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?
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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.