Heritage tiling and mosaic
Arranging tesserae or tiles in order to create a pattern or an image to decorate the built environment. Heritage tiling, including Victorian geometric and encaustic tiling, are closely related and can be practiced by the same practitioners.
|Historic area of significance||For ancient mosaics, around the UK south of Hadrian’s Wall.
From the mid-19th century, UK. Important manufacturers, makers and installers of mosaic such as Oppenheimer Ltd in Manchester, Powell & Sons and Jesse Rust & Co. in London.
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||From around 150 CE, after the Romans established themselves, to the 4th century. Modern mosaic in Britain began in the mid-19th century under the aegis of Henry Cole at the new South Kensington Museum (V&A). The first pavements and images appeared in the 1860s.|
The art of mosaic was introduced to Britain during the Roman era when country villas and town houses were adorned with extensive mosaic floors during the 1st to the 5th centuries AD. Many fragments and pavements are still preserved on site as well as in museums throughout the country, giving a sense of the ingenuity and skill of the ancient craftsmen who developed a style with distinct differences from their Mediterranean counterparts.
With notable exceptions, such as the Cosmati Pavement in Westminster Abbey, the art fell into disuse after the Roman period until the Victorian revival when mosaics were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Henry Cole, the first director of London’s V&A set up a mosaic school at the museum. Cole commissioned mosaic portraits of artistic ‘greats’ to decorate the museum and covered the building’s floors and staircases with beautifully tessellated surfaces.
From the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, churches, grand municipal buildings and wealthy owners of grand private houses all required mosaic decoration as a matter of fashion and prestige. Consequently, the great mosaic making and fixing companies such as Oppenheimer Ltd. in Manchester, flourished. Following the second world war and into the 1960s, when the modernist movement inspired bold new adventures in architecture, a golden age for grand public mosaics ensued. Notable examples include the John Piper mosaic murals for the prestigious new BBC TV Centre, London (now listed) and the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce; the Merrion Centre Mosaic mural in Leeds by Eric Taylor (now at Leeds College of Art); the huge Three Ships mosaic mural on the old Co-op building in Hull by Alan Boyson (currently under threat of demolition), to name but a few.
At this point mosaic was still a niche area of work, practiced by few highly-specialised crafts people until the establishment in 1988 of the Mosaic Workshop in London by Tessa Hunkin and Emma Biggs. Mosaic subsequently became accessible as a hobby to people interested in exploring the medium in their spare time, whilst professional mosaicists continued to work on municipal and private commissions. Today, with the setting up of the London School of Mosaic and the continued commitment of a significant number of established artists to the medium, mosaic is still appreciated and sought after. It is a time intensive, highly skilled and therefore expensive method of decoration but the renewed interest in artisanal expertise means that it remains an important part of our artistic landscape.
The general lack of understanding of mosaic (even among conservation officers) results in a perception that the difficulty of restoring or even moving large architectural mosaics is insurmountable and important modern mosaics have been and are still are being lost, although the skills are available for their conservation and preservation. A failure to properly maintain existing mosaics has even led to a view that they are insufficiently durable as a medium for public art.
Mosaic is an incredibly versatile medium which requires a high level of knowledge to ensure that a work is created using the correct materials and techniques for its proposed environment and purpose. This knowledge can only be gained through training, repeat practice and the acquisition of practical experience.
The principle processes to master include how to cut, how to manipulate and combine materials and how to lay and fix them. Whilst modern mosaics might be made without following strict conventions in terms of design and execution, a set of classical rules from the Roman era provides a distinct frame of reference that still serves to guide contemporary practice.
The original cutting tools of the Romans, the hammer and hardie, continue to be used alongside modern equipment, such as tile nippers, wheeled cutters, wet saws, score and snap tile cutters and chopping machines.
Mosaic materials range from traditional stone, marble and smalti, a Venetian glass which has been used since Byzantine times, as well as newer materials such as litovi, specialised ceramics and various modern types of glass. Mosaic artists also use a wide variety of found items such as shells and pebbles alongside repurposed objects including nuts and bolts, beads, coins, broken pottery and more.
As a versatile artform, mosaic can be applied to many different surfaces or substrates. These typically include prepared wall and floor surfaces, marine plywood and other timber sheet materials, cement board, compressed foam board, polystyrene, ceramic pots and sculptural bases.
There are various fixing techniques within the two fundamental methods of direct or indirect fixing but mosaics can also be set into cast concrete. Indirect fixing is carried out using either the reverse or double reverse method (aka ‘Ravenna method’). Consideration must be given to ensure that suitable adhesives, compatible with the materials and substrate, are selected.
While modern mosaic artists respect historic methods and materials, modern material and techniques play an important role in both the restoration of historic mosaics and the construction of new ones. There has been very considerable innovation in the development of substrates, on which mosaics can be applied, and in the adhesives (tile cements and grouts) that are available. Practising mosaic artists need to be able to keep abreast of these developments, especially when they are working in conjunction with architects and other construction professionals where mosaics are part of the built environment. A working knowledge of construction skills and practice is necessary for the installation of mosaics.
