Next time you visit the National Gallery in London you really should turn your gaze away from the walls and onto the floor.
There, in the main entrance staircase area, you will see one of the great contemporary British secular mosaic masterpieces of the twentieth century. Here I look at the floor mosaics at the National Gallery, London.
Created by Russian emigre Boris Anrep the mosaics are a representation of British life in four parts – The Labours of Life, The Pleasures of Life, The Awakening of the Muses and The Modern Virtues. These mosaic are full of vigour and humour quite unlike anything else you will see.
Churchill in his tin hat
Take a careful look around and you might spot some familiar faces. In the Modern Virtues section, the virtue of ‘Defiance’ is represented by Churchill standing before the White Cliffs of Dover, in his Dad’s Army best, one hand a clenched fist, while the other gives the victory sign to a swastika shaped monster across the Channel.
The Bloomsbury Group stoned
Anrep was something of a Russian aristocrat and as such found a good home in London amongst the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers. Anrep must have had great fun casting his friends as various characters in the design. Virginia Woolf appears as the Muse of History, Margo Fonteyn as Delectation, Clive Bell as Bacchus. T.S.Elliot as Leisure, they are all there – Edith Sitwell, Diana Mitford, Greta Garbo… Lucidity is portrayed by Bertrand Russell, interestingly he pulls a naked and blindfolded woman from a well. Anrep’s friend and social circle are all there in the floor mosaics at the National Gallery, London.
And a premature grave?
Perhaps the most curious panel in the floor is what appears to be the grave of the artist himself. Not by chance, below the ‘Humour’ panel you can see the grave of Boris Anrep, with his profile on the gravestone above the words ‘Here I Lie’ (is that a pun on him laying the mosaic floor?). Beneath these words are relief carved panels, one showing what is perhaps the Anrep arms whilst the other depicts the traditional tools of the Mosaic Maker, the mosaic hammer, a trowel and a handful of tesserae.
Also interesting is the panel to the right, ‘Compassion’ where you can see the Russian poet and long time lover of Anrep, Anna Akhmatova, looking towards his grave, her hand on her heart.