The thougths and rambles of a mosaicist

The thoughts and musings of a mosaic artist

Roll up, roll up for the greatest show on earth!

This is a version of an article I authored for Daily Art Magazine

An appraisal of Jeanne Mount and the Blackpool Tower Circus mosaics.

Mosaic is an ancient art form stemming back to the Romans. There is plenty written about ancient mosaics made from marble tesserae but for this article I want to focus on an artist from the 1960s during the brief period of mosaic revival. The artist is Jeanne Mount nee Martin –  examples of her work are held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington, London;  however these are her embroidery cloth books created for the Needlework Development Scheme in the 1950s to raise the standard of needlework in schools in Scotland.  Researching this lady’s work and achievements strikes me that she was heavily over-shadowed by her husband, although in my opinion her work has longer lasting appeal to the public and is more imaginative. She really deserves better recognition, hence this choice for my blog.

Jeanne was married to Paul Mount, a sculptor and lived near St. Just in Cornwall. They met at the Royal College of Art; Paul’s skills as a sculptor complemented Jeanne’s and their combined skills allowed this amazing commission to be realised. The mosaics are now housed in the stairwell of Blackpool Tower; I assume they have been moved to protect them from the salt air and vandalism. The mosaics were originally on the exterior of the Tower facing the sea.

Eleven mosaics in total depict the colourful acts from the Tower Circus. That of snakes, lions, seals, monkeys and parrots. In addition the circus horses, ringmaster, clowns, jugglers and acrobats are all created in bas-relief. Some work better than others but first of all I would like to draw your attention to the technique of mosaic and the challenges overcome by this talented couple. All mosaics rejoice in the vibrant, high energy experience of the circus. They really ‘pop’ both visually and physically. It is quite rare to find mosaics that are 2 dimensional with elements of both convex and concave shapes. This, I believe is due to her husband’s sculptural knowledge and skills to form a substrate to work upon.

To create these extraordinary pieces, I can only imagine that the tesserae would have been set in to prepared clay domes on relief, upside down (we call the term, indirect) and the back is cast in to a solid form. It is possible that a mold was cast in order to return to the right side up.  The clay would then be removed and the tiles grouted between the gaps.

All mosaics are designed to harmonise as one unit, draughted in a cubist  style. The dimensions are an oblong, as tall as a person and use the favoured Arts and Crafts technique of peppering. This is the art of creating the background tiling which flows (andamento) around the object, but is dappled with a different / contrasting colour to create a little more interest.

This too, is my favoured technique and use of andamento and why I consider my works is most aligned to Jeanne’s work.

The very short period of the Art and Crafts, spurred a resurgence of mosaics, which commonly took the form of shop entrance footplates and shop signs. My hometown in Aberystwyth, retains many original shop entrance doorways and we also have an early Charles Voysey set in to a tower on our University building on the promenade. I give mosaic heritage walks in my home town, See Teaching and Walks page on aberdabbadoo web site.

It was, as a young child, that my interest in mosaic was ignited, these mosaics prepared us for the wild events within. I was taken to see the Tower circus for my birthday each year, sparking a frisson of delight – watching the acrobats through my fingers for fear that they fell.  No safety nets then! The circus animals were removed in the 1990s but underneath the circus ring, cages and enclosures used for the animals are still there. It wasn’t all bad though, the elephants were walked on the beach daily and caused quite a local stir.

These mosaic tiles are made from Italian smalti glass tesserae; this makes them sparkle as you move past them – they almost wink at you! Mosaics have this unique trait of shimmering as you move pass them as the light catches the different facets of the tiles; it why you need to see them in real life.

Jeanne’s designs are also spangled with gold tesserae. The gold is real gold leaf locked between sheets of glass. The technique is a closely guarded secret. In fact, most of Murano’s smalti houses were guarded for fear of the skills being taken elsewhere. The sand (silica) within the Venice lagoon is particularly fine so it is no surprise that Venice boasts some of the finest hand-made smalti in the world. In ancient times the artisans would be prevented from leaving the island for fear of revealing the secret!

Smalti is made from sand / glass whipped up like frothing an egg but from glass, adding rich pigments to it and then pouring the molten glass  onto a metal tray to create an omelette. Once cooled it is smashed up; within one omelette you can get a variety of subtle variations the colour and air bubbles. The slightly round edges of the omelette are called roti and are now also prized by artists.  The Murano factory, Orsoni, established in 1888, claims to be able to create 3,500  colours.

Did you know, in 1291, by law, the factories were removed out of Venice central on to the small island of Murano for fear of setting Venice buildings alight? Just one factory remains on the main island.

Look at the clowns hands; they are beautifully designed  and set within a spiral. He is a little creepy though don’t you think? Steven King’s ‘Pennywise’ (1990s) springs to mind, he is nothing like the mischievous Charlie Cairoli, whom, as a child I loved. I am sure it is the strip over one eye, and the bulging eye that creates that sinister effect. Notice also, the different size of tiles used within this mosaic.

The clown juggles balls that have been made within  a convex shape, giving the mosaic this 3d illusion. Remember these were placed originally in reverse.

The monkey is beautifully cheeky, it has a great tonal contrast and she has really got a feel for the creature. It is particularly difficult to create a design that fits that format and has a wide range of tonal range. He sits, arms crossed, ready to confront you; you feel that he is scheming up some mischief.

She has used standard tiles to complement the smalti and it is this technique of varying the actual size of the tesserae, along with the contoured forms that make these pieces so successful.

The acrobats are also particularly successful, their lithe bodies, dangling from their trapeze with sphere cubist heads; leotards spangled with gold peppering giving a spandex effect. Spandex was not invented then.

The snakes are intertwined with each other, brown and white spots, like no snake I have seen, with curved sinewy bodies, scaly and cool to the touch.

The feather-plumed circus horses majestically performing, with their raised front legs are created like a decoupage, trotting in formation; she uses the same technique when creating the performing lions.

Blackpool Tower recently celebrated its 125 years; the circus opened in 1894. The circus ring at Blackpool is one of only three in the world that flooded at the end of the performance to allow synchronised swimmers to cavort in the 42,000 gallons of water, 4ft 6” deep, wearing feathered plumes on their heads. It was an extraordinary sight. The circus is situated in the basement between the four legs of the tower and has a Moorish style interior in sumptuous reds and gold, designed by Frank Matcham in 1899. The circus animals were removed in the 1990s but underneath the circus ring, the cages and enclosures used for the animals are still there and when I visited it to paint during the circus rehearsals, I could smell the faint aroma of the animals.

Other works completed by Jeanne Mount for Blackpool were on the Golden Mile (now destroyed) and one is still in situ in the NatWest bank on Corporation St. Jeanne divorced, outlived her husband, and died in 2016, leaving a son and a daughter. If anyone knows of their whereabouts or has any preliminary sketches of these designs, please ask them to get in contact.

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