East Anglia. Not only was he one of the nation's great contemporary artists - his death warranted fulsome obituaries in the national broadsheets - but he was also a passionate teacher.

He was senior lecturer in figure drawing at the highly regarded Ipswich Art School for 33 years. Among his students was Maggi Hambling, who opened a major retrospective of his work at the Ipswich Town Hall Galleries yesterday.

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What made him a great teacher was the fact that he was very much a practising artist. His students could under-stand that they were being guided by a man who knew what he was talking about. When he gave advice, or when he criticised, he was doing this from the position of a successful working artist making a living and having exhibitions in the real world - and not as some students may have otherwise been tempted to see him as a boring, old fart who merely existed in a classroom.

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.

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His portraits of workers leaving the Ransomes and Rapier factory, prostitutes on street corners, old women walk-ing to the shops, laden with bags are an important part of Moss' artistic legacy to the town.

Colin Moss, although was out of step with the genteel artistic world of 1950s Ipswich, his work was very in tune with the “kitchen-sink realism” movement that was making itself felt in London's art world at the time and in the theatre and cinema. Plays and films like Look Back In Anger, The Entertainer, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and, on television, Cathy Come Home were starting to show a grittier, more working class reality.

Colin's work was very much part of that tradition.

Speaking of her memories of Colin, Maggi said: “I was a student at the glorious old Ipswich Art School in High Street from 1962-64. In Colin Moss' life room we felt like raw recruits, ordered to stand to attention by our easels. His army career had effected a military precision and sense of discipline.

“I had enormous respect for him and was very fond of him. His teaching, like his painting, was tough, honest and passionate.

“When he was art critic of the EADT he always came to my shows and encouraged my work.

“I last saw him at the Snape Maltings in 2003 when he came to see my North Sea paintings exhibition there. I do miss him. He was one of Suffolk's finest people.”

The exhibition at The Town Hall Gallery Three has been curated by Emma Roodhouse who has drawn from the Borough Council's extensive collection and from paintings loaned by Moss' widow Pat.

She said that while Moss was alive his exhibitions were usually devoted to one strand of his extraordinarily multi-faceted career. She has attempted to create a career overview which charts not only Colin's expertise with different media but also the way that his career developed.

Some of the drawings he completed in the mid-1930s show the beginnings of the gritty and realistic style with which he would make his name later in life.

Emma said: “Colin was such a significant figure in Suffolk art that a retrospective of his work was overdue. We have about 40 of his pictures in the Ipswich collection - and that includes watercolours, drawings, prints, oil paint-ings - plus others loaned by Pat Moss. It was a fantastic opportunity to show the range of his work.

“Looking back at various bits of paperwork relating to past exhibitions, it became apparent that in the past they had just focussed to one aspect of his work at a time - be it nudes or watercolours or street life, this was a wonderful opportunity to show little bits of everything.”

She said that the title of the exhibition Colin Moss: Artist and Teacher highlighted the dual nature of his career and revealed one of the reasons why his work was so varied.

“Being a teacher he had access to a wide range of different techniques and he had to be proficient in their use as well. Looking at his work shows that he was never afraid to experiment and while many artists have a signature style, Colin's style changed with the media he was using. His oils look very different from his watercolours and they both are very different from his prints. He adopted a different look with each technique.”

She said when laying out the exhibition one of the factors she kept uppermost in her mind was positioning works so that viewers could compare and contrast the different styles. “If you look at his watercolours of flowers and then compare those to his linocut of Moonlight Over The Third Reich they are totally different and you could be for-given for not realising that they are by the same artist.”

She said that during the process of curating the exhibition she became aware of just how strong an influence Colin, as both teacher and artist, has had on the town. The majority of contemporary artists who trained in Suffolk passed through Colin's hands as did many of the graphic designers - “several people who work for the museum service have come up and said that they were taught by Colin. I have had lots of anecdotes passed on to me over the past few months, so I think the exhibition will touch a lot of people.”

Born in Ipswich in April 1914, Colin's parents William and Gertrude Moss ran a small grocery shop in the town. Colin said in interviews that he only had a hazy memory of his father who was killed at Passchendaele in 1917. The family then left Ipswich for Plymouth where his uncle lived and Colin's early art training was carried out at the Plymouth College of Art.

He won a scholarship to London's Royal College of Art, in 1934 and graduated in 1938. In his mid-twenties he worked on murals for the British Pavilion at the New York World Fair. On the outbreak of war he designed cam-ouflage for the Ministry of Defence before being called up and serving as a captain in the Middle East.

Although never an official war artist, the Imperial War Museum added five of his war-time paintings to their col-lection. After de-mob he returned to his East Anglian roots. In 1947 he became senior lecturer at the Ipswich School of Art where he taught until his retirement in 1979.

His friend and gallery owner Tony Coe said: “What made Colin special was that he brought a European sensibility to local art. He studied with Oskar Kokoschka in Salzburg, Austria and absorbed his very colourful view of the world.

“When he returned to Suffolk, he produced a series of local landscapes including views of Lavenham and Ipswich Docks which he executed in a very strong, vibrant style.

“The local people hated it - he painted these pictures in strong pinks and purples, not all the colours he was seeing - but this was the influence of Oskar Kokoschka.

“But whatever he did he inevitably made his own. He never slavishly copied. He was a true artist. He absorbed influences, which he assimilated and made his own.”

Emma Roodhouse added that although, for many years, Colin was regarded as East Anglian art's elder statesman it should not be forgotten that when he burst onto the art scene in the late 1940s and 1950s, he was seen by many as a brash, young upstart who delighted in flying in the face of convention.

“He and fellow artist and teacher Bernard Reynolds were part of a new world. They were young artists coming in, doing something new and loved stirring things up a bit. He took energy from the negative comments and the snide remarks of the establishment.

“It seems astonishing now but even simple things like taking students down to Ipswich Docks to draw from life seems to have ruffled feathers.”

She said that he imbued his students with good work practises and a sense of discipline about their work. “He taught his students to start really looking at the world around them. He, himself, was always drawing. His note-books are full of little sketches and drawings of things he saw just while walking down the street.

“In this exhibition we have a wonderful drawing of a man who has spent what little money he had on a bag of chips and has obviously dropped some on the pavement and Colin, instead of helping him pick them up or giving him some money for some more, dived for his notebook and produced a brilliantly dynamic drawing of this inci-dent. Looking at the drawing you can sense the urgency of the movement and the man's annoyance at the acci-dent.”

His works always focused on the ordinary 'person in the street' and objects in our everyday lives.

Colin's friend Tony Coe believes that Colin importance as a social commentator cannot be overstated. “He charted the changing face of Ipswich over the years. He loved people he saw in the street - real people. Workers coming out of Ransomes or Cranes's, prostitutes leaning on cars on street corners. The first influx of Jamaicans were very interesting to him and even recorded the beginnings of the Asian community in Ipswich.”

Emma said that in addition to the exhibition there is a wide range of associated events included life drawing classes and a Colin Moss-inspired Art Crawl round various Ipswich hostelries where Emma will lead and explain the links each venue has to Colin's life and works. Those attending the talks will be invited to share their own memories and observations about Colin and his work.

Colin Moss (1914-2005): Artist and Teacher runs at the Gallery Three Exhibition Ipswich Town Hall until June 12 2010. Admission is free.

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