Part IV – The Impossible Dream

Part IV – The Impossible Dream

More mosaics went up in the Cathedral between 1930 and 1935 than at any time before or since. Yet their style resulted in the greatest public furore witnessed in the Cathedral’s history. For the origins of the situation we have to go back almost to the beginning of the century.

When Francis Bourne succeeded Herbert Vaughan as Archbishop of Westminster in 1903, the only mosaics in place were those designed by W C Symons in the Holy Souls Chapel and those opposite in the Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine, designed by J R Clayton of the firm of Clayton and Bell. Bourne was happy with neither. In November 1905 he was in Rome and from there travelled to Sicily specifically to see the 12th century Byzantine mosaics in Palermo’s Palatine Chapel and in the great Cathedral of Monreale nearby. There at last Bourne found what he wanted, speaking on his return of his intention to reproduce the mosaics in Westminster Cathedral.

Almost twenty years went by but Cardinal Bourne was satisfied with none of the Cathedral mosaics. To commemorate his twenty years as Archbishop of Westminster, Bourne had his portrait painted in 1923. The artist was Gilbert Pownall, a Catholic who had exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy from 1908. Bourne believed that at last he had found the right man to design the Cathedral mosaics. As Pownall had little or no experience in this medium, Bourne arranged for him to go to Ravenna, Rome, Venice and, of course, Palermo and Monreale, to study the masterpieces in mosaic there as Bourne himself had done. On his return, Bourne asked him to design mosaics first for the alcove above one of the main confessionals and then for the Lady Chapel. He also announced that a mosaic workshop would be set up in the tower. The designs were accepted and in 1930 the workshop was established with Basil Carey-Elwes and T Josey as the first mosaicists.

The confessional mosaics were completed in the same year (1930), using the direct method, and a start was then made on the Lady Chapel. By now the team of mosaicists had grown, to three and then to five with the arrival of two experienced Italians in 1931. The Lady Chapel mosaics took five years, being completed in June 1935. Meanwhile the blue sanctuary arch mosaic was put up by the Italians in 1932-33, St Peter’s Crypt received its mosaic in 1934 and work started on the Cathedral apse in the autumn of 1934. But from December 1933, Edward Hutton, an expert on Italian art, had started to organise leading figures in the art world in a protest against Gilbert Pownall’s style, which Hutton regarded as ‘amateurish, clumsy and without mastery’. When Bourne died in January 1935 his successor, Arthur Hinsley, gave in. The partially completed apse mosaic was taken down and only the war saved the sanctuary arch.

So how much of Bourne’s dream of bringing Monreale to Westminster was achieved? The main theme of the Lady Chapel – the Tree of Life and the vine – are clearly taken from the 12th century apse of San Clemente in Rome and many of the animals, including the unusual fish-like creatures at the termination of tendrils, are the same. The mandorla of Christ on a rainbow in the Lady Chapel apse appears to be from the Ascension dome in St Mark’s Venice, while the blue entrance arch of the chapel may derive from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. We know from Bourne that the Cathedral sanctuary arch mosaic of Christ enthroned among evangelists and apostles was inspired by the 4th century apse of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, though the treatment is vastly different. Only the engagingly simple yet effective arch of St Peter in the crypt and perhaps also the confessional mosaics, have any real affinity with the mosaics of Palermo and Monreale. But then dreams often are impossible.