The Old College Mosaic- a blot on the building – really?

I have been a bit occupied recently researching this amazing mosaic by C. F. A. Voysey.

Image: Tegwen Morris

A blot on a building: a mosaic by C. F. A. Voysey at Aberystwyth

‘The only blot to spoil the picture being the unfortunate mosaic!’ Professor Ainsworth, 1887

Residents of Aberystwyth, on their daily promenade along the seafront, pass a large mosaic, high up on the curved end-wall of the Old College, one of the original foundation buildings of modern day Aberystwyth University.  As a mosaic artist and teacher at the university, I set out to find out more about the mosaic: why and when it was made, and by whom.

The Historical Background of the Old College

In the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Savin, (1826-1889) an entrepreneurial railway engineer, conceived the idea of building a series of grand coastal hotels in Wales. He planned to capitalise on the increase in tourism to the area resulting from the newly constructed Cambrian Railway. One of the towns benefitting was Aberystwyth, where a pleasure pier was built in 1864, and 70,000 visitors attended the opening. Savin hoped to profit by offering a new kind of package holiday that included rail fare and accommodation. In Aberystwyth, he chose to develop an existing building known as Castle House, designed by John Nash, and to extend the building to include hotel accommodation for tourists. The building had unrivalled views of the sea and coast and was to be the jewel in the crown of Savin’s Welsh hotel empire. The Aberystwyth Observer wrote that it was ‘Not only the finest in Wales, but in architectural pretensions, would rival the finest hotels in England’.[1]

The hotel that was never finished

Thomas Savin employed the architect John Pollard Seddon (1827-1906) who was keen to be involved in a project that would build his reputation. Seddon had high standards and a love of quality materials that gave him a reputation for overspending. He was ambitious to create a building to rival gothic structures like those in Venice. But neither Seddon nor Savin would live to see their dream hotel become a reality. Building costs rapidly spiralled out of control, reaching £80,000 long before the hotel was finished. Savin was eventually forced to declare himself bankrupt.

Time passed and no-one came forward to buy the unfinished hotel. Eventually, as part of a scheme to establish the first university in Wales, a committee acting for the university foundation purchased the building for the bargain price of £10,000. They invited Seddon to return to ‘make good’ the building for the purposes of teaching.  Seddon again overspent, but the newly established University College of Wales opened for its first intake of students in 1872.[2] In the summer of 1885, a terrible fire in the chemistry laboratory destroyed much of the teaching area of the building. The College Board decided to rebuild and expand rather than develop on an alternative site. Seddon returned for a third time to rebuild the College on its seafront site, and use the reclaimed architecture to build a new South Wing that would house the science department.  Seddon decreed that ‘The present timber structure will be removed entirely and replaced with local stone capable of resisting the sea air….at a cost of £17,500…to include 7,000 feet of additional space.[3]  A new contract agreed by Lord Aberdare and seconded by Mr Morgan Lloyd was signed at the Queens Hotel, Aberystwyth on 19 October, 1886. Seddon persuaded the College Committee to incorporate a mosaic on the exterior of the new south wing of the University College – with a theme that would reflect the new advances in science and industry in the late Victorian period.This commission was awarded to the architect C.F.A. Voysey, a former apprentice of Seddon, then in the early years of his independent practice.

Charles F.A. Voysey

Charles F.A. Voysey (1857-1941) was articled to Seddon in 1874 and remained in his office for five years. Voysey was highly influenced by AWN Pugin and John Ruskin, in later life, would become a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. At the time he worked for Seddon, Voysey was young and full of religious fervour. His father had founded the Theistic Church, and his grandparents came from a Wesleyan background. As a boy, Voysey attended Dulwich College, where his art master wrote that he ‘was no good at all for any of the artistic professions.’ He had very strong views and an ‘ardent, if somewhat unorthodox, religious faith’. Voysey was mildly dyslexic, and leaving Dulwich College, he finished his education at home.[4] His grandfather having been an architect and as at that time anyone could call themselves an architect without the requirement to pass formal examinations, it is not surprising that he turned to this as a choice of career. In joining the office of Seddon, Voysey would learn from one of the leading architects of his day.  Like many articled employees, Voysey began with menial tasks such as tracing and copying, but after five years he had reached the elevated status of Head Clerk in Seddon’s London office.[5]

