Marlow Moss, ‘Composition in Yellow, Black and White’ 1949
Marlow Moss
Composition in Yellow, Black and White 1949
Tate
© reserved

Who is Marlow Moss?

Marlow Moss is a British artist who was born in London in 1889. From an early age, Marlow was very creative and curious about many different art forms, including music, ballet, writing, art and architecture! After studying at two art schools in London and one in Cornwall, Marlow moved to France in 1927, and it was there that Moss really found their voice as one of Paris’s exciting, modern artists!

Wait - why did you say their voice? Was Marlow male, or female? Or neither?

The short answer? We’re not totally sure. We do know that Marlow loved their name, which they picked themselves. This is something that a lot of artists and LGBTQ+ people do, because it helps them tell the world who they are and how they want to be understood.

Marlow is neither a male nor female name, which could be important. The artist loved dressing up in very theatrical, masculine clothes and had a very short hair cut, which was unusual at the time, but Marlow’s partner Netty used the words ‘she’ and ‘her’ to describe Marlow in her letters.

It’s very interesting trying to describe people from history like Marlow, because we have tonnes of words to describe gender now that didn’t exist in Britain back then. Perhaps if Marlow was alive today, the artist would identify as transgender, which means that your gender is different to the one that the doctors or midwives presumed you were when you were born, or non-binary, which means that neither the word ‘boy’ nor ‘girl’ are a good fit for you.

We’ve used the pronoun ‘they’ in this article because it can be used for all genders, and is handy if you’re unsure what to call someone, and we’ve also used the artist’s first name a lot because it’s one thing we know Marlow chose for themselves (and it’s a pretty awesome name). Still, we could be wrong! If only we could ask Marlow, ourselves!

Do you prefer to describe yourself as she, he or they? Do you think you could ask someone their pronouns, while making them feel comfortable and respected? If you're unsure of someone's pronouns, it can be helpful to share yours first and then ask what theirs are. Sharing your pronouns is a great way to make people feel comfortable with sharing theirs!

Marlow Moss, ‘Balanced Forms in Gunmetal on Cornish Granite’ 1956–7
Marlow Moss
Balanced Forms in Gunmetal on Cornish Granite 1956–7
Tate
© reserved

What sort of art did Marlow make?

Marlow mostly made paintings and sculptures, like the beautiful bronze and granite one above. They were part of a group called ‘Abstraction-Création’ who didn’t try to make their art look like ‘real’ people or objects. They enjoyed ideas that were harder to pin down.

Imagine trying to paint a feeling of excitement. Or electricity. Or the future! Everyone pictures these things differently in our heads, so you can’t always paint them in a straight-forward way. Marlow loved maths, and used a lot of basic shapes, clean lines and blocks of colour to express the every-day world in an abstract style.

Marlow Moss, ‘Untitled (White, Black, Blue and Yellow)’ c.1954
Marlow Moss
Untitled (White, Black, Blue and Yellow) c.1954
Lent by Hazel Rank-Broadley 2001
© reserved

Hang on – but what are paintings full of squares actually about?

Loads of things! The universe. Humans. Machines. And nature! Marlow was less interested in art that looked pretty, and more interested in exploring the shapes and movements that make up what seems real to us. Because when you think about it, maths, shapes and lines are everywhere in nature! From the patterns inside crystals or snowflakes, to a spider's web, or invisible sound waves.

Marlow seems curious about whether humans are part of the natural world, or outside of it. Perhaps making patterns is something we have in common with nature - with crystals, spiders, and snowflakes! What do you think? Could making art be a good way to explore this question?

Metal mobile-like sculpture
Marlow Moss
Spatial Construction in Steel 1956-8
© Leeds Museums and Galleries, UK / Bridgeman Images

Sounds interesting - but why haven't I heard of Marlow Moss before now?

A good question. Moss did most of their major exhibitions in Paris, where their style of painting was more popular. Still, how does it happen that an important artist like Moss could be left out of British history?

War had a part to play, sadly. Marlow was Jewish, and had to leave Paris for safety when the Second World War began. They left most of their art behind and it got destroyed. Today, some of the paintings that survived are confused with other artist’s work. Have a look at the two paintings below. One is by Moss, and one is by their friend Mondrian. Can you see the similarities? Can you see some differences, too?

Mondrian painting of geometric shapes
Piet Mondrian
Composition C (No. III) with Red, Yellow and Blue 1935
Tate, on loan from private collection since 1981
Painting of red, blue, yellow and white geometric shapes
Marlow Moss
Red, Blue, Yellow and White 1957-58
© Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

After leaving Paris in 1940, the artist moved to Lamorna Cove in Cornwall. Even though Marlow was a kind neighbour (who bought every child in the village a Christmas present!) when Marlow wrote letters to other British artists in the area, they didn’t write back. Not even to have a cup of tea! Probably this was because Marlow really walked to the beat of their own drum. Painting art that didn’t look like anything else, wearing trousers and waistcoats (which back then, people thought were just for men) really made Marlow stand out of the crowd! Marlow had a unique identity and was not afraid of new ideas. Some people loved this, and others struggled with it, and this may have led them to treat Marlow unfairly.

Anything else I need to know?

Well, I’m guessing that after all this talk about modern dress and bold ideas, you’ll be dying to get a glimpse at what Marlow looked like! Drum roll, please…

Marlow Moss in front of Lamorna sign

Digital image of a portrait of Marlow Moss, thought to have been taken by Stefan Nijhoff, A.K.A Stephen Storm
Private collection
Image courtesy of Florette Dijkstra

Ta-da! Can you imagine how brave you’d have to be to look this unique and dramatic in a small town, in the 1940s?

Next time you’re looking fresh in your favourite clothes, think of Marlow Moss – a very modern artist who looked dashing in a pair of riding trousers and a high-collared shirt!