Lot 14
  • 14

Marlow Moss

60,000 - 80,000 GBP
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  • Marlow Moss
  • Composition Yellow, Blue, Black, Red and White
  • signed and dated 1956-57.
  • oil on canvas, in the Artist's painted wooden frame
  • overall: 99 by 52.5cm.; 39 by 20¾in.


W.F. Nijhoff, Lausanne
Private Collection, Germany
Sale, Christie's Amsterdam, 5th June 1996, lot 366, where acquired by the present owner


London, Hanover Gallery, Marlow Moss: Sculptures, Paintings, 4th March - 3rd April 1958, cat. no.7;
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Marlow Moss, 30th March - 30th April 1962, cat no.40 (as wit, geel, blauw, rood en zwart);
Arnhem, Gemeentemuseum, Marlow Moss: Space, Movement, Light, 11th December 1994 - 12th March 1995.


Florette Dijkstra (trans. Annie Wright), Marlow Moss: Constructivist + the Reconstruction Project, De Kleine Kapaciteit/The Patten Press, Penzance, 1995, cat. no.S55 (as White, Yellow, Blue, Red and Black).


The following condition report has been prepared by Philip Young of Philip Young Conservation, London. The painting was examined at Bond Street. Condition is sound, and the appearance is good; there are scattered and fairly extensive areas of retouching and restoration throughout, including to the frame. STRUCTURE AND CONDITION The painted canvas is contained within the painted timber frame; there are signs that this frame may have been repainted (perhaps by the artist, as it has been subject to later restoration and retouching) at some point, the paint lapping around halfway onto the sides of the canvas is applied so the lines of frame paint at the edges of the painting are not straight. The painting has apparently been recently restored. The stretcher keys are held in position with thread, the back of the canvas is seen to be in good condition with no evidence of significant loss or damage. Labels have been transferred to mountboard. The stretcher appears to be the original. In the lower dark colours there is a fine and stable network of drying cracks and what appears to be a reversible surface blooming, as noted in the image. There are numerous areas of retouching, as noted approximately in the image, with some 10-20mm across in the upper and lower centre. On the whole the retouchings are small and restrained, as seen in UV. Most of the larger retouchings appear relatively matte and pale in glancing light. The outer frame is also filled and retouched over the corner mitres and the join where it meets the edge of painting sat within it. There is a partly restored but still apparent small sharp dent in the lower left, as noted. In addition there are networks of fine paint cracks scattered over the surface apparent in close viewing. The restoration would appear to address scattered areas of paint loss, these losses would have presumably been consolidated, filled and inpainted, apart from the smallest spot retouchings which may have addressed small points of wear to the paint surface. In the upper right yellow the surface has apparently had varnish applied, this may also be present elsewhere, and is likely to be part of this restoration. The paint appears to be stable and sound following the restoration. Philip Young Please telephone the department on +44 (0) 207 293 6424 if you have any questions regarding the present work.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Before the 2014 artist's retrospective that travelled from Tate St Ives to Leeds, Hastings and finally on to Tate Britain (where it hung in the rooms that not so long ago housed the Tate’s collection of work by Mondrian, van Doesberg, Helion and Vantongerloo), Marlow Moss was an ethereal presence in the history of 20th Century British art, a painter of great significance, but only known, it seemed, to ‘insiders’. And even after this small but beautiful exhibition, Moss’s imprint on the wider art-historical consciousness still remains light – in the most part due to how few of her works survive, with even fewer ever being seen on the open market. The appearance at auction of a major mature work, such as Composition Yellow, Blue, Black, Red and White, is therefore a significant event. 

Born in London, Marjorie ‘Marlow’ Moss moved to Paris in the late 1920s to apprentice herself to Lèger, although it was her encounter with Mondrian, around 1928, that would define her approach to abstraction for the rest of her career (Moss, in turn, has a genuine claim to have influenced ‘the Master’ too, having begun to use a double line motif in 1931, a year before Mondrian incorporated it into his vocabulary). Being in Paris, however, left her exposed to the onslaught of the Nazis. She packed up her studio and moved to a farmhouse in Normandy, only to be forced, in turn, to abandon this – and much of her life’s work – in 1944, as the War moved to the coast. Narrowly escaping on a boat to England, this final studio was hit by shelling, thus destroying not just the output of a highly creative two decades in Paris, but also almost the life’s work of the one true British disciple of Neo-Plasticism.

Another possible reason for Moss’s ethereal presence is how little contextual material survives. The one great photograph of her is very grainy, but also perfect: standing by a traditional Cornish road-sign just outside the tiny village of Lamorna – Land’s End 7½ miles away, the artist’s colony of Newlyn 3 miles – Moss is dressed in a white cravat, hunting jacket and jodhpurs, her hair short and styled like a man’s. Nobody in Lamorna had ever seen anyone or anything like it, although she would have equally cut a both glamorous and unusual figure in London at the time. The other photograph to survive from her time in Cornwall is that of her studio, essentially a derelict garden shed that Moss transformed into a gleaming white cube, à la Mondrian. It was taken in 1958 and so shows many of the sister paintings to Composition Yellow, Blue, Black, Red and White, which may itself be visible propped up to the right. In these rickety surroundings she pursued her singular vision in almost total isolation, even though at the time Cornwall had become the de facto centre of British avant-garde painting: Ben Nicholson, who like Moss showed with the Abstraction-Creation Group in Paris, was 15 miles away in St Ives, but never answered her letters.  And yet her concerns were very continuous with those of the ‘St Ives School’: to create an abstract pictorial language that could express a sense of light, space and movement. Moss’s vision is very radical and specifically geometric, but a work such as Composition Yellow, Blue, Black, Red and White is in tune, conceptually, with what Gabo, Hepworth and, ironically, Nicholson, sought to find in their move to Cornwall.

The artist Michael Canney, who gained access to Moss’s studio after her death in 1958, described it as ‘chapel-like’ in its austerity. And as an artist, Canney would have innately understood the pervading atmosphere of intellectual and aesthetic rigour. As Netty Nijhoff, the painter’s long-term companion, noted in a rare interview, Marlow Moss was a ‘truly remarkable figure. She understood Mondriaan (sic.) very well and vice versa. They were well matched. They were a pair of extraordinary lone wolves’ (quoted in Florette Dijkstra, Marlow Moss: Constructivist + The Reconstruction Project, De Kleine Kapaciteit/The Patten Press, Penzance, 1995, p.24).