SPAB is running an excellent historic floors promotion which they are calling #lookdown, asking us to share images of our favourite floors. Here’s one of mine. If my experience is anything to go by, many people must walk over these every day without realising what’s under their feet – it was long after my first visit to the National Gallery in London that I really noticed these extraordinary mosaics. These are snapshots I took with my phone a couple of years ago.
The mosaics were created by Boris Anrep (1885–1969), a Russian artist who fell in with the Bloomsbury Group. Astronomer Fred Hoyle climbs a church spire in Pursuit. Ernest Rutherford admires an exploding atom in Curiosity. In Profane Love something seems to be going on between two men, a woman and a Pekinese dog, while Contemplation features what appears to be two men struggling with their love for each other. In Lucidity Bertrand Russell is poised to remove a blindfold from an otherwise naked woman. Another woman site on the back of a motorbike in Speed. TS Eliot contemplates Einstein in Leisure (“roll[ing] the universe into a ball”).
The gallery commissioned Anrep to lay two pavements in the vestibule of the Main Hall, to illustrate The Labours of Life and The Pleasures of Life (1928–29). Later he was asked to do a third, The Modern Virtues (1952), which allowed him to reflect on the war: we see Winston Churchill personifying Defiance; in Compassion, Akhmatova (with whom Anrep had a damaging affair in Petersburg during the first world war before leaving Russia for good) is saved from death by an angel, while she gazes out of frame to Anrep’s gravestone (Here I Lie). Looking at them now, the designs have the air of a planned whole, despite the more than two decades over which they were made. There is so much in them. There are many more panels than I show here, but even in these few photos you can see details than cry out for explanation.
Particularly poignant is Delectation, featuring Margot Fonteyn (with, according to Wikipedia, Edward Sackville-West at the harpsichord). Last week I wrote in Salon about Jane Fawcett, who died in May. Around the world, the focus of her obituaries was encapsulated in a headline in The Economist: ‘The deb who sank the Bismarck’. Good stuff, but after the second world war she had an important career as an architectural conservationist and campaigner, which deserved more recognition. One of her passions was… historic floors. She wrote a survey of cathedral floor damage (ICOMOS 1991), in which she lambasted stiletto heels and tourists with “little interest in the cathedral as the House of God… destroying for each other whatever experience they might have expected by sheer noise and weight of numbers.” Margot Fonteyn? Fawcett shared studios with Fonteyn when they were training as dancers. One of those careers came to naught: Ninette de Valois told Fawcett she was too tall, and her parents sent her to Switzerland to learn German.