Finally, the repetitive, process-intensive nature of some mosaic making means that it is sometimes possible to include unskilled makers in the fabrication of mosaic (under careful supervision) so that it lends itself to community involvement where it has a valuable, therapeutic and personal development impacts.
Mosaic artists use a variety of materials in their work and each artist will develop their own individual style. Mosaics created for public spaces are usually designed to be integral to their context, reflecting aspects of the local area, its history and geography, local landmarks or community interests.
Some artists create mosaics using materials that are found locally. For example, Scottish artist Dugald MacInnnes creates art using Scottish slate. Other artists such as Cleo Mussi and Caroline Jariwala use recycled china and pottery. Maggy Howarth is well known for her highly technical pebble mosaics, examples of which can be seen in public spaces throughout the UK.
- Pique assiette – using broken pieces of crockery, often own old items, making it very personal, or can be a very cheap way of procuring materials.
- Opus sectile – can be of glass.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Training issues: There are few formal training opportunities in heritage tiling and mosaic
- Ageing workforce: Some skilled practitioners are reaching retirement age
- Market issues: Patronage has changed. From the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries churches, banks, museums, public buildings, private houses and even local shops all used tiles to decorate their interiors and entrance ways in various ways. Now, most new work tends to be commissioned by high-end private and commercial clients so the craft depends on there being potential clients with significant resources.
- Market issues: Today mosaic is widely seen in the context of community projects. These range from the Hackney Mosaic Project, a group of volunteers who have created a series of large scale high quality mosaics in London; Gary Drostle’s mosaicked sculptures and pavements commissioned by local authorities and one-off schemes run by professional artists involving members of the local community (e.g. to create school murals).
- Lack of awareness: Mosaic and tiling remains a relatively small but important part of the decorative tradition in the UK. The main issue affecting the viability of mosaic, is the lack of understanding of what mosaic is and how it can be used to enhance public and domestic spaces. However, support organisations (see below) and social media are playing a key role in keeping the art alive.
- Training issues: Until recently, there was a significant challenge for those wishing to develop skills in mosaic, as there is no recognised centre of training for mosaicists and individuals took a range of different routes. The emergence of the London School of Mosaic is providing a focus for learning but there is some way to go in developing recognised vocational training routes for mosaic fabrication and mosaic restoration skills. Currently, the art and design skills necessary and the fabrication and installation skills are often embedded in the same people, although there are a small number of specialist installers.
- British Association for Modern Mosaic
- London School of Mosaic
- The Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics (ASPROM)
- Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
Craftspeople currently include
Mosaic and heritage tile conservation and restoration
A small number of specialist companies and individual (sole trader) specialists currently work in architectural mosaic and heritage tile restoration and conservation:
- Steve Sinnott, Heritage Tiling and Restoration
- Bullen Conservation (Oldham, Lancs)
- Cliveden Conservation (Taplow, Berks)
- Kampani, Kalypso (London)
- London Mosaic Restoration Ltd (London)
- Mosaic Restoration Manchester – Tracey Cartledge (Manchester)
- Opus Mosaic – Julie Fallon (Belfast)
- Sturge Conservation Studio Ltd (London)
- The Mosaic Restoration Company Ltd (Daventry)
- Trevor Caley Associates Ltd (London)
- WERE Conservation & Contemporary Mosaic (Scotland)
- Dennis Cunningham/Mike – Reiveley Ceramics Mosaic magic
- London mosaic
- Victorian tiling Wales
- Mark Taylor
- David Hoffman
- Sam Caulfield
- Cheshire Restoration
- Versatile Restoration
- JW Restoration
- Opus Restoration
- John O’Driscoll
- Pinnacle Conservation
Mosaic education in the UK is mostly in the form of workshops and courses by individual artists or adult education colleges. In addition, the London School of Mosaic offers the UK’s first diploma course in mosaic.
The current difficulty of operating apprenticeship schemes within the specialist area of architectural mosaic restoration is that mosaic is no longer recognised as a trade within the construction sector and there are no accredited training courses.
The point couldn’t be more clearly illustrated than by the change in the Construction Industry Training Board’s CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) card system. Early in 2019, the white card (Marble & Mosaic Specialist) was dropped from the scheme so now the only way for these highly skilled and dedicated specialists to work on construction sites is to apply for a green “Labourer Level 2 Award” card.
Information provided by the British Association for Modern Mosaic and the London School of Mosaic.
- Fischer, Peter, (1971) Mosaic History and Technique
- Unger, Hans, (1865) Practical Mosaics
- Haswell, J Mellentin, (1973) Manual of Mosaic
- Severini, Gino, (1955) Lezione sul Mosaico
- Howarth, Maggy, (1994) The Art of Pebble Mosaics
- Dierks, Leslie, (1997) Making Mosaics
- Goodwin, Elaine M, (1999) The Art of Decorative Mosaic
- Biggs, Emma, and Hunkin, Tessa, (1999) Mosaic Workshop
- Fassett, Kaffe, and Bahouth, Candice, (1999) Mosaics
- Goodwin, Elaine M, (2003) Encyclopaedia of Mosaic
- Andamento – Annual Journal of BAMM, (2007 to date, continuing)
- Mosaic Art NOW (MAN)
- Mosaic Matters