The site of the Aberystwyth mosaic

The mosaic for the new Science department would be three-panelled and set within a sandstone picture frame carved into the wall. The mosaic would be large: the central panel measures 287cm (9ft 5 inches) high x 233cm (7ft 8 inches) wide. The smaller panels on either side each measure 253cm (8ft 3 inches) high x 223cm (7ft 4 inches) wide. The site had additional problems: the elevated position of the mosaic and the curvature of the wall on which it would be situated required Voysey to adjust his design so that the figures would appear in correct proportion when viewed from below. This technique of optical correction was used by Renaissance sculptors when designing figures set within the high niches of cathedrals. Voysey’s original drawings, now at the RIBA, show calculations that reveal this thought process.

Voysey’s design and its development

Voysey’s illustrations for the original mosaic design (now in the RIBA archive) vary considerably from the mosaic as executed. The original design is asymmetrical –  the right-hand figure is in a three-quarter, contrapposto pose, half kneeling, holding a book and brandishing lightning bolts to symbolise electricity. The left-hand figure holds a steam train and a globe. The central figure is seated, as if in thought, his chin supported by his right hand.[6] Voysey described this central motif as ‘a bearded figure denoting science … sitting on a throne, the base of which [bears] the symbols of sacerdotalism.’[7]  The image was, in Voysey’s words, intended to ‘suggest the conflict between science and dogma’. The religious symbols in the RIBA design drawn by Voysey, although confused and inaccurate, show (left) what may be a papal tiara on a book, above which is a bishop’s crozier crossed with a stave (the top of which is obscured, perhaps concealing a cross).[8]  On the right, a figure in similar headgear, kneels before an altar on which there is a candlestick, and prays before burning incense. This cleric is identifiable by his episcopal or pontifical gloves such as those used by a bishop when celebrating Solemn Pontifical Mass. The pillars of the back of the throne are surmounted (left) by a celestial globe and (right) an astrolabe. Having submitted this initial design, Voysey was asked to simplify it and the revised design was sanctioned by the College board.

The iconography of the mosaic

The mosaic as it survives today is a three-panelled ‘triptych’ of more or less a symmetrical design. The larger central panel depicts the personification of Science, usually taken to be a portrait of the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer Archimedes.[9] He is portrayed bearded and priest-like, deep in thought, and crowned with stars in a manner similar to the RIBA sketch. This panel is flanked by two smaller side panels, in both of which an acolyte or donor kneels before him. In the mosaic as it was finally made, Archimedes is depicted in a red cloak, seated between piles of books. On his right side is a globe. An open book rests on his lap, on one page is the diagram of an equilateral triangle, on the other the image of a skull. The acolytes in the flanking panels on either side are depicted presenting Archimedes with symbols of the modern age: a part-sail steam ship, and a steam train (purported to be a Midland Locomotive 2-2-4).[10] It has been suggested that the right-hand acolyte may be a self-portrait of the young Voysey.[11]  According to Webster, the donors are ‘presenting “Science” with examples of modern engineering that ultimately depended on the knowledge of man, the world and the universe that had been gained by the pure scientists.’[12]  The offerings they make to Archimedes represent progress: specifically, exploration or travel at speed, made possible through advances in science. The whole design is an attempt to extoll the values of learning and new science – a message as relevant for universities today as it was in the Victorian age.[13]

