Part 1 – Trial and Error

Mosaics have always been an integral part of Westminster Cathedral and designs range from the traditional arts and crafts style to more modern interpretations.

Part 1 – Trial and Error

When the Cathedral architect, John Bentley, died in early March 1902, he left no finished mosaics in the Cathedral and very little in the way of Mosaic drawings and designs. It was thus left to future architects, donors and designers supervised, from 1936, by the Cathedral Art Committee, to decide on the mosaics.

Bentley’s 1895-96 drawings of the west and north elevations include small pencil sketches of mosaics above both the main and north-west entrances, and in 1899 he provided a written outline for the decoration of the Lady Chapel and one of the chapels of the north aisle. But the only one of these schemes to be adopted was that above the main entrance which was put in place, with some alterations, in 1915-16.

Cardinal Vaughan, the Cathedral’s founder, had also been considering the question of the mosaics, and between 1899 and 1901 a total of twelve prominent Catholics, half of them clerics and half laymen, had been asked to provide written suggestions for a scheme for the nave. Vaughan had expressed the view that this should tell the history of the Catholic Church in England and most of the responses consisted of lists of scenes and saints illustrating this theme. But Bentley’s death, followed by that of the Cardinal in June 1903, put an end to the initiative.

Bentley’s ideas can best be seen in the Chapel of the Holy Souls where he worked with the artist, W C Symons, on the mosaics. Symons was an old friend and fellow convert, and in 1899 Bentley had asked the Cardinal that he should decorate one of the chapels (with Bentley himself doing another). Correspondence between him and Symons in 1900 on the themes for the mosaics of the Holy Souls Chapel reveals that Symons suggested the Three Youths in the Burning Fiery Furnace for the west wall, while Bentley suggested the Purgatory scene with the archangels Raphael and Michael for the east wall. Symons also suggested portraying Adam and Eve though Eve was later rejected in favour of Christ for the north wall.

Bentley’s influence in the Holy Souls is evident. He wanted ‘a severe and very Greek style’ and supervised the sketches and subsequent full-size cartoon in Symons’ studio, designing two garlands for the vault himself. To install the mosaics, they chose George Bridge and his twenty-six young lady mosaicists of Mitcham Park, Surrey, who had an Oxford Street studio to which Bentley was a frequent visitor. Initially it was intended to prepare much of the mosaic face downward on canvas in the studio (the indirect method). But this was not a success and was soon abandoned. Instead the direct method was adopted in which the glass tesserae, largely made by Bridge himself, were inserted individually directly into the putty (of lime and boiled oil) on the walls and vault.

Installation of the Holy Souls mosaics took eighteen months, from June 1902 to November 1903. The opus sectile glass tiles for the altarpiece were made by George Farmiloe & Sons and they and the Great Rood (crucifix) in the nave were painted by Symons also in 1903. But with a wife and nine children he wanted the work to continue. Advised in a letter of April 1903 from George Bridge (who also wanted work) that a rival, the Venice and Murano Glass Company, had bid to execute the mosaic above the main entrance, Symons submitted his own design for this to the Cardinal in May. But Vaughan died in June. So, urged on by Revd Herbert Lucas SJ, one of the twelve who had put forward a general scheme for the nave, Symons approached Vaughan’s successor, Francis Bourne, seeking an interview to discuss his mosaic designs for both the entrance and the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

But Bourne was not to be rushed and seems to have resented the pressure. Nor would he agree to Symons’ request in 1904 to be allowed to work on one of the chapels as a model. The only commissions Symons received were to design mosaic panels of St Edmund in the crypt, St Joan of Arc in the north transept and the Holy Face in the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, all executed by George Bridge and his mosaicists using the direct method in 1910-12. Symons’ design for the Holy Face was death mask, disliked by the donor, but he refused to change it. He died in 1911 and in 1916 the Sacred Heart Shrine mosaics, all executed by Bridge, were taken down and replaced by James Powell & Sons of Whitefriars at a cost of £780, the new Holy Face being based on one in St Mary’s Cadogan Terrace, Chelsea.