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Postcard From London Part 1: A Long Day’s Journey into Mosaics Ancient and Modern

On 08, Nov 2012 | 28 Comments | In Uncategorized | By Nancie

We’re back! London was full of so much that was inspirational, we’re going to just share some images here with as few words as possible.  In the next few days, we’ll be reviewing highlights from the British Association for Modern Mosaic’s (BAMM) 2012 Forum and take a stroll through the treasure trove known as the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The morning we landed, we were met by our host for the next few days, John O’Brien.  O’Brien is a past Chairman of BAMM and currently runs No sooner were our bags stowed at his digs than we were off to misty Kew Gardens . . . 

. . . where there was an unexpected and huge treat – installations, sculptures, paintings and drawings by the extraordinary woodworker David Nash (b. 1945).

David Nash "Black Dome"(?)

John O'Brien and an outdoor installation of singed cork.

The work was elemental, primordial, monumental and made us hold our breath.  Inside the Shirley Sherwood Gallery there was more to see.

David Nash "Small Cork Spire" and "Ladle and Spoon"

Oak and yew, ash and cork are hacked and carved, singed and split with such nuance and respect for the raw material that it feels as if nothing new has been created at all but rather, that there has been some sort of transcendent transformation.

Nash supplemented previous works with new ones created from Kew Garden’s Wood Quarry of “trees that had come to the end of their natural lives.”  We apologize for not taking the time to record the names for all of the works shown here.  We were too busy being gobsmacked.

Day Two was devoted to John O’Brien’s Mosaics of London Tour.  Put on your mental sneakers – you’re going to need them.  The first stop let us check off an entry on our Mosaic Bucket List:  The Boris Anrep (1883-1969) mosaics at The National Gallery.  Alas, photos were NOT allowed, as the lovely and ever-vigilant attendant Charlotte informed us.

Boris Anrep "Defiance" part of the Modern virtues series. Yes, that is Winston Churchill. Photo via The National Gallery

Between 1926 and 1952, the Russian-born artist created the first thing one encounters at the National Gallery, a series of pavements; The Labours of Life (1928) and The Pleasures of Life (1929), The Awakening of the Muses (1933) and Modern Virtues (1952).  They are absolutely fabulous, fantastic images that beautifully combine classical Byzantine aesthetics with the artistic sensibilities of their day.

Boris Anrep "Awakening of the Muses"

 Image above courtesy of “Mo” at A Glimpse of London 

Boris Anrep "Sea Horse" from The Pleasures of Life.

We couldn’t take photos of the originals, but we did buy the book from whence these poor images come.

Boris Anrep "Sacred Love" from The Pleasures of Life. " . . . the committee was a little doubtful about the significance and attitude of the little dog."

Boris Anrep "Profane Love" from The Pleasures of Life

Boris Anrep "Sixth Sense" from The Modern Virtues with Cecil Beaton

Anrep was a wag, and often used visages of celebrities, society mavens and politicians in his designs.  Strolling these pavements is like looking through old editions of Life magazine.   Put them on your Bucket List.  You won’t be sorry.

As a side note, we were sad to see a pair of large urns situated on top of two of the mosaics.  John left a comment card with his concerns about the matter at the front desk to which we attached a MAN business card.  Imagine our surprise when we received an email later that day from Matthew Power, Information Officer for the National Gallery.  Mr. Power assured us that he would pass our concerns on to the “relevant managers” and then offered information on another three sites in London with Anrep mosaics.  Amazing.

It was onward to Covent Garden . . .

. . . and then Tottenham Court Road Station for the mosaics of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi.


As you can see, these mosaics are in great need of cleaning and restoration.  In fact, it looks like some of the work is being removed as part of a remodeling process.

Sad, because they are only 40 years old and the imagery is still fresh and vibrant.

Back on The Tube and upwards to The British Museum.

