Curtis Moffat was born in 1887 into a wealthy New York family. He was raised in Brittany and attended boarding school in the United States. After a brief diplomatic career, he studied painting in New York and from 1913-1914 at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He married the English actress and poet Iris Tree, daughter of the actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, in New York in 1916.
Having returned to Paris, Moffat associated there with some of the leading avant-garde artists and writers of the early 1920s. A group photograph outside the Jockey Club shows him posing alongside Ezra Pound, Man Ray, Kiki de Monmartre, Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. In 1923 he began experimenting seriously with photography and made portraits in collaboration with Man Ray. A number of portraits survive that are signed by both artists. They also made abstract 'photograms'-cameraless images made by placing objects directly on photographic paper and exposing it to light- which Man Ray had dubbed 'Rayographs.' Many Ray was one of several early-20th century, avant-garde artists to revive the photogram, which had first been used at the invention of photography in the 1830s.
Moffat exhibited four photograms, which he called 'Abstract Compositions,' in his first exhibition as a photographer at the Bond Street Galleries, London, in 1925. His photograms have received little attention, though they are among the earliest and most distinctive examples of the 20th-century interest in camera-less abstracts.
London Society portraits
Moffat moved to London in the mid-1920s, and in 1925 opened a portrait studio with Olivia Wyndham (1897-1967). It was here, throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, that Moffat produced stylish photographic portraits of leading figures in high society and the arts, including actress, writer and socialite Diana Cooper (1892-1986), actress Tallulah Bankhead (1902-68), writers Daphne du Maurier (1902-68) and Nancy Cunard (1896-1965), literary brothers Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell (1892-1969 and 1897-1988), and photographer Cecil Beaton (1904-1980).
Moffat photographed Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) often and engagingly. Like Moffat, Beaton was a society photographer and personality intimately connected with the 'bright young things' of the 1920s, but he later achieved much greater fame and became photographer to the royal family. Beaton would later recollect Moffat as:
'A gentle, quiet, easy-going man with velvet eyes and enormous charm, Curtis Moffat was the most Europeanised of Americans. He seemed to be only 'at home' in the quietness of his book-filled rooms. But appearances are deceptive; in fact he was the centre of enormous creative activity. Not only did Curtis Moffat run an avant-garde picture gallery, but he was also a talented painter himself, and he filled the nobly appointed rooms of a huge house, 4 Fitzroy Square, with his collections of Chinese objects and African sculpture.'
Snapshots and nudes
When not making glamorous society portraits, Moffat turned his camera towards the people and things that surrounded him in everyday life. Often shot from unusual angles or employing dramatic cropping, his snapshots record the textures of stone, water and plants, as well as modern motifs such as an aeroplane and an elegant staircase. Some of his studies were more contrived arrangements of seemingly disparate objects such as a sculpted head with a mallet or a pistol, jacket and flower.
Moffat also made numerous nude studies both in and out of the studio. These include a series of female models posed with African masks. Although he may have been inspired by Man Ray's celebrated photograph Noir et Blanche (1926), the interest in African sculpture, later a motif in Moffat's interior design showrooms at Fitzroy Square, was also the latest avant-garde trend of this period. In addition to the formalist nude studies he made in the strong, artificial light of the studio, Moffat also photographed nudes outdoors, often in more playful poses.
Curtis Moffat Ltd.
In 1929, Moffat opened an interior design company and gallery in Fitzroy Square. The company sold Modernist furniture by some of the best designers of the day, alongside an eclectic range of African sculpture, Chinese vases and European antiques. 4 Fitzroy Square was designed by architect Robert Adam in 1794. To create showrooms and a gallery within it, Curtis Moffat appointed the architect Frederick Etchells (1886-1973).
Etchells' conversion was noted as a sensitive modification of a period interior and became arguably one of the best-known and most admired Modernist interiors in Britain. Its originality lay in its mix of avant-garde and traditional design. The enterprise closed in 1933, largely due to the Depression and the premises are now home to the Association of British Dermatologists.
In his showrooms, Moffat included both traditional antiques and the latest Modernist materials and styles, and particularly liked unusual juxtapositions such as steel furniture and ships in bottles. 'Go into these rooms,' said the Curtis Moffat publicity material, 'You can breathe there and walk about. No longer decoration sickly with charm from which the spirit turns. Here there is nothing of deception. The lie is a true one. The machine works.'
Moffat diligently kept newspaper clippings, magazine advertisements and other ephemera in scrapbooks. These volumes, which are part of the Moffat archive, are now invaluable sources for further research.
Although Moffat had done some commercial photography during the years of his design business and gallery, it was only after the closure of Curtis Moffat Ltd. that he turned towards it more seriously. He was commissioned to make colour photographs, using the new tri-carbro process, by Shell-Mex for their series of 'Photographers Prefer Shell' lorry-bills. Other companies for whom he did colour advertisments included K Shoes, Gutermann's Sewing Silk, and Good Tea.
Colour still lifes
During the 1930s, Moffat was acknowledged for his pioneering use of colour photography, which he applied to both commercial and artistic ends. A solo exhibition of his work in colour, primarily of carefully arranged still life subjects, was held at the Mayor Gallery, London in 1935. Moffat used the tri-carbro colour process to make fine art photographs as well as for advertising.
Some critics praised the delicacy, subtlety and range of colour and the likeness to Dutch still life paintings. Others, such as the art historian Anthony Blunt, found them 'painfully realistic'. Moffat's leadership in colour photography was recognised by photo-historian Beaumont Newhall, who included two works in his landmark exhibition Photography, 1839-1937, held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1937.
Return to America
Moffat and his first wife divorced in 1932 and in 1936 he married Kathleen Allan, who had worked with him for some years in his studio. He returned to the US in 1939 and turned his attention again to painting, predominantly still lifes, at his house on Martha's Vineyard until his death in 1949.
Curtis Moffat and the V&A
In 2003 and 2007 Penelope Smail, daughter of Curtis and Kathleen Moffat, generously donated Curtis Moffat's extensive archive to the V&A. The archive contains over 1,000 photographic prints and negatives as well as press cuttings, scrapbooks, ephemera and photographic equipment.
To celebrate this important acquisition, the exhibition 'Curtis Moffat: Experimental Photography and Design, 1923-1935' (2 August 2007-13 April 2008) was organised to display some of the highlights from the archive and also to provide a starting point for the deeper study of Moffat's pioneering but hitherto little-known work.