Marlow Moss and the Martian Invasion of Cornwall

A detail from White, Black, Yellow and Blue, 1954, by Marlow MossNever heard of the British Constructivist painter and sculptor Marlow Moss? Neither had I until I stumbled across a rather hidden-away room at the Tate last weekend.

Marlow Moss was born Marjorie Jewel Moss in Kilburn on 29 May 1889 to master hosier/clothier Lionel Moss and Frannie Jacobs. Defying her parents’ wishes, she attended the St John’s Wood School of Art in 1916–17 and then the Slade School of Fine Art until 1919. She is said to have left because of a nervous breakdown. She recovered in Cornwall, returned to London, returned to Cornwall to study sculpture at the Penzance School of Art, returned to London to set up a studio. In 1926, she changed her name to Marlow and adopted a masculine appearance for the rest of her life.

Marlow Moss, circa 1937
Marlow Moss, circa 1937

In 1927, Marlow moved to Paris, and met lifelong partner AH ‘Nettie’ Nijhoff, the writer-wife of Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff. At the Académie Modern, Marlow studied under Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant, but was influenced by Piet Mondrian. Marlow was a founder member of the Abstraction-Création group, which included Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

Marlow’s paintings in this period are akin to Mondrians’s neo-plasticism, but the mathematically-minded Marlow is also believed to have influenced his more instinctual work (Marlow introduced parallel double-gridlines into paintings in 1931, marlowmosssomething Mondrian did not do until his 1932 Composition with Double Line with Yellow). In the 1930s, after visiting Athens, Marlow started to make all-white reliefs of wood, rope and string.

Nearly all Marlow’s pre-war work was destroyed in 1944 when the Normandy chateau Marlow and Nijhoff had rented was bombed by Germans; but Marlow had already escaped from Nijhoff’s Zeeland home when Holland fell in May 1940 and returned to Cornwall. Studying architecture at the Spatial-Construction-in-S-002Penzance School prompted a turn to sculptural work. Living in Lamorna Cove, Marlow was now a neighbour of the St Ives-based Nicholson and Hepworth. Marlow twice wrote to Nicholson suggesting they meet for tea, but never received a reply. Henry Moore also seems to have been less than supportive.

Marlow died of cancer on 23 August 1958. The current, single-room exhibition at the Tate is Marlow’s first solo exhibition in the UK. It includes paintings, reliefs, and sculptures, including two pieces, Balanced Forms in Gunmetal on Cornish Granite (1956-7) and Construction Spatial (1953), inspired by the Martian cylinder that crashed near Truro at the turn of the century, and the war machine that emerged from it.

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One thought on “Marlow Moss and the Martian Invasion of Cornwall”

  1. Last year the Tate (possibly t’Liverpool) tweeted, “You can’t mistake a Mondrian”, to which I responded “Unless it’s a Marlow Moss.” They were oddly unresponsive, presumably having forgotten the St Ives version of the exhibition. I have a feeling there was a bit more stuff when it appeared at the Jerwood, Hastings — paperwork and ephemera. Sadly to see she doesn’t make it into the Adventure of the Black Square at Whitechapel.

    I also wonder whether Alexander Calder’s mobiles were inspired by her — he met Mondrian certainly.

    I have vague recollection that Winnifred Nicholson was the connection between Mondrian and Ben Nicholson — whose still lives and Wallis-inspired naïve landscapes metamorphose into his only coloured rectangles and white reliefs. I’m not sure how far she influenced Mondrian though.

    Like

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