The forthcoming Olympic Games in London has produced a wide range of creative responses, in the form of art, music and writing, long before its arrival. One such initiative is being driven by a mosaicist, Tessa Hunkin, who plans to create an ancient-style mosaic depicting daily life in contemporary London. Iris catches up with her and asks a few questions...
What first inspired you to get involved with mosaics?
I came to mosaics from an architectural background. Having slogged through the long training and worked in various places I found myself working on the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington. This building was lavishly funded by the Aga Khan and the interior is full of decorative plasterwork, tiling and carving in the Islamic tradition. I realised that I was much more interested in these beautiful works of craftsmanship than in the architectural surroundings but it still took a while to find a way of pursuing this interest. Fortunately a friend of mine, Emma Biggs, had seen a programme on the television about the Italian community in London that featured traditional mosaic makers, and this inspired her to set up a company called Mosaic Workshop. Mosaic is a form of architectural decoration at the heart of the Western tradition and I thought it would be the perfect medium in which to explore the possibilities of large scale, hand made work. I joined Emma in 1988 and we worked together out of her front room while we learned our craft, largely by trial and error, but also with kind advice from some of the old Italian firms. Traditionally mosaic was the monopoly of expatriate Italians every where in the world and they were very secretive about their skills in order to protect their jobs. By the end of the 1980s, however, many of the old firms were going out of business because the younger generation were no longer interested in the hard life of manual labour, and so the old men indulged two foolish young English women who thought they could learn the business. Gradually we attracted more and more commissions and are now one of the largest mosaic studios in the country.
Can you tell us a bit about how they are constructed?
There are two main ways of making mosaic. One is called the direct method where the pieces of stone, ceramic and glass (known as tesserae), are placed directly into an adhesive bed in-situ. In Roman times large areas would be laid in this way, but on floors it is back-breaking work, and on ceilings it is even worse. The other method is the indirect method where the design is reversed and the pieces stuck face-down on paper with a water-soluble glue. This can be done on a work surface and is therefore a lot more comfortable, and it is also possible to follow a drawn design without obliterating it with adhesive. The piece is cut up into manageable sections, usually about 0.5mx0.5m, and then reassembled in the adhesive bed where the paper facing is damped and peeled away. There is much argument about how much this technique was used in the Ancient world, and very little hard evidence to go on. It is clear that some very elaborate mosaics, known as 'emblema', such as the fine pieces from Pompeii, were made up off site and set into independent slabs in the workshop, and occasionally there is evidence of under painting on the the setting bed which would indicate the direct method. Although there is a certain snobbery against the indirect method, based on 19th century Romantic ideas about the spontaneity and 'truthfulness' of working directly into the mortar, I think that the Romans, as eminently practical people, must have used the indirect method sometimes.
What are the differences between mosaics of different eras - do you have any favourite eras?
The two great periods of historical mosaic are in the Ancient world and in the Byzantine and Medieval world. Surviving classical mosaics are almost all floor mosaics, made primarily of marble and natural stone, with small accents of glass in some examples. Mosaics of the Christian Era are generally wall mosaics made of glass and characterised by the lavish use of gold tesserae, made from gold leaf sandwiched between two layers of glass. Initially it was medieval mosaic that fascinated me most, for instance the great twelfth and thirteenth century cycles at Saint Mark's in Venice (image1) and in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello in the Lagoon, whose scale, colour and vitality is unmatched in any other art form. However as I have studied more about the history of mosaic it is the Late Antique period that has come to interest me most. Between the 2nd century and the 8th century Europe went through radical political, cultural and economic change as the Roman Empire declined and Christendom gathered strength, and this transformation is reflected in the mosaics of this period. In floor mosaics and pavements there is an extraordinary degree of continuity of both form and content so that the Hunting scene at the Great Palace in Constantinople (image 2), made in the 6th century in the capital of the Christian Empire is very similar in style and subject matter to Pagan mosaics made centuries earlier (image 3). Even the powerful wall mosaics of the Early Christian Church that have survived in such splendour at Ravenna (image 4), have their roots in an increasing stylisation and two dimensionality that had emerged in Roman sculpture in the 3rd century and flourished in the mosaics of North Africa, Israel and Jordan (image 5). It is a fantastically vivid record of how societies change, and how tradition and innovation are interwoven to create a gradual transformation that is not as complete or radical as has often been portrayed.
