The Knife Angel has flown

This week the Knife Angel departed our shores to move to the next town on the long tour to raise awareness of knife crime.

Even though it has left Aberystwyth, it is still ruminating in my thoughts. I first became aware of Alfie Bradley’s Knife Angel when three students and myself embarked upon an educational project under the banner of, ‘students as partners’, in late 2018. We had a frenzied and stimulating few months writing a Higher Education module called Figuratively Speaking. We were researching the development of the western interpretation of figurative sculpture. We divided the content between us, produced a scheme of work and designed activities and self-paced learning units around different themes. It was a very genuine collaboration, and we were acknowledged by the University and the University Association for Lifelong learning for this innovative way of approaching course development.

One unit was on angels and how they have been portrayed over the centuries. I do not want to give you chapter on verse on this unit, or the module, as you can take it as self-paced learning through Lifelong Learning; but needless to say, you are already probably thinking, ‘What about Gormley’s Angel of the North?’ When I wrote about Alfie Bradley’s piece for the course, the Knife Angel had just been created at the foundry in Oswestry. It was made from 100,000 confiscated and surrendered knives; many still bloody from the terrible crimes. It certainly piqued my curiosity.

I had seen photos of it in various locations and times of the day, but I was not prepared to be so bowled over by the location of choice that Aberystwyth had chosen, in Llys-y Brenin square. What a backdrop! The ochre colour of the museum, the blue skies behind and overseeing the area, in a niche above the square at the top of the Phillip’s Arcade, an insignificant sculpture of the former King Edward VII. It was so much more powerful than I had seen photos of it outside Coventry cathedral, for instance.

i was thrilled that Ceredigion had decided to receive the Angel, here in my hometown. This coincided with the start of my new walking guided tour, Past Presences. The agreement is that any town that hosts the Angel, agree to host 28 days of workshops and awareness of the real issue of knife crime. Brilliant. My talk did not replicate what the police were delivering, but my slant was to see this from the perspective of the sculptor.

How are commissions made? What compromises does a sculptor have to make? How do you transport it? Can you transport something that is five tonnes? How do you make it safe? How do you make it resistant to wind? Which way do the knife handles go? How do you make the head, the hair? How do you keep it balanced? I am not going to answer these, as you can work these out, I am sure.

I would like to touch on why it was received so well. The square has never been so busy, it started conversations, brought back memories, fears and tears. It piqued people’s curiosity,]; mixed generations stared at it and talked; what a wonderful sight. Some people felt it was ugly, but if a piece of sculpture can achieve all those emotions, it is doing its job.

Many said the angel looked demonic. Yes, it did, but was Alfie referencing ancient bronze cast sculptures with empty eyes that we can now see today in museums? The empty socket can look very demonic. Lifeless. Those ancient pieces initially had eyes made from crystalline (a type of rock) and were decorated. See the Riace Bronzes found in the sea in 1972 and thought to have been on a boat, sunk form a storm (460-450 BC). Look them up, they are incredible. The fact that there were no eyes in the sockets made him more forlorn, desperate. His oversized hand gesturing hopelessness.

However, when he arrived on the flat bed lorry on his back with a steel bracket protecting his raven like feathers, all made from handle less knives, this piece took on a completely different message for me. The hands were raised to heaven, almost pitiful and so vulnerable. He was transported from the flatbed lorry with the crane, cocooned in a bed of feathers, helpless until he was erect, it was such a poignant site.

And then when this piece met the sunset of Aberystwyth, this figure took on another guise, with golden hands like a precious ancient sculpture. A Midas figure. Wow, I was bowled over.

Alfie would like this piece to be displayed on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar square, there was a petition of thousands of signatures to Sadiq Khan; I hope he manages it. However, London’s loss is the UK’s gain. The Knife Angel has now made his way to Birkenhead to spread his message to others and stimulate conversations around kitchen tables. Well done, Alfie, and a great insight, Clive, of Oswestry foundry.

Look up Alfie’s ‘Spoon Gorilla’ made from spoons sent by children from all over the world. This project was an idea suggested by Uri Geller. This piece tours children’s hospitals in the UK. Have you seen it?

I will be delivering other guided walks in Aberystwyth during the season. A Night in the Tiles – Mosaic Tour, Past Presences the sculpture tour. I am writing another tour called An Aberystwyth love story to launch at the end of the season. The walks are announced when I see pleasant weather on the long-term forecast. Walks are usually delivered on Fridays or Saturdays, but I can run a bespoke tours if you can gather six people together. £8 per head.

Past Presences- a new walk is being launched

What is this walk about? We will look at the figurative sculpture around the town, consider their influences, how sculptures are made, the problem-solving needed to create commissions, why sculptures are vandalised and the contentious issue of putting sculptures on pedestals. The walk will be delivered in Aberystwyth and will last just over 1hr 40min

You will walk @ 1.5 miles. Extra dates will be announced once I have consulted the long range weather forecast. The cost of the walk is £8 per person. Email me to reserve a place- pay on the day or book through PayPal.