Materials and methods used

The tiles used to make the Old College mosaic were manufactured by the Jesse Rust Mosaic Company in Battersea. The best quality mosaic tiles available in Britain at this time were smalti –glass tiles made in Venice by Antonio Salviati (1816- ca.1890) and unrivalled for their rich colour. Smalti tiles were used in the making of mosaics in Westminster Abbey and on the Albert Memorial.  However, Jesse Rust’s company was able to create mosaic glass at one fifth of the price of Venetian smalti by fusing recycled glass with sand and pigment. The resulting material resembled marble and could be made in any shape or colour. It was harder than smalti and resistant to moisture.[14]  The large scale of the Aberystwyth mosaic required the craftsmen to work in reverse, using a process known as the ‘indirect method’. This involved gluing each individual tile back-to-front onto brown paper using gum arabic as an adhesive. It was a technique favoured by Antonio Salviati who was able to transport his mosaics from Venice to Britain to be assembled in situ. When using the indirect method, the mosaicist works in small sections at a time since the paper can only support the weight of a small number of tiles. The sections are then reassembled and set into the wall like the pieces of a jigsaw. When the mosaic is bonded with the wall, the paper is removed with sponge and water.

A number of different mosaic methods were used in the making of Voysey’s mosaic. The distinctly mottled reddish Jesse Rust tiles of Archimedes’ robe follow the outline of the body. The acolytes are outlined in ribbon pattern (Opus Vermiculatum) with a row of black and white tiles that help to differentiate the body from the blue mottled tiles that form the background. The background tiles have been applied using an Opus Palladium technique, giving a ‘crazy paving’ effect which lends clarity to the overall design. The tiles used are not uniform in shape or thickness and their average size of around 5.5cm is unusually large for a mosaic. For over one hundred and thirty years, the mosaic has stood up well to the salty high winds of Aberystwyth. Over time, however, some areas that directly face the sea, such as the robe of the left-hand figure, have experienced damage. The face and arm of this figure have been patched with tiles that do not quite match in colour, giving this area of the mosaic a speckled appearance.

Controversy and revision

It was not until the mosaic was made and mounted on the wall of the Old College (1887) that the College Board Committee noticed the sacerdotal symbolism that Voysey had incorporated into his design. Words recorded in College Board minutes such as ‘offensive, unfortunate and objectionable’ reveal the strength of feeling amongst chapel-going members of the College Board, who insisted that Voysey either make revisions to his design, or the mosaic would be removed completely. Seddon negotiated with the Building Committee in 1888 who duly inspected the mosaic. The Committee ‘whilst thanking Mr Seddon for his generous intention to ornament the building, [wish] to express their unanimous opinion that the symbolism is unsuitable and therefore considers it desirable that it be removed.’ The cost of total removal proved prohibitive, and a compromise struck by Seddon is documented in the Building Committee minutes of 1888:

The Committee now having inspected the mosaic at the south end of the building, express their approval of the alterations suggested and carried out by Mr Seddon in accordance with the request made in the previous meeting and thank Mr Seddon for his compliance with their request.

So, the mosaic was mostly saved, apart from certain parts, obliterated two years after its completion. Although changes to the design were made to appease the College Board, it could be argued that these changes improved the overall compositional flow of the piece. The section below which Archimedes sits now resembles a brick or stone wall, leaving no trace of the Catholic imagery that had proved so objectionable.  

The Aberystwyth mosaic and its place in Voysey’s work

The Aberystwyth mosaic was Voysey’s first mosaic commission and only figurative mosaic, but curiously it is not included in either the White Book or Black Book in which Voysey documented his commissions, projects and art works throughout his entire life.[15] Early projects were entered as retrospective amendmentsbut there were some omissions; the Aberystwyth commission being one. There are two possible reasons for its exclusion. Firstly, because it was a work that was ‘gifted’ to him by his former master to help support him in the difficult early years before his first independent architectural commissions. Throughout his career Voysey was at pains to stress his work was commissioned because of its intrinsic merit, not through any nepotism or networking by the architect. He may have felt the inclusion of this commission compromised this stance.

