Part VII – The Mystery Mosaics

Part VII – The Mystery Mosaics

In the February 2005 edition of Oremus we asked for help in discovering the origins of the niche mosaics of St Anne and St Joachim at the end of the south aisle. Many thanks to those who responded. Canon Arrowsmith remembers that they were produced in the 1960s, he thought by Aelred Bartlett. Paul Bentley, however, tells us that Aelred Bartlett had told him that they, together with the niche mosaic of St Christopher across the nave in the north aisle, had been produced by Justin Vulliamy. The mosaic of St Joachim is also linked to that of St Christopher in that both refer in their dedication to members of the Hoffman family.

Aelred Bartlett was the brother of Canon Francis Bartlett, the Cathedral Sub-Administrator at the time, and is on record as producing the mosaic of St Nicholas, the first of the aisle niche mosaics to be produced, in the north aisle in 1961. He was particularly proud of this mosaic, which was influenced by the 4th century nave mosaics in the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome, and is very different in character from the other niche mosaics here in the Cathedral. At this time (the early 1960s) Justin Vulliamy was working as artistic and technical assistant to Boris Anrep, with whom he had worked from the 1930s. In 1956 Anrep had been commissioned to produce mosaics for the Cathedral Blessed Sacrament Chapel, these being finally completed in January 1962 when the chapel was reopened.

The previous year (1961) Anrep had produced designs for the mosaics of St Paul’s Chapel for the Cathedral Art Committee but, by now aged almost 80, he asked that Vulliamy, his assistant, should be given the commission to design and decorate the chapel while he himself would advise and assist him. Vulliamy is recorded as working on the mosaics of St Paul’s in Paris (where Anrep had his studio) and Venice (where the firm of Angelo Orsoni made the glass smalti and tesserae and prepared the mosaics) from 1962 until 1964. During that year the mosaics were installed (by Peter Indri) in the chapel which was reopened in January 1965.

Thus Vulliamy is known to have been working on Cathedral mosaics from 1962-64 and so was in a position to have produced the three niche mosaics of St Christopher, St Joachim and St Anne, as remembered by Aelred Bartlett. In support of this is the use in all three niche mosaics of the same unusual violet-pink smalti as used in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and St Paul’s. Also used in these two chapels and in the mosaics of St Anne and St Joachim – but nowhere else in the Cathedral – are granulated gold tesserae interspersed with the normal flat-faced type. The same violet-pink smalti and granulated gold tesserae were produced by Angelo Orsoni of Venice – the firm which supplied Anrep and Vulliamy.

Anrep himself is, of course, very unlikely to have been involved with the three niche mosaics, having turned down the commission for St Paul’s Chapel because of age. In any case his style is completely different – as can be seen by comparison with his mosaics in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and with the principal figures (which he detailed) in St Paul’s. So it looks as if Aelred Bartlett was right in that the niche mosaics were produced by Justin Vulliamy in the period 1961-64 (after which decoration effectively came to a halt under Cardinal Heenan and his new Administrator) using smalti and tesserae produced by Orsoni of Venice with Peter Indri again doing the fixing – as he did in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and St Paul’s.