Walk: 16th July times published in Walks section

‘I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for the wonderful tour you gave us on Thursday! I really enjoyed it! I liked how you showed us how all those bits of arts connected to the story of Aberystwyth and other places, it was very interesting.’ 

Liverpool – so much more than the Beatles.

A walk around the streets of central Liverpool is a true delight for a fan of mosaics. The building boom that created the wide streets and monumental buildings from the 1880s to the early 1900’s was the window when mosaic threshold pieces were at their most fashionable. There were pattern books created so that owners could choose ‘off the peg’ designs and have their shop names added to the entrance door or hallway. Can you work out what this shop was selling?

The mosaicists never saw their works as they would have been made at the factory on brown paper and posted to the shop to be laid down into a screed of grout. They acted as carpets, decorative pieces with edges in beautiful patterns; some with key patterns or chain edged patterns, harking back to Roman design. Note the peppering of the background with complementary colours.

It is remarkable that so many have survived and I am sure there are many more lurking under ugly carpets in some of the pubs. On my many visits there, I have stumbled upon many sites of mosaics and in doorways, lower cellars; the best example is the Philharmonic pub, near the Catholic cathedral, which is an absolute treat. It’s worth having a pint, soaking in the atmosphere and seeing the mosaics that grace the bar and floors. (above)

All along and around Lord Street the grand banks and ship insurers used mosaics to highlight the importance of their business; examples are the ship insurers and some new ones as entrances to restaurants.

This plate advertising the Liverpool ship insurers is now a very trendy restaurant. It portrays the progress from sail to steam; progress suggesting theadvances in shipping org perhaps the sun going down on the Empire. Best to catch this one at the end of the day where the sun picks out the golden tesserae.

Here is another sneaky image I found. Beautiful.

Across the Mersey is the Lady Lever Gallery, built by Lord Lever, in memoriam to his wife. The sculpture ovals have magnificent polychromal floors with clear opus vermiculatum wrapping the leaves.

A visit to the Liverpool museum shows one of the latest mosaics- a full scale mosaic of a suffragette made by Carrie Reichardt. Bring her back out of the gallery, Liverpool, to narrate in the streets again.

The beautiful floors in the Victoria building of the Liverpool University museum ae a treat- the red brick building now the source of the term ‘red brick university’.

Terrazzo took over the art of mosaic by 1930; it was very much cheaper but very unhealthy for the makers as the marble dust damages the lungs. This is seen on the floor or an Art Nouveua buidling, now a cult shopping centre for small traders.

There is so much to explore. Who needs to shop when you have these to feast your eyes on? These are just a few; wish I could do a mosaic tour in Liverpool. And…finally a little cheeky yellow space invader.

My mosaic walks have re-started

The walk on the tiles tours have started. Dates are published on @aberdabbadoo

Facebook site. Next one is 1st April 4.30pm. Sign up if you are interested in attending. The meeting spot is sent by email a few days beforehand with fuller details.

The tour lasts 1.5hrs with a picnic style refreshing drink stop before discussing the castle point mosaics. You also get to do some tile nipping- we call that nibbling! Fee to be paid on the night, £8 per person.

What guests have said: ‘Fantastic tour, I love the mosaics in Aber and now I have seen more and learnt loads from Ali- thoroughly recommend’.

‘I absolutely loved this tour discovering mosiacs I never knew existed. What an awesome treat listening to the wonderfully enthusiastic stories of the town with Ali – highly recommend.’

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 (  

[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’, 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.

[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.

The Aberystwyth Promenade Mosaics – guerilla learning

This long ‘in conversation with makers’ is with Stuart Evans. He reveals the thoughts behind his design and how he managed to obtain funding for these wonderful designed pieces in 2006. These depict the history of Aberystywth in panels; an opportunity for the public to learn about our history – guerilla learning! They were executed with Pod Clare and local community groups. Below are images of the pieces we discuss. Perhaps you will view these images in a different light.

Thank you Stuart, for a fascinating 40 minute conversation. Find out more about Stuart’s activities by following his:

Instagram page stuartevansprints

Web site

He called me his girl

A true love story set during World War 2 of the early part of my Mum’s life in Ceredigion. This is being serialised by Ego magazine, for those who want to hear more, I have made a 45 minute audio recording in five parts of the story from letters by airman Fred Lloyd. This is supported by Anchor.

Have some tissues handy.

Sunbathing on the roof of the Grand Hotel Borth. 1941 Rosemary is in the middle.

Look out for pirates

My mother was desperate to see the Bardo museum. Naively, I used to think it was something to do with Brigitte Bardot; not so! She made two thwarted attempts to visit the museum at great cost. Why the fascination in the Bardo Museum, Tunisia? It contains the largest collection of mosaics in the world including the famous mosaic representing Virgil, the poet.