It is a very good thing that John knows the museum because it is simply enormous. Our first destination was a large, sunlit staircase lined with ancient Roman mosaics.

Then it was a dash on to see the Mezo-American mosaics.  Right behind you, John.  But, wait!  What’s that we just passed?

Standard of Ur, Sumerian 2600 BC

It’s the famous Standard of Ur!  Exhibit Two in the History of Mosaic section of every book written on the subject (right behind the cone-embellished columns). One of the 100 objects chosen for the BBC’s “History of the World in 100 Objects.” And we almost missed it? The big surprise – its much smaller than we thought – only 19.5 inches long.

Now, down the stairs and to the right . . . to Gallery 27:  Mexico

The room is dark, the atmosphere hushed.  There is power in these objects.

Mask of Quetzalcoati, Mexica/Mixtec 15th-16th century AD

Mask of Tezcatlipoca Mexica/Mixtec, 15th-16h century AD

Monkey Skull

Back onto the streets with us and our next destination:  Westminster Cathedral. The Cathedral was designed by John Francis Bentley who died before completing sketches for mosaic embellishments to the building.  This has left generations of church leadership with the task of acting as an “art committee” – commissioning a number of artists for various portions of the cathedral over the past 100 years.  The result is a bit of a hodge-podge actually, with some absolutely splendid moments and a few – not so splendid.

The Lady Chapel Designed by Gilbert Pownall

The Lady Chapel soars!

Blessed Sacrament Chapel Designed by Boris Anrep

Blessed Sacrament Chapel Designed by Boris Anrep

Boris Anrep’s Sacrament Chapel, however, felt like a giant “thud” of a visual non-sequiter.  So strange to see these pastel, washed-out forms against a pink sky.  Where was the spirit and joie de vivre of The National Gallery?  Very odd.

Gold ceiling in fan pattern. Glorious.

Panel made with nails.

St Patrick. Designed by Trevor Caley. A favorite.

St Francis Designed by Leonard McComb RA and made by McComb and Tessa Hunkin

Cardinal's Hat hanging above his tomb

Our last destination for the day was a favorite of John’s – The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory.  While it has a long history, it’s last renovation included mosaics designed by John Francis Bentley of Westminster Cathedral fame.  Here, we see his apse and frontal mosaics.

Apse designed by John Weir Bentley

It was the frontal that we found totally captivating.  According to some cursory research, this Adoration of the Magi is believed to be the first time that Bentley included a human figure in a mosaic design.

Everything here is so delicate, so soft, so human and divine at the same time.  The workmanship is superb.

We were charmed.

And exhausted.

So, back to The Tube and home for a quick bite of sustenance and then off to see the Lads of AFC Wimbledon take to the field and win.  Day’s end found us in a charming pub beside the Thames with a lovely pint of London Pride.  Beer never tasted so good.

More to come including the Victoria & Albert Museum and a recap of BAMM’s splendid Forum.

Enjoy – Nancie


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  1. Lynda

    I discover your travel around worldwide artworks. Beautifull!

  2. Jan O'Highway

    Brilliant reporting Nancie, thankyou so much, I was gutted not to be able to make the BAMM w/e but your writing and pics is a great substitute – really looking forward to the next instalment.

  3. Angela Kingshott

    Thank you so much for taking me on such an inspirational tour… looking forward to seeing more photos of the BAMM symposium… just sorry I couldn’t make it this year but simply not up to it these days…

  4. Pamela Irving

    Did you buy that cost especially for the photograph ? Perfection! Beautiful pic….great works …all three!
    I so admire the Anrep work. Looks like a brilliant trip.

    • Nancie

      I like the idea of buying clothing to match art, Pamela, bad sadly no, I didn’t buy it in anticipation of discovering such wonders!

  5. George Fishman

    I’ve been vaccillating between envy and delight in taking your intimate and jam-packed virtual tour. Your obvious delight in new discoveries is completely contagious. The Boris Anreps and Nash sculptures alone would merit the trip, but so much more! Wonderfully evocative writing.. Can’t wait for the next round.
    Thank you thank you.