How did the Greeks and Romans use mosaics?
Few wall mosaics have survived from the Antique world. This is partly because the walls themselves tend to end up as piles of rubble but the evidence suggests that that on walls, where durability was not necessary, painting was a more practical and popular choice. At Pompeii and Herculaneum there are some mosaic fountains and niches, suggesting that mosaic was used on surfaces that might get wet (image 6), and there are a few famous examples of mosaics copying paintings, such as the Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun (image 7). Otherwise we know that floor mosaics were widely used by the Romans, not just in palaces and grand villas but also in humbler dwellings and shops. With the limited tools available it was easier to make small stone pieces than to form large slabs for flooring and so simple mosaic was not necessarily a costly finish. In the remains at Ostia there are several examples of mosaic signs advertising the kind of trades operating in particular shops, such as ropemakers and shipbuilders (image 8). Further back in the Greek era there are some extraordinarily realistic mosaics from the early 2nd century BC, such as a portrait of a dog from Alexandria (image 9), which were greatly admired and imitated by the Romans. The earliest mosaics of all date from the 4th century BC and are made of pebbles. Some are complex designs in black and white but others are remarkably life-like, using the varied tones of the found materials to create the effect of three dimensional modelling (image 10).
Tell us about your idea of creating a mosaic for the Olympics - what the vision is, and how you're going to make it happen.
The London Olympics in 2012 presents a perfect opportunity to make a mosaic that illustrates this great Classical tradition but also to demonstrate how it can reinvent itself to reflect the modern world. My idea is to create a design that at first sight it will look like a Roman mosaic of the seasons, but a closer look will reveal that it actually shows our own lives and activities in the modern city, from jogging and roller-blading to barbecues and shopping (image 11). The details of the design would be generated through a series of workshops with local schools and community groups, through projects involving drawing and photography about how they see life in modern London. There will also be opportunities for teachers to pursue some of the issues raised by the project, including everyday life in Roman times, the history of mosaic and it’s archaeological importance, the impact of technological inventions on the development of society. We would also run workshops that gave an introduction to the techniques of mosaic and the best work would be included in the finished mosaic. The mosaic will be made under my supervision by a group of people with mental health problems using the indirect method. Ancient mosaics would have been made by a team of people and I think that having many hands working on the project will give it an extra dimension of vitality and interest. There will be a website that shows the progress of the work so that everyone involved can follow the work as it comes together. When it is all finished and fixed there will be an exhibition mapping the process and showing all the artworks and projects associated with it.
How can schools and people get involved?
The project is still at an early stage and I am looking for a suitable site. I am in discussions with both the London Borough of Hackney and the City of Westminster and if both are interested I will run two projects (so long as I can raise some money!). If your school is in or close to these boroughs please get in touch with me and I can make sure you are included in the programme of school workshops.
It's not just mosaics that you do - your website also features gothic art and also LED jewellery amongst other things - can you say a bit about that?
As well as making mosaics I work with LEDs and electric circuits to make decorative lightboxes and jewellery. This is in an attempt to bring myself into the modern world and to avoid being lost in the dim and dusty past. I am inspired by the art and culture of the medieval and classical worlds but I also think that they are part of a living tradition that needs to be reinterpreted by every generation. New technology provides an opportunity to rethink old ideas, and all my work is an attempt to create odd hybrids of old and new. Much of the imagery in my lightboxes derives from medieval manuscripts, but modern technology allows me to, literally, illuminate them in a way that I'm sure medieval artists, with their love of colour and brightness, would appreciate.
Do you run workshops in schools?