From Boris Anrep and the National Gallery Gallery (and Mike Pitts)
I posted photos in my earlier blog about Boris Anrep’s National Gallery mosaics, but I didn’t know much about them. I now have a copy of the gallery’s out-of-print guide. Here are some better-informed details that visitors might find interesting pending a new guide, and at the end a few words about a portrait Mary Beard acquired in 2008. I bought the guide online from Anytime Books, and was pleased to find the kind seller had included a separate fold-out leaflet, published in 1993. The plans here come from that.
The floor mosaics, writes Lois Oliver in the guide (2004), were created between 1926 and 1952. They were not his first works in Britain: Augustus John had promoted his talents, and his first commission came in 1914 for a mosaic floor at a house in Chelsea – Anrep so pleased the society hostess whose home it was, she later asked him to decorate her walls too. A 1919 mosaic in John’s Chelsea house showed him perched on a pyramid of wives and children. In 1923 he completed a floor in the Blake room at the Tate Gallery.
Anrep’s National Gallery work was all done in his Paris studio. He set out in 1926 to make The Labours of Life (west vestibule) and The Pleasures of Life (east vestibule), featuring respectively subjects such as commerce, engineering and science, and swimming, dancing, cricket and hunting (some of his choices, says Oliver, were “idiosyncratic”: he put music and theatre with labours).
The Awakening of the Muses followed, on the half-way landing, a larger work with an arrangement of scenes. Finally, on the floor of the north vestibule, Anrep completed the set with The Modern Virtues, which he began after the war in 1945.
He continued to work well into his 70s, says Oliver, his “last great work” being “an important cycle” for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Westminster Cathedral (1962).
Now for Mary Beard’s portrait (above), about which she blogged after she and her husband bought it at auction. Said to be an oil of Anrep, it was signed L Inglesis but otherwise came without information. No one was quite sure who the painter was (there are several good comments on the blog). The pose bears an interesting comparison to one that Henry Lamb caught of Anrep in a portrait of 1919 (below, from the NG guide), which sold at Christie’s in 1995 for £2,300 (Beard and Cormack paid £50 for theirs), and is now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There are separate pencil sketches of Boris and Helen Anrep.
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.