    • Nancie

      George, next time I’m taking you with me!

  6. Craftfinder

    Love this post. Felt I was being pulled backwards in time and then forwards again with a bump seeing London Pride. It really brings home how mosaics can be used in a contemporary way, and how the skills are centuries old.

  7. rebecca collins

    Love the bathing beauty with the sea horse … so modern and bold. She and the horse really seem to be floating, she seems buoyant and joyful. Totally ebullient!

  8. sandhi schimmel gold

    Thank you so much! I am heading to London on Saturday and you’ve given me some wonderful cues to follow.

    • Nancie

      Oh, this is just the tip of the iceberg, Sandhi. Safe journeys!

  9. Lilian Broca

    Oh, Nancie, I loved reading your trip to London commentary. David and I saw the London mosaics in the past, but seeing them again through your eyes was such a treat. And the Standard of Ur is still one of my most favourite art works ever. Back in college the photo we had in the Art History text book was in black and white. You can imagine my delight standing in front of the original at the British Museum. Not far from the Standard of Ur location, in a glass cabinet is also the Assyrian tablet of demonic Lilith, the only image of her that we have today. Another treat for me….

    • Nancie

      I think I’m finally getting my Art History lessons, Lilian. Better late than never . . .

  10. JOB

    Looking forward to Chapter 2 (and 3?) Don’t forget the lovely Maggie Howarth pebble mosaic!

    We did walk a long way but it was good for us and fun and my team won (quite a rare thing this season unfortunately).

    • Nancie

      John, you can be my tour guide anywhere, as long as I know I’ll have Kate’s Guiness infused stew to revive me at the end of the day

  11. Sparky

    Dear Twinkle …
    Looks like you were in heaven. I especially like the photo of you in between the two … I don’t know what they are. The Lady Chapel’s gold ceiling and angels were my favorite 🙂
    Love you,

    • Nancie

      I was a long way from Twain Harte, wasn’t I Lor? I am now a huge David Nash fan. Walking through Kew Gardens and discovering one installation after another around the next corner was a heady experience.

  12. Debora Aldo

    Thanks for taking us along on your tour of London, such a wonderful place. The sculptures are magical, as of course are the gardens. The icons are beautiful and that ceiling really made me swoon! WOW.

    • Nancie

      Wait till you see the Ceramic Staircase at the V & A, Deb. Plenty more swooning to come.

  13. Marcelo de Melo

    You had a fantastic trip!
    It is great to see such a diversity of works. David Nash’s sculptures are incredible. It is very interesting his use of fire to get that shinny black finish of ‘black dome’. Seeing all this mosaics reminds me of my trips from Edinburgh to London in search of inspiration at the beginning of my career.
    Thanks for sharing.

  14. Julie

    Brings back great memories of tromping all over London with John. He’s an excellent tour guide, and you’re a great photographer! Thanks for encapsulating it all for us.

    • Nancie

      You set the pace, Jules! I just followed in your footsteps.

  15. Ana Foncerrada

    I love your writing! What a nice trip you made!

    • Nancie

      Glad you enjoyed the ride, Ana. It was my first time in London and I know I need to go back for more.

  16. Jacqueline Iskander

    Wow! Its like a buffet, where there is no theme other than ‘food.’ I feel like I’ve traveled through time. Thank you!

    • Nancie

      Hope you had your fill, Jackie!

  17. Lillian Sizemore

    Nancie, Great imagery! esp. the photo of you with the David Nash sculptures. magical. Makes me want to head back and start all over again! Look forward to seeing what’s next L.

    • Nancie

      Thanks Lil. Coming from you, that image compliment is big! There was so much eye candy, it was difficult to frame things. It is John who is responsible for the David Nash photo – it’s a winner.

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