Just before she died, I bought a book on the Bardo hoping to find out why she so wanted to visit; her interest was in mosaic hunting scenes. Indeed this is a wonderful repository of images but since the rather dreadful attack on tourists in the museum in 2015, I suspect their footfall has dwindled. That aside, what excites me is the range of colours of the marble found in these mosaics. Not all the mosaics in the Museum are from Tunis of course.  Have you visited this museum?

For this post, I want to focus on one detailed area of the Ulysses mosaic found in the House of Ulysses. This depicts part of the story of the Odyssey. This one was found in Dougga, 60 miles inland from the sea, situated in the wheat-growing belt. Although the settlement of Dougga is much older; the mosaic is 4th century. Dougga was taken over by the Romans; there was a building boom and families competed to commission grand building projects. The whole mosaic shows three different methods of fishing; can you think of three different types that would be used in ancient times? I can only imagine that the commissioner of the piece must have a lot of connections with the sea.

Now, let’s unravel this piece.  There is a lot going on in this mosaic. We have a wooden boat with a design of a figure head embedded within the structure. The prow of the boat seems to show a squid impaled by spears. Inside the boat are people and we also can see people in the sea too. Are they people?

We have Bacchus in the middle of the boat wearing a blue tunic or dress; this isn’t the portrayal of Bacchus, god of the grape harvest, we are familiar with. (The Romans and Greeks confusingly had different names for the same god; he is also called Dionysus) What a pity Bacchus has lost his head; what it does do though is let us look and search to decipher the story. At his feet is a big cat of some sort eating or attacking something.  I believe the cat is a leopard as Bacchus is often represented with that animal. What is the leopard doing though?

Pirates have attacked the boat and Bacchus has expelled them in to the water, the figures form a serpentine composition to the main subject. The men (pirates) are metamorphosed in to dolphins. The water is changing their body. Once in the water the tesserae turn blue. (blue in marble mosaics is often lapis lazuli) The leopard has caught the pirate by the feet, as he dives in to the water, the head and the rest of his body has transformed already. 

Who is the large man to the right? He is the companion to Bacchus, Silenus; a satyr often depicted with beard and cloven feet.  He has eaten well and is over seeing the scene but seems to be touching Bacchus or reaching for more food – it looks like a speared lobster?

What attracted me to this piece rather than the more popular Ulysses mosaic, was the octopus. At first glance you see that it is out of the water, but the scholar, Chris Knutson states that the zigzag forms are a crude representation of waves. The octopus has tiny little eyes with different coloured marble. The andamento roughly follows the muscles of the figures to help the viewer understand the scene.  Then you have this bold pattern on the rim of the boat; this helps the viewer understand the differentiation of activity. Imagine if that wasn’t there, it would be hard to decipher. Do you see another animal in the boat? What do you think it is?

A pop-up garden gallery – June 2021

Last Sunday I held the garden gallery event to showcase new work. I was intensely working on my chimney pot project in full sun. The skills was new to me…different glue, vertical surfaces and multi-tasking talking with the public. You could view from the pavement and all very safe. I’m not a mad fan of the glue or adhesive, its a bit messy, so I need to do a big clean up before embarking on the grouting process. We live and learn, but the exterior adhesive does work if a bit fiddly. I will then seal the interior of the chimney and remaining exposed terracotta with brick sealant. It will return as pot on a chimney stack, but not the third floor; the scaffolding costs are prohibitive.

I was rather relieved to finish and make it to the end as I did two stints, setting up and talking to folk after a day’s work. Nice as it was to see people and enthuse about mosaic, I won’t repeat that, the Covid isolation has weakened my social skills a bit.

Next post is diving back in to the 4th century!

Whales from Wales

A little diversion from mosaics in this post. This idea of a whale shark salt cellar has been ruminating for about 7 years. I had to purchase extra clay to finish my big batch of moaning mermaids and I had some clay left over – I pounced on the chance to get the salt cellar made. My family have always had a salt clear in the house; salt is of course an essential element to life – in moderation of course. Ancient scriptures describe the union of salt as a significant element in a binding agreement. Think of the phrase ‘worth his weight in salt’ in fact the word salary (salarum) stems from the soldiers allowance of salt. The bible has a Covenant of salt – Chronicles 2 13.5. An Irish tradition tradition for a betrothal was a union of salt; each partner  would contribute a pocketful of salt to seal their union and make their promise by joining the two bags together- it is also a symbol of good luck. Who throws a pinch of salt over their shoulder?

It seems appropriate then, that these whale shark salt clears can sit decoratively and functionally on your kitchen workbench. Just purchase some salt and a little spoon and away you go. He sits on plastic pips so not to scratch the kitchen surface.  A reminder of the significance of this element for the early preservation of meat and fish.

Who do you know who is getting married and would like a present of a salt cellar; or you just might like it for yourself. I have one left that will be available to view at my pop-up garden studio. 20th June.