Saturday, November 19, 2016

Tate Britain, London


Looking down again

Among my recent posts, one of my personal favourites (and if web statistics are anything to go by, one of my readers’ favourites too) is one I did in August about the mosaic floors in the National Gallery, created by the Russian-born artist Boris Anrep, starting in the 1920s.* Anrep adorned one other London gallery, the Tate (now Tate Britain), and these mosaics are just as fascinating, though not quite so easy to see.

The Tate was damaged in a Zeppelin raid in World War I, and after the hostilities ended needed a new floor in one of the octagonal corner galleries. Boris Anrep, who was yet to do his bigger floors in the National Gallery but had established himself as a mosaic-maker of some flair, offered to make a mosaic floor for the room. Better still, from the gallery’s point of view, he was prepared to work for nothing if no funds could be found.

This suited Charles Aitken, the gallery’s keeper, although as it turned out he was able to secure some money for Anrep’s materials, and Anrep settled on illustrating eight of William Blake’s proverbs, this being a room, at that time, where some of the gallery’s considerable Blake holdings were displayed. The proverbs are of course very Blakean: ‘Exuberance is beauty’, reads one; ‘If the Fool would persist in his Folly, he would become wise’ is another.

There’s quite a lot of tension in these mosaics. In ‘The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion,’ the lion has a bottom-up pose, a spiky mane, and prominent claws: a well-fed and powerful feline. The fox by contrast in long and rangy, with matchstick legs: providing for yourself can be a hard business. ‘Expect poison from standing water’ has a different kind of tension: the female figure seems about to drink, but the restraining hand of God hovers above – will she heed it? 
These striking mosaics are easy to find. Blake’s works have been moved elsewhere and the octagonal room is now given over the the Tate’s print sales area. The gallery have tactfully positioned the display units so that they do not cover the main parts of the mosaic, but the floor cannot have its full effect, and it’s hard to photograph some of the panels without also including bits of the gallery’s tasteful grey display units in the frame.† However, the mosaics are well worth searching out, and one can understand the excitement that attended their unveiling in 1923. The general praise for Anrep must have helped him secure the National Gallery commissions a few years later and the Tate had a colourful new work of art, full of exuberance and beauty.


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* This earlier post also has more information about Anrep, which I have not repeated here.

† There is also a certain amount of reflection from the lighting, which I have tried to minimise but which can still be seen in the photographs.

1 comment:

Jenny Woolf said...

Interesting, I have admired the National's mosaics since I was a child but didn't know there were some in Tate Britain. I will look next time I go.