The University committee had instructed Seddon to keep decoration to a minimum, yet Seddon, keen to add some form of decoration to the new Science Wing, paid for the mosaic out of his own pocket. The second reason why Voysey may have chosen not to record this commission is that his original design had been altered on the orders of the Committee of the University College of Wales and as such, in his mind, was compromised to the extent that he chose not to include it in the Black Book. Why Voysey had included Catholic symbolism in the first place is revealed in the ‘The Value of Hidden Influence’ in 1931. Here he states that he took great pride in having a design approved and executed that contained controversial symbolism provocative to the established church authorities. The beliefs of his father, who founded the Theistic Church were a significant factor, as references to Christ, the Trinity and overtly Christian doctrines do not feature in his Theistic sermons and writings.

Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, The University College of Wales remained sceptical about Voysey’s mosaic. In 1897, they decided again to remove the mosaic and were deterred only by the cost of doing so.[16] Critical opinion continues to support Professor Ainsworth’s appraisal in which he described Voysey’s ‘unfortunate mosaic’ as ‘The only blot to spoil the picture’ of the University College building.[17]

Do you want to learn more about the Aberystwyth mosaics. I am starting my heritage walks again. The first one is 18th March 4pm. Contact me to book a place.

Voysey, CFA. The Value of Hidden Influences, as Disclosed in the Life of an Ordinary Man, 1931, Ref: RIBA VoC/4/6.


[1] Aberystwyth Observer, 16 December 1865.   

[2] J. Roger Webster, Old College, Aberystwyth, the evolution of a high Victorian Building, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995

[3] College Minutes, 19 October 1886, p.23.

[4] Stuart Durant, ‘Voysey and Seddon, and the era of his youth’, The Orchard: The Journal of The C F A Voysey Society, no. 1, Autumn 2012, pp.17-23.

[5] Stuart Durant, ‘Voysey and Seddon, and the era of his youth’, pp.17-23.

[6] There is long tradition of depicting Archimedes lost in deep thought with his head in his hand. See for example: Domenico Fetti’s painting (https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-archimedes-4097232).  

[7] J. Roger Webster, Old College, Aberystwyth, the evolution of a high Victorian Building, p.93, note 43. Sacerdotalism in Christian terms is the belief that priests can act as mediators between God and humankind, making sacrifices to God on behalf of their congregation.

[8] The hat is not a bishop’s mitre, neither does it have the triple form of a papal tiara.

[9] Webster (1995), (p.64) does not identify the figure with Archimedes; Durant (2012), p.21 does.

[10] Stuart Durant, ‘Voysey and Seddon, and the era of his youth’, p.21.

[11] Stuart Durant, ‘Voysey and Seddon, and the era of his youth’, p.22. In later years, Voysey sometimes incorporated a self-portrait in his works.

[12] J. Roger Webster, Old College, Aberystwyth, the evolution of a high Victorian Building, p.64.

[13] Webster, (1995), p. 64, observes that ‘Applied science must thus genuflect to pure science: a message that is as pertinent for universities today as it was in the late nineteenth century.’

[14] Rita Ensing, ‘Jesse Rust and His Son, Vitreous Mosaic Manufacturers of Battersea’, www.wandsworthhistory.org.uk/historian/jesse_rust_full.doc The Jesse Rust company worked on many of Seddon’s projects and there are other mosaics using Rust tiles close by in Llanbadarn Fawr church, laid as an aisle walkway, just ten years previously.

[15] The White Book is Voysey’s personal record of his project expenses, written in his own hand in a white notebook. It is held in the RIBA Archive at the Victoria & Albert Museum (reference VoC/1/2). The Black Book records architectural and some other projects. Together they form the principal source of information about Voysey’s architectural career. https://www.voyseysociety.org/voysey/biography/white.html

[16] Webster, (1995), p.66.

[17] University College of Wales Magazine, 1887. See also Webster, (quoting Iwan Morgan) p.66, note 45.

With thanks to Dr Simon Pierse for proof reading guidance.

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