Part III – The Arts and Crafts Men

Part III – The Arts and Crafts Men

The decoration of the Cathedral in the period 1912-16 was largely the work of members of the Arts and Crafts Movement, notably Robert Anning Bell and Robert Weir Schultz. Eric Gill was also associated with the Movement, though he had distanced himself by the time he produced the Stations of the Cross. Their work is among the best in the Cathedral.

The Arts and Crafts Movement, originating in mid-19th century Britain with the ideas of John Ruskin, believed that industrialisation and mechanisation dehumanised those involved and debased craftsmanship. The Movement advocated individualism and creativity in art and design and a return to traditional materials and working methods. Robert Anning Bell RA was experienced in art and architecture and a designer of stained glass, mosaics, fabrics and wallpaper. In 1900-01 he had produced a 32ft by 10ft mosaic for the façade of the Horniman Museum in London. He was Professor of Decorative Art at the Glasgow School of Art when John Marshall, the Westminster Cathedral architect and a fellow Nonconformist, approached him.

The walls of the Lady Chapel in the Cathedral had been clad with marble in 1908, but although a carved white marble frame had been put up above the altar, it was empty of any altarpiece and the conches above the four marble-clad wall niches were also undecorated. At Marshall’s request, Anning Bell produced a mosaic design for the altarpiece portraying Our Lady standing and holding the Holy Child. For the conches he portrayed Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezechiel, all Old Testament prophets who had foreseen the Incarnation. The predominantly blue mosaics were installed in 1912-13, under the supervision of Anning Bell and Marshall. The traditional, direct method was employed by the experienced mosaicist, Gertrude Martin, who had worked for George Bridge on the mosaics of the Holy Souls Chapel ten years earlier.

The mosaics were generally praised and, although Cardinal Bourne himself was disappointed, he agreed that Anning Bell should design the mosaic over the main entrance. Bentley had provided a small sketch in pencil for this in 1895-96 and Marshall had worked this up in colour in 1907. These sketches were very largely followed by Anning Bell but the open book with the words (in Latin) “I am the gate, if anyone enters by Me he shall be saved” is a new theme, and the mosaic is considerably simpler and more austere, with more subdued colours, than in the earlier designs. It is clear that Anning Bell devoted considerable thought to it, rejecting gold as liable to frost damage and bright colours as too great a contrast with the background. The mosaic, grouted up to a level surface, was installed in 1915-16 by James Powell & Sons of Whitefriars, who also replaced the mosaics in the Sacred Heart Shrine at this time.

Meanwhile other members of the Arts and Crafts Movement were at work in St Andrew’s Chapel. Robert Weir Schultz (Schultz Weir from 1915) was architect to the 4th Marquess of Bute, who had sent him to study Byzantine architecture in Greece. The Marquess had offered to pay for the decoration of St Andrew’s Chapel providing that Schultz designed and supervised this. The mosaics on the far wall portray cities connected with St Andrew’s life – a fisherman born in Bethsaida, later Bishop of Constantinople, finally crucified in Patras in Greece. The near wall follows the journey of his relics, after being seized in Constantinople in 1204 by the 4th Crusaders, to Milan, Amalfi and, of course, St Andrews in Scotland. The floor is a stormy sea inset with twenty-nine marine creatures while the altar consists of three Scottish granites.

Besides Schultz himself, other Arts and Crafts colleagues who worked on the Chapel were: George Jack (the mosaic cartoons), Thomas Stirling Lee (sculpture), Ernest Gimson (inlaid ebony stalls) and Sidney Barnsley (kneelers). Schultz’s designs were approved in 1910 and the mosaics installed in 1914-15 by six of Ernest Debenham’s group of mosaicists directed by Gaetano Meo, using tesserae from both Venice and Powell & Sons (red and gold). These were inserted by the traditional, direct, method into cement of the same composition as used by Sir William Richmond in St Paul’s Cathedral. The mosaics are outstanding examples of quality and craftsmanship, particularly the shimmering fish-scales (or ‘golden clouds screening Paradise from earthly view’) on the vault, and the arches where thirty-three birds perch amidst the foliage.