Part II – Opus Sectile and the Italian Method

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 II – Opus Sectile and the Italian Method

The decoration in the Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine was installed at the same time, and by the same group of mosaicists, as that in the Holy Souls Chapel across the nave. But despite this it is in complete contrast – the result of having a very different donor, designer, technique and style.

Lord Brampton, the donor, was a distinguished judge and a friend of Cardinal Manning, the second Archbishop of Westminster. He joined the Catholic Church in 1898 and paid £8,500 (£300,000 today) for the decoration of St Gregory and St Augustine’s, which was intended to be both a thanksgiving offering and a chantry chapel for his wife and himself. The theme is the conversion of England from Rome, with the saints who brought this about portrayed in opus sectile above the altar, and those who subsequently kept the faith alive in this country shown in mosaics on the walls and vault.

Lord Brampton selected Clayton & Bell of Regent Street, renowned for its ecclesiastical stained glass, to design the decoration. For the altarpiece showing St Gregory, St Augustine, his companions and successors, J R Clayton, the firm’s head, chose opus sectile from James Powell & Sons, Glassmakers of Whitefriars. In the 1860s Powells had started grinding up waste glass and baking it, to produce panels of opaque material with an eggshell finish which could be cut into suitable shapes and painted. These glass tiles they named opus sectile. Those forming the altarpiece were made in 1901 from Clayton & Bell’s drawings. The panels either side of the entrance are later: ‘the Just Judge’ – Clayton & Bell’s memorial to Lord Brampton, who died in 1907, and ‘Not Angles but Angels’ – given by the Choir School in 1912.

J R Clayton believed that any attempt to revive the dead in art was a profound mistake and he ignored the wishes of the Cathedral Architect, J F Bentley, that the Byzantine (Greek) style should be adopted. Instead his designs were similar to those he produced for Victorian Gothic churches. Full-size coloured drawings for the mosaics were sent over to the Venice and Murano Glass company in Venice where, using a technique invented there in the mid-19th Century, the regular, rectangular, coloured glass tesserae were attached to the drawings face down before being dispatched to England. From December 1902 to May 1904, George Bridge’s mosaicists, already working in the Holy Souls Chapel, hammered each section into place with mallets and flat pieces of boxwood, before removing the drawings to reveal the mosaics, now face up, below.

In the Holy Souls Chapel opposite, Bentley and Symons seem to have been given pretty much a free hand by the donors, the Walmsleys, in choosing the designs. Though it must be said that the result is more Victorian (Art Nouveau in the case of the representation of Adam) than the Byzantine for which Bentley was striving. After an unsuccessful attempt at prefabrication in the studio, installation of the mosaics was by the traditional, direct method and the tesserae were inserted individually into oil-based putty on the chapel walls and vault. George Bridge had installed the mosaics for the façade of the Horniman Museum in London in 1900-01, using tesserae he had largely made himself.

The Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine is in complete contrast to that of the Holy Souls. Judge Brampton knew exactly what he wanted and chose Clayton & Bell to carry it out. J R Clayton disregarded Bentley’s instructions to avoid anything Gothic and used the style he normally used. James Powell & Sons had invented the modern technique of opus sectile and were expert at it. The Venice & Murano Glass Company was equally accomplished at producing mosaics and Antonio Salviati, its previous head, claimed to have invented the ‘modern Italian method’ in which they were prepared face downwards in the studio – the method employed here.

The Holy Souls Chapel mosaics are sombre, funereal, late Victorian pictorial on a background of silver. Those of the Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine are glowing, vibrant, late Victorian Gothic on gold. Both are impressive in their own way, but they have little in common.