Saturday, August 13, 2016
National Gallery, London
The floor is yours…
We often don’t give much thought to the interiors of art galleries. It’s what’s on the walls that counts, and that holds our attention. But there are some galleries in London with architecture or decoration that repays a good look. If you’ve ever cast an eye down as you’ve entered the National Gallery and made your way through the old foyer (it’s no longer the building’s main entrance) you’ll know what I mean. The mosaic floors are a sight for sore eyes, and a fascinating window on a past world. Their story* is interesting too…
In 1926 the Russian (but British-resident) mosaic artist Boris Anrep, was disappointed when an expected commission from the industrialist and art collector Samuel Cortauld didn’t materialise. Cortauld was sympathetic, and said that if Anrep ever had a project in a public building he’d back it financially. The canny Anrep went straight to the National Gallery and said he had a potential patron – why didn’t they commission him to make a series of mosaic floors for the building’s entrance hall? The gallery was enthusiastic, so Anrep went back to Cortauld and said he’d found a project. Cortauld backed Anrep even though the cost turned out to be some ten times the donation he’d originally expected to give, and the mosaicist was launched on the most high-profile project of his life.
Anrep planned and executed a series of three floors (there was later a fourth, sponsored by a different benefactor), each involving a complex design with several mosaic panels. The subjects were The Labours of Life, The Pleasures of Life, and The Awakening of the Muses; the later fourth floor portrayed The Modern Virtues. The Pleasures included Dance (a girl dancing the Charleston) and Speed (another young woman, this time riding pillion on a motorcycle), and also Hunting, Football, and Cricket. The Labours are such things as Commerce (a market porter carrying baskets), Science (a figure in the Natural History Museum), Exploring (filming a zebra), and Engineering (a man wielding a drill). Anrep (one for serial affairs) could not resist including Sacred Love as a Labour and Profane Love as a Pleasure.
On the half-way landing is the third of the original three mosaic floors: The Awaking of the Muses, in which Apollo and Bacchus preside. The figures here (as in many of the other mosaics) are based on real people that Anrep knew. Euterpe the Muse of music, for example, is Christabel, Lady Aberconway, beloved of William Walton and dedicatee of his viola concerto. Clio is Virginia Woolf, Terpsichore the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, Melpomene is Greta Garbo.
The fourth mosaic floor, The Modern Virtues in the North Vestibule, is also full of portraits: Defiance is Winston Churchill repelling a monster, Lucidity is philosopher Bertrand Russell, Pursuit the astronomer Fred Hoyle. Two of Anrep’s own loves are here too: the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova† is Compassion and Maud Russell (below), patron of this fourth floor, is Folly. This lovely mosaic portrait is perhaps a private joke, referring to Anrep’s and Russell’s folie à deux.
I’ve not listed all the portraits – and there’s so much else here: a resplendent Christmas pudding, a pub sign (yes, these are very British subjects), a harpsichord (being played by the Hon Edward Sackville-West while Margot Fonteyn listens (photograph at the top of this post). That scene represents Delectation (a pleasure of life, obviously). And I hope I have convinced you that there is much here for your delectation too. The consistent clarity of Anrep’s line (in a medium that hardly seems to encourage it), the telling use of colour (the huntsman’s ruddy face, for example, is terrific), the period touches (cigarette holders, the old-fashioned football), the range of poses, the use of frames and borders. It’s a set of pictures fit to stand beside those in the gallery, and a fitting prelude to London’s palace of art.
- - - - -
*Lois Oliver, Boris Anrep: The National Gallery Mosaics (National Gallery London, 2004) tells their story in detail.
†Anna Akhmatova (pronounce the name with the stress on the second syllable): one of Russia’s great 20th-century poets, much translated into English. She and Anrep were close when they were young, but did not see one another for decades once Anrep had left for western Europe. They met again in old age. A number of Akhmatova’s early lyrics were dedicated to Anrep; these poems are in her volume White Flock; most of what I know of her life is from the biography by Amanda Haight, Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage.