Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933) and the mosaics in the Houses of Parliament.
Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933), artist and designer in the Arts and Crafts tradition, worked from 1923-6 on four mosaic panels in the Palace of Westminster, two in the Central Lobby and two in St. Stephen's Hall. Bell's work may be seen as the culmination of the revival of the art of mosaic-work, from the 1850s onward. Indeed, by the time he was creating the panels he was one of very few artists working in this medium and well known for his work. The mosaics reflect his interest in symbolism and his desire, inspired by the Arts and Crafts ethos, to be true to his materials and the traditional methods and techniques of this work.
As early as 1847 the Seventh Report of the Fine Arts Commissioners stated that the four Patron Saints of the United Kingdom should be represented in the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster, in fresco or mosaic. (2) However, in the half century since then, the medium of mosaic had been gaining popularity, due to 'its early Christian pedigree and durability' (3) and its aesthetic qualities. As well as lending itself to early Christian symbolism, the medium was recognised as much more stable than fresco. (4) Further, various influential artists were working to revive this art form in England, (5) several of them also writing articles on mosaic work, including William Morris, Owen Jones, Charles Harrison Townsend, Lewis Foreman Day, Robert Anning Bell and, somewhat later, Roger Fry (6) Following Morris's lead, Bell and others were actively promoting many of the 'Lesser Arts' including bas-relief and stained glass, as well as traditional methods of execution, such as tempera painting and collaborative work with craft-workers, all of which had fallen into decay. (7) All the main progressive centres for teaching art in the provinces--Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, were working in similar veins, encouraging cross-fertilisation of artistic ideas and methods between the fine arts and the 'lesser arts'. Bell taught at Glasgow and Liverpool, and he worked on commissions there and in Birmingham.
Mosaic-work 'had been revived in Venice due to the enthusiasm of a Dr Salviati who ... founded the Venetian school of Mosaic' in the 1860s. (8) An interesting account of the state of mosaic work at the turn of the 20th century was written by the architect and friend of Bell, Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928), who designed the Horniman Museum, London, using a large mosaic designed by Bell as a key external feature in 1900. Townsend illustrated this work at the head of his article 'The Art of Pictorial Mosaic' (1901), describing how no one seemed to have surveyed the 'history and practice of Mosaic-work as a whole' at that time. (9) A French Government School of Mosaic in Paris was directed by M Gerspach, and cited in this article, (10) but there remained no British School. Indeed, the full extent of mosaic work executed at this period is relatively unknown. There were several important commissions in London, such as St Paul's Cathedral, the Kensington Valhalla (11) and the interior of Debenham House, Holland Park. The mosaics in the Albert Memorial, Westminster Cathedral and Leighton House were all executed by Salviati & Co who also completed two panels by Sir Edward John Poynter (1836-1919) along with the ceiling mosaics in the Central Lobby, Palace of Westminster. Very little work in Britain was completed by British mosaic workers, and despite strong support for the art and significant commissions, there was no major revival.
The story of the interior decoration of the Palace of Westminster centres on the promotion and encouragement of fine and decorative arts, as conveyed by The Report of the Fine Arts Commission in 1847. Prince Albert, until his death in 1861, had seen the building 'as a vehicle for reviving the arts of public decoration', believing that 'the appropriate decoration of public buildings is a way to national improvement in taste and education'. (12) Many of these initial schemes lay dormant from 1870 until 1921, during which time there was a lack of both funding and inspired leadership, until the mosaic scheme in the Central Lobby was revived in the 1920s. With Bell's additional two panels, the four patron saints would satisfy the vision of the Fine Arts Commission of 1847, of the Central Lobby mosaics as like 'the four evangelists in the pendentives of the cupola of St. Peter's, Rome'. (13) Significant players in these commissions saw the 'opportunity for the introduction into England of an art highly valued in other times and countries'. (14) These figures took the quality of art very seriously in their choice of artist to create new meaningful and honourable works, respectful of ancient traditions.
Robert Arming Bell was a champion of the mosaic technique and was earlier involved in a seminar held in London in 1894 celebrating the work of the late Dr. Salviati and 'encouraging the use of mosaic ... for the decoration of both interior and exterior architecture'. (15) Bell was to gain 'many and noteworthy commissions for subjects carried out in mosaic ... both here and on the Continent' (16) and even as far as Jerusalem in 1927, following completion of these Westminster commissions. (17) Bell 'made himself a master of this art by the most conscientious industry, and his many visits to the leading examples in Venice, Ravenna, Rome and Sicily, were only part of his study of the precedents for its method and technique'. (18)
The revival of the scheme for mosaics in Parliament:
The abandoned scheme of completing the series of mosaics in honour of the patron saints in the Central Lobby had retained some interest between 1870 and 1922. In 1883, ex-Commissioner of Works, Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) (19) wrote to The Times describing his unfinished plans for the Central Lobby, which had included a mosaic ceiling, goldground mosaic in the niches behind the statues, substituting marble columns for those in stone, and other measures, (20) similar aesthetic designs to those which had been executed with great success in Westminster Cathedral from 1900, where Bell had also completed mosaics. Layard's plans were aborted by opposition from some Members of Parliament. As Layard explained in his Times letter: 'Unfortunately in England political animosities are allowed to interfere even in matters of art.' (21) According to Layard, his successor, Mr. Acton Smee Ayrton (1816-1886) (22) 'felt no interest in completing what [he] had commenced, and had but little sympathy for art or artists'. (23) Unlike the 'ruthless' Ayrton, 'totally devoid of aesthetic ideas, and with the wish only to save money', (24) those who eventually revived the scheme successfully, needed to be passionate about art and decorative matters. Indeed debate in Parliament over artworks in the Central Lobby had centred on the lack of artistic ability in England, despite, as an anonymous 'Student of Art' wrote to The Times, 'our searching critics, the French' recognising our artistic powers at this time. (25) As had happened during the initial building of the Palace, it remained a focus for debates about the nature and quality of British art at this time, and especially decorative art.
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The matter was raised in the House of Commons in 1908 and 1914. (26) Letters were exchanged between various members in 1919 discussing the mosaics, private benefaction and whether Poynter had completed designs for all four before his death. (27) In the Commons, 22 March 1921, Major Barnett, MP (1863-1930) asked the First Commissioner of Works, then Sir Alfred Mond (1868-1930), (28) whether he would consider placing commissions for the decorations of the panels reserved for St. Andrew and St. Patrick. Mond replied: 'I regret that I have no funds available to enable me to comply ... if the Honourable member can find a donor to meet the cost of the decoration of the vacant panels, I shall be only too glad to see the series completed.' (29) Private donations ultimately covered the entire cost including the scaffolding and lighting. In 1921, Lord Crawford & Balcarres (1871-1940), who had taken over the Office of Works, (30) wrote, that 'the space of course is large--bigger than perhaps is generally realised--while the material, namely mosaic, is far from cheap'; and he proceeded to look into costing. (31) There are several letters in the files of the Office of Works relating to these estimated costs. (32) Indeed Crawford approved the whole process and took an active role in the commission, being an art connoisseur in his own right. He was soon to become Chairman of the Royal Fine Arts Commission (1924), a body set up to approve public works. He was to make a second career in the art world, and became a trustee of the British Museum and the National Gallery. (33) In 1921, Crawford asked an assistant in the Office of Works to research the current state of the art of mosaic in London at the time, and possible artists to complete the work. A memo in the Parliamentary Archives highlights the fact that there were few artists working in this medium at the time, and makes mention of Frank Dicksee and Gerald Moira as designers, and as executors, Gaetano Meo, Jesse Rust and Robert Anning Bell, among others. (34)
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Chronology: the creation of the panels in the Central Lobby and St Stephen's Hall:
An incomplete note or letter from circa 21 June, 1922 (35) states that Bell had been contacted with regard to visiting the Houses of Parliament and looking at the area where the mosaic was planned for. At the time, Bell was working on another high profile commission, 'great cartoons for the forthcoming exhibition at Rio'. (36) An Office of Works minute sheet from 28 June 1922 from Lord Crawford's office (37) states that Sir William Raeburn MP proposed to present a mosaic panel representing Scotland for the Central Lobby. Sir Jack Gilmour, MP (1876-1940) Sir William Raeburn (1850-1934) and the Speaker, John Henry Whitley (1866-1935), met on 28 June and Bell also attended. At this stage, Bell was to be given measurements to assist him in his estimates of costs. Whitley was also greatly involved in this commission. As one 'keenly interested in the Palace of Westminster, its fabric, and its decoration ... he did much to promote knowledge and appreciation of it'. (38) In these minutes, it is recorded that Whitley would have liked some historical paintings commissioned for St. Stephen's Hall. The minute-taker noted that the cost would be 'very great indeed' and he doubted whether it would be possible for [Whitley] to secure sufficient funding for this 'ambitious project'. (39) This is the first of several allusions to an imperious manner on the part of the Speaker; a characteristic that other civil servants were wary of. The minute-taker also noted that 'the lighting in that Hall is very disturbing owing to the intensity of the heraldic glass'; (40) a problem which surfaced later when the work was complete and remains very noticeable to this day.
By July 1922 Bell had been supplied with the required dimensions to enable him to proceed with his cartoons. (41) On the 29 August that year, Bell was in London and wanted to show Crawford his sketches at his studios at 28 Holland Park. Bell wrote that though he 'not yet started anything in a large scale', he had been corresponding at length with 'Dr Cooper who quite approves of the symbolism I am introducing but he has not yet seen the actual design so it is not an opinion on the artistic nature of the work' (42) Crawford visited Bell on 31 August and subsequently wrote that he had seen Bell's cartoons and, 'subject to one of two minor alterations [he] thought the cartoons dignified and becoming and informed Bell of [his] assent'. (43) Bell thought that the 'actual in-laying of the mosaic could be achieved without scaffolding. This would be an economy and convenience ... since the work could progress during the sittings of the house ...' and also could go ahead quickly rather than be postponed. Bell planned to draw out very large paper cartoons to work from and erect those over the space during September. (44)
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This evidence shows how Bell appeared to be quite practical in terms of the business side of his commissions. He handled the paperwork efficiently, and would organise himself very carefully to work around those who commissioned the art work, to ensure his fulfilment of the commission ran smoothly This may have been a factor in his being chosen for this commission, especially since there was comment on Philip Tilden (see below), a possible candidate for a proposed mosaic in St. Stephen's Porch, as being 'hopeless' in this respect. Crawford also liked to work closely with Bell on practical matters such as the preparation of the surface for laying the mosaic. (45)
Sir William Raeburn, a Scottish MP was the donor of the St. Andrew mosaic, the first of Bell's mosaics to be completed in 1923 (Pls 1, 2, 3, 4) , and he appeared very pleased with the result of the commission. In an extract from an unpublished autobiography he wrote,
I am accountable for the mosaic panel of St Andrew in the Outer Lobby ... I interviewed [Crawford] and found him very appreciative. He asked me if I had any artist particularly in mind and I said Professor Anning Bell, whose work is known far beyond the confines of England. Lord Crawford at once said, you could not propose a better man ... It is needless to say that Professor Arming Bell took the greatest possible pains as he always did to make everything perfect both as to design and detail. (46)
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The Speaker had received an offer from Mr Patrick Ford, MP to sponsor the remaining panel in the Central Lobby in June 1923 and Bell submitted a preliminary design to him also that month, the work progressing without incident. (47) Bell exhibited his designs for the mosaic panels for Scotland and Ireland at the Royal Academy in 1924 (Pls 1, 5).
The fourth panel (Pls 5, 6, 7) was almost completed by October 1923 when notes appear in the records regarding art-works in St. Stephen's Hall. Sir Robert Houston (1853-1926) and Sir Joseph Walton (1897-1922) had given 1500 [pounds sterling] each to provide for these. It was hoped that Cabinet would confirm 'the creation of an advisory body to be known as the Fine Arts Commission, composed of men of the highest standing in the artistic world to advise' on questions of aesthetic issues, such as the poor lighting in St Stephen's Hall, (48) and questions could be deferred until that time. On 15 October 1923, Speaker Whitley wrote to ask Sir John Baird (1874-1941), then First Commissioner of Works (49) whether '[we] should ... introduce competition or offer the work to Bell'. After consideration, he concluded in this letter to Baird 'that the best course would be to invite Mr Bell to submit designs. I do not hear of any other man of the first rank with equal experiences and success and his cooperation with the Misses Martins as craft-workers is a great element in producing a successful result'. (50) Whitley also wrote that Mr Boris Anrep and Mr Percy Bacon have sent the drawings of their work but 'he did not find it comparable with that of Mr. Bell', (51) with reference to the mosaics in Westminster Cathedral that Gertrude Martin had executed under Bell's supervision, as well as those in the Central Lobby. Whitley then went on to suggest subjects for the East and West door mosaic panels. (52) For the East panel he suggested St. Stephen with King Stephen and Edward the Confessor, and for the West, Edward III holding a model of the chapel with his Clerk of the Works kneeling and receiving his commission to execute the works. Bell exhibited his designs for these mosaic panels in 1925 and 1926 (Pls 8, 12).
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Following this, an unsigned letter to the Speaker approved of the subjects for St Stephen's Hall. Regarding the artist, the letter ran, 'the problem in my opinion is largely simplified by Anning Bell's success in the Scottish cartoon and though I have not seen his scheme for St Patrick I doubt not that it will likewise be a strong and accomplished composition drawn with the vigour and simplicity so often lacking in modern mosaic'. As private benefactions would fund the work, the Speaker was free to 'employ Robert Anning Bell should the donors approve, especially as he has gathered round him a little atelier of setters, familiar with his style and upon whom he can implicitly rely'. (53) The poor lighting was again noted and a preference for 'work in mosaic [as] in many ways this medium might prove most effective in this rather gloomy gallery'. (54)
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Regarding the subject of the west panel, Lionel Earle believed the subject of King Edward II crowning his son during his reign in Westminster Hall would be more appropriate than the Speaker's idea, as cited above. Earle organised research into the true history of this ceremony, which he believed 'actually did take place'; various documents detail this research, but there was insufficient proof as to the historical authenticity of the event, so the subject could not be chosen for the mosaic. (55) Baird wrote to the Speaker on 31 October 1923, that 'the artist, Anning Bell has carried out the work in the Central Lobby so admirably that it seems not only fair but wise to entrust him with the design and execution of the big panels in St. Stephen's Hall' which the Speaker confirmed on 1 November 1923. (56) Work on these mosaics commenced in 1924.
Unexecuted Mosaic in St. Stephen's Porch
The many artists involved in the decoration of the Palace are evidence of the level of competition Bell faced in gaining his commissions there. For example, there is discussion documented in the Office of Works papers regarding an unexecuted proposal for an art-work in St Stephen's porch, which could have been a painting or a mosaic. A letter from Lionel Earle to the Speaker wrote that he planned to approach John Singer Sargent, who subsequently replied that he couldn't undertake the commission. A letter was also written to Frank Brangwyn regarding a painting or a mosaic for the panel in the great bay in Westminster Hall, the most prominent of all the panels. The subject proposed was Richard II giving instruction to Hugh Herland, Master Carpenter, in the construction of the great roof of Westminster Hall. (57) Sir Martin Conway (1856-1937) who, according to the speaker, had been very helpful in matters concerning the decoration of the palace, such as the reconstruction of the medieval paintings, wrote suggesting Philip Tilden (1887-1956) as artist. (58) Conway was a Professor of Art who also wrote much on this area and held several influential positions in the art world. Tilden was an architect who had carried out many mural commissions. (59) Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon and Eric Gill were also possible candidates. However, Conway also wrote to the speaker that Anning Bell has more experience and has done so well for us that you would probably be unwilling to replace him'. (60) In a minute-sheet to the First Commissioner of Works, Lionel Earle wrote: 'I do not know Mr Rickett's work. As regards Mr Tilden I certainly think he has considerable cleverness and versatility but he is quite hopeless from the material business side, but if he were employed we could probably assist and supplement that weakness.' (61)
There is no explanation in the papers as to why the above unexecuted project did not go ahead, but seen in context it was likely to have been because of budgetary considerations. The ceremony of unveiling for the first St Stephen's Hall mosaic took place on 5 May 1925 at 11.30 am. The invitation list for the unveiling of the second St. Stephen's Hall mosaics, on 21 October 1926, included CFA Voysey, Dank Brangwyn, Luke Fildes, Charles Ricketts, Frederick Cayley Robinson, Walter Sickert, plus artists employed on the panels in St Stephen's Hall and other prominent figures in the art world, such as the Assistant Director or Directors of the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal College of Art and the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments.
An Aesthetic Consideration of the Mosaics
The 'spiritual function' of mosaic wrote Robert Anning Bell, is:
By a noble beauty of treatment, to present elevated ethical and religious ideas in a worthy way. It may do this by means of symbolism, or by typifying virtues and moral qualities by individual figures of great characters from mythology, or from religious history. For symbolism and these type-figures it is peculiarly suited. Further its function is to enhance and deepen the mood of religious exaltation which the architecture of the building has already suggested to the worshipper ... [who] enters those noble buildings so full of the sense of aspiration and exaltation and of the mystery which lies behind the outward show of things.  (62)
Here, Bell displays his reverence for the art-form of mosaic and his understanding that such works should fit into an already meaningful and inspiring architectural scheme. (63) Artists who wanted to create compelling creations for mosaic required 'wide culture and real imagination', since, as Bell intimated Britain's current politicians and even the monarch were not particularly inspiring; a situation aggravated by such problems as contemporary dress. (64) The mosaics required symbolic and graceful figures, easily recognisable, and engendering respect and esteem. Rather than aiming to create ornamental pieces, any true mosaic artist would have 'deeper feelings [of this kind] to express'. (65) As Christine Riding writes, 'Only in the Central Lobby is there a passing glimpse of the dreamers' [of Victorian Art]. 'Here right in the centre of the building, myth reappears.' (66) Bell's study of mosaic had included many Byzantine examples, from which he learnt how those artists created simplified images of saints, familiar to the viewer, on gold-ground backgrounds, with the intent of creating a state of readiness for worship, exaltation and devotion. (67) However, Bell, as an Arts and Crafts artist, also had the practical issues of material and method very prominently in mind:
The subjects chosen for illustration in mosaic must be such as are suitable to a necessarily austere treatment ... the characters introduced cannot be likenesses ... [rather they] should be types, the incidents symbolic. Mosaic may be used to tell the story of Creation, to portray the archangels or the goodly fellowship of the prophets, but it cannot be intimate or amusing. (68)
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Bell believed the mosaic form to be inherently a distant and formal one, due to the nature of the material and how the works were customarily positioned in buildings: their height, size and inaccessibility. But he had a deeply felt belief in the true wonder of the form, with its limitations, due to its historicity, grandeur and the spiritual satisfaction he obtained through reviving the art and creating venerable icons. Further, the ideal iconographic subjects in terms of the emotional impact of the design, fitted perfectly with the narrow possibilities of the form in terms of attempting realism. Thus 'whilst working on these commissions Bell ... evolved a linear style with simple, clear outlines and a minimum of modelling in his figures.' (69)
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Bell describes how it is false to view the statement, 'one almost took it for an oil painting' as a compliment with regard to mosaics, where 'the material itself ... proclaims itself at the outset as being unsuitable for realistic effects', owing to the uneven surface and the intervals between spaces. (70) As Bell explains, however, the irregularity in size and levelness of the tesserae constitutes much of the beauty of this art form. The 'grey lacework of the interstices is always there', however much artists have tried to disguise it, being 'enough in itself to prove the attempt [at realism] absurd, for, though unseen, it still has its quieting effect on the whole'. (71) He describes at length the neutralising, sobering effects of the medium: 'The very flatness of the effect ... seems to exercise some restraint on the style of the design ... you cannot get accidental effects and the fleeting nuances of nature, so you should choose a manner of design which by its severity and simplicity has no occasion for them.' (72) Townsend commented on the occasion of Bell's lecture to the Royal Institute of British Architects, that the mosaic artist's 'faces were symbols--not expressions nor imitations of sentiments. His trees did not represent the trees of Nature, with the glittering of the sun or the tender light of the moon; they again were symbols, emblems of trees.' (73) Walter Crane, also present, concurred with these ideas. The impossibility of realism in mosaic, and the threats posed to this great art by those who attempted to introduce it, was a subject which had also concerned William Morris. In a lecture of around 1879, Morris advised that the best mosaic work was achieved when 'no force was put upon the material to make it imitate the qualities of brush-painting, either in the power of colour, in delicacy of gradation, or intricacy of treating a subject; and, moreover, easy as it would have been to minimize the joining of the tesserae, no attempt was made at it.' He mourned that, 'as time went on, men began to tire of the solemn simplicity of the art', and it became 'an intractable material in which to imitate oil-painting, and by this time it was fallen from being a master art'. (74)
Thomas Wilson, Deputy Keeper and Clerk of Works in the Houses of Parliament echoed this sentiment in 1926: 'Like most things which are inherently simple,' he wrote, '[mosaic] is actually profoundly difficult and is full of temptations both for the designer and executant, if they fail to recognise the great law that the material dominates the treatment.' (75) The decline in the art of mosaic since 16th century, he explained, was due to the 'attempted expression of a realism ... which the simple material, coloured glass tesserae, from its nature is wholly unable to bear'. Only in recent times had artists 'in some measure succeeded in an attempt to recapture some of the secret and charm of the primitive work', (76) such as could be seen in San Vitale, Ravenna, Monreale and St Mark's, Venice, all of which Bell had visited. (77) Bell wrote: 'The material commands a certain flatness as the effect to be aimed at; I think as a corollary to this a certain archaism, or stiffness in the design.' (78) Bell thoroughly understood the medium, recognizing that 'this glassy stiff formal material was a beautiful thing in itself' (79) and 'that within these limits [mosaic] gives an artist plenty of elbowroom for his invention if he has any feeling for the method'. (80)
As to the execution of the Central Lobby mosaics, an Office of Works memo records that the whole of the four panels were carried out by an English mosaic craftswoman, Miss Gertrude Martin, and her assistants, under Professor Anning Bell's direction. This document also states that the work was done in situ, entirely in-keeping with the artistic tradition of the older mosaic work. This was also mentioned in the press note issued for the unveiling as well as in newspaper coverage. (81) For the older Edward Poynter mosaics, the work had been executed in Italy, engendering disappointment with the end result (see below). Use of the traditional method was significant to those who commissioned the work, as they felt that it added a moral cause, in their revival of this honourable craft work in England. Due to the moral cause, an integrity and nobility elevated the scheme, which was a theme running through the creation of art for the Palace of Westminster: 'Unlike Poynter's ... these four panels are all English work and carried out on the spot, in the tradition of the best mosaic.' (82) Works created in situ were also technically superior to those created with the transfer method. Sir W Raeburn described the technique for this mosaic thus:
The difference between this panel and the others that preceded it is this. They are of mosaics put together before erection and simply placed into the plumb of the wall. Anning Bell's consists of thousands and thousands of small pieces of glass placed at a slight angle and put into place while the work was proceeding ... The effect of the treatment makes the panel stand out and sparkle in any light, whereas the other two can only be properly seen in a strong light. (83)
Bell described the in situ or surface method he preferred:
When the putty is spread upon the wall a tracing from the cartoon is carefully pricked upon it ... the worker then, with the cartoon beside him, his tray of tesserae of the right sizes and colours and his clippers to cut them with for small variations, begins to stick them into the putty one by one ... I cannot think that a good result can possibly be obtained by other methods. (84)
The easier transfer method was, 'the usual way of the modern Italians and some English ... to lay a tracing of the cartoon down flat in the workshop, to match the colours in the cartoon with the tesserae, placing them over the tint they are excepted to match'. When the tesserae were laid, the back was covered with cement and slate, then taken up and set into position. (85) Bell explained that 'the objections to this method are obvious. You cannot see the progress of the work, and it is impossible to make alterations as you go on, should any piece be unsatisfactory'. (86) In 1922, in his 'Lecture on Stained Glass' at the Royal College of Art, Bell had affirmed that communal work was the only proper way to achieve success in many 'lesser arts'. (87) Edward Burne-Jones, whom Bell admired, had found great difficulty in supervising at a distance mosaic-workers executing his work in Rome in 1881, echoing the problems with the Poynter mosaics. (88) Bell, conversely, insisted on 'complete co-operation' between artist and craft-worker; (89) the latter needed to be intelligent and able. (90) The variety of colours, alternate qualities of glass, unexpected effects in the final execution, interpretation of the artist's design, varying abilities of the mosaic-workers, all affected the final result and necessitated collaboration. Bell believed in collaborative work on a moral as well as a practical level and completed lots of work in conjunction with his students in his various teaching positions. (91)
Central Lobby mosaics St Andrew for Scotland and St Patrick for Ireland
Both the St Andrew (Pl 3) and St Patrick mosaics (Pl 6) are laden with symbolism, in line with Bell's conception of mosaic and as described by Thomas Wilson. At the top of the St Andrew composition is the Monogram of Christ with the Alpha and Omega, described by Thomas Wilson as 'the earliest Christian symbol ... carved in the two earliest Christian tombs in Scotland'. Below this stands St Andrew, who was a fisherman and apostle, carrying a staff and net, and behind him is the diagonal cross on which he suffered martyrdom. St Margaret, Queen of Scotland is on his left, carrying a Bible and the Holy Rood of Scotland and on St Andrew's right stands St Mungo. (92) Thus Bell has included all the key figures important to Scottish identity. Indeed, representations of Britain, symbols of Ireland, Scotland and Wales are visibly embodied in the decorative scheme in the Palace, conveying the intended idea of the Palace as a truly national building. (93) A Byzantine style is evident with the iconographic figures, heavy drapery and the composition of distinct figures on a large, sparse expanse of gold, which is the same for the St Patrick mosaic. Equally for both mosaics, an austere, Celtic quality is imbued in the design, with the large Alpha Omega symbol and the Erse name for Ireland standing alone at the top of the panels, alluding to an affinity with long-standing myths, legends and history.
In the second panel, St Patrick is dressed in the robes of a Bishop, with the Erse name of Ireland, Omba, above him. Behind the saint is the rock of Cashel and an artistic 'suggestion of the emerald green fields and the brown bogland [sic] of Ireland'. St Columba is on his right, representing the North of Ireland. Bridget on the other side represents Southern Ireland. (94) The figures in both panels are rather angular, even severe, and have a two-dimensional statuesque quality, akin to many of Bell's paintings, such as The Women Going to the Sepulchre (1912, Royal Academy of Arts, London) and And the Women Stood Afar Off Beholding These Things (1920, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). The figurative style also follows the nature of mosaic designs by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-98), whom Bell admired, through the 'tendency to further elongation of the figures and a more formal presentation of the draperies they wear', (95) endowing them with an august, majestic presence. The simplicity of the composition serves Bell's purposes in terms of meaning and his beliefs as to the limitations of the mosaic as form.
Bell's sketch for the St Andrew panel (Pl 2) is far warmer in palette, with rounder figures; there is more vivid blue in St. Andrew's cloak, also red, burgundy and pink overtones, yet translated into mosaic, the overall effect of is sombre and reserved. Due to his use of the antique 'in situ' method (see below), the visual effect from different angles and from below is very pleasing. In particular the tesserae forming the haloes are inlaid at varying angles to good effect. Despite Bell's enriching the composition with many delightful small decorative details, such as the border, symbols of the thistle and pillars at the side of the design, which look like they could have come from his illustration, Bell's keynote in mosaic design was restraint. In the St Andrew mosaic, the textured design of the net Andrew carries hints at the richer effects which Bell refrained from, with deliberate use of white tesserae. (96) The decorative border in both mosaics however, does betray that this is Bell's 19th-century, rather than a Byzantine, creation. As he was very conscious of the architectural context of his works, Bell's gold background and colour scheme work well with Salviati's darker gold ceiling designs.
St Stephen's Hall
King Stephen, St Stephen, King Edward the Confessor, King Edward III Commands [he Rebuilding of St Stephen' s Chapel
Work on the St Stephen's Hall mosaics had commenced in 1924. As St Stephen's Hall is a spot where the House of Commons had assembled over many centuries, the art, it was agreed, should befit a setting where, 'men rose to eminence by the eloquence and abilities which they displayed [in the house]'. (97) The works would depict 'the greatest epochs in our constitutional, social and ecclesiastical history' (98) and would comprise a religious and a secular panel. In the first (PI 10), 'the figure of St Stephen, the Proto-Martyr is shewn in an attitude of exaltation ... He holds in his hand a stone, in allusion of martyrdom'. (99) On the left is King Stephen, connected with the foundation of the first Chapel of St Stephen, thus 'associated with the origin of the Parliamentary institutions'. Edward the Confessor kneels on the right, 'His presence recall[ing] the most ancient memories of the site for it was nearby in the Painted Chamber, within the old Palace, that he is said to have passed away.' (100) The subject is a very dignified and lofty one. Bell, in line with his sponsors, was concerned with authenticity, and the portrait of King Edward is based on a fragment of the painting dated 1237 which once hung in the Painted Chamber, part of the medieval Palace. The figure of King Stephen was also based on a contemporary drawing in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. His cartoons reveal his clean draughtsmanship and propensity toward slightly elongated forms, as evident in his book illustrations and stained glass designs. Peers wrote that 'the figure groups are excellent'. (101) Indeed the economically drawn figure of King Stephen is a truly archetypal figure, with enough vivid colour and detail in the banner, shoes and decorated cuffs to be individual, but still maintaining recognisability as an icon or symbol from a distance. The composition has St Stephen 'standing between a crowned soldier and a crowned saint, symbolical of the strength and aspiration characteristic of good government'. (102) Behind is a central tree, reflecting growth, strength and the naturalness and integrity of that government.
The composition of this mosaic was discussed the most during meetings between Lord Crawford and the Speaker, (103) and the designs were also subject to Sir John Baird's approval before the commission was given. (104) Lord Crawford drew up a sheet of 'Lord Crawford's Criticisms and Suggestions on Robert Arming Bell's Cartoons for Mosaics in St. Stephen's Hall'. Lionel Earle and Mr Peers, 'the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments--a man of quite admirable experience and taste, not only in the realms of architecture but also in those of heraldry and form', (105) also created comment sheets. Crawford commented that the 'tree is too sturdy, and its foliage too florid ... Considering the great height if this mosaic, I should prefer still more simplification--in other words, a smaller and more conventionalised foliage', (106) and Peers also felt that Bell should make the foliage lighter and less distinctly outlined. (107) Bell made several sketches, varying between sparser and fuller foliage (See Pl 9 for one example), and at some stage Bell appears to have opted for the latter. Mr Peers wrote, 'the device of a conventional tree to occupy the head of the panel is skilfully worked out, but ... the problem of the junction with the main subject is not solved in a very convincing manner'. Indeed, there remained a problem of 'the tree growing out of the halo'. (108) However, despite all recognising the problems of filling these difficult large, high spaces, Earle thought the cartoons were 'full of promise and ... more attractive than the two installed in the central lobby', but also admitted that in the Lobby Bell had less free scope, since he had to take account of the other two mosaics already installed. (109) Crawford also wrote that the designs, 'promise to become strong and dignified mosaics, well suited to the great altitude of St. Stephen's Hall, and calculated to reflect a strong and radiant glow of colour'. (110) (Pl 11 shows this architectural context.)
The mosaic over the West doorway of St Stephen's Hall shows Edward III presenting the design for St. Stephen's Chapel to his Master Mason, Thomas of Canterbury (Pl 13). On the right of the King, stand figures representing the Crafts. The composition unites 'King and State as the Patron, the Guild Master as designer, and the Craft-workers; all the human factors in a great achievement'. (111) The same painstaking care over the design in terms of the historical source of the story and the composition are evident for this panel. The historical background to the subject was researched scrupulously. The Speaker, as The Times observed in 1926, 'not only promoted the aesthetic enrichment' of the Palace, but also 'the patient reconstruction of lost evidences of British Art' so that 'a great deal was known about the original structure' of the medieval Palace, for example, that 'Thomas of Canterbury was the mason, and William Hurland the carpenter, the latter the father of that Hugh Hurland, who built the grand forest roof for Westminster Hall.' (112)
Bell produced several designs (Pl 12) and in particular it was felt that making the throne 'a gothic chair rising higher than the existing design ... would help ... to fill the panel, which has evidently been the Artist's difficulty'. (113) There were originally wings to the throne, which Bell removed, as there is much discussion in the file regarding the width of these wings, their positioning, whether they were convincing, and several comments to the effect that 'if they could be left out it would be a good thing'. (114) The throne is similar to the Coronation Chair (St Edward's Chair) which has been in the Palace since c1300 (115) and has elements of Gothic architectural tracery. The final throne design is, indeed, more successful in filling the panel than the tree in the previous composition and is a significant feature of the finished design, drawing all the figures together and providing a stable, reliable centre.
The subject of this panel was naturally appealing to Bell, given his views on collaboration with craft-workers. His compelling 'three artisan figures [were] very fine, notably the two standing figures', (116) positioned as slightly leaning forward, their faces serious and resolved, yet eager and intent, and with muscular arms. Bell invests them with as much realism as he was willing to allow in mosaic work. He manages to convey his respect for artisans; a sense of the honesty and sincerity of manual work is embodied in these figures. The panel also commemorates:
'... the rebuilding and decoration of the St. Stephens Chapel built on this site by King Edward III in 1348 ... [which] constituted a splendid monument of English Gothic Art ... the finest work of English medieval craft-workers over a period of one hundred years. (117)
As an Arts and Crafts man, Bell respected the ideals that had driven the Victorian Gothic revival, and his colour scheme and subject are faithful to its aesthetic, as of course is the whole Palace. Pugin's blue-and-red tiles in the Hall are echoed in a colour scheme dominated by the primary colours of medieval art, such as in the delightful red shoes and green tights of the craft-workers, the red and white cloak of the King and the gold background. The predominance of bold primary colours and gold creates a warmer and more vibrant effect, in comparison with the other panels. The tiling effect on the gold background adds visual interest, echoing the square, angular structure of the composition as a whole, which is centred on the throne, softened by the figures at either side, quite removed aesthetically from the sparser Byzantine-esque examples. Crawford believed this to be, 'the best of the four designed by Professor Anning Bell'. (118)
When Lord Crawford unveiled the new mosaic in St. Stephen's Hall, he hoped that 'the completion of [Bell's mosaic] may give an impetus to much wider study and more general practice than mosaic receives at present'. (119) An Office of Works memo describes how, 'the completion of the ... panels owes much to the initiative of Mr. Speaker [Whitley] and the enlightened artistic interest he has shewn in the work ... to his efforts is due entirely the collection of the funds necessary for carrying out the work'. (120) There were also suggestions that in his passion for art, the Speaker could be over-zealous and he could move too fast for the taste of other Members. (121) However this impassioned effort was essential in ensuring that these commissions were completed. Figures like Lord Crawford, Speaker whitley, and Thomas Wilson shared Anning Bell's vision of creating more public art such as this. Crawford, commenting on mural painting and mosaic in The Times in 1926, insisted that 'it is not an idle dream that sees London walls glowing with the beauty which delights the visitor [to Italian towns]'. (122) Bell also wrote on this subject in The Times, and in an article on 'Painted Relief' for the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects. (123) These leading public figures showed great respect for traditional craftsmanship, even down to small details. On Bell's part there is an endearing Arts and Crafts earnestness and sincerity, as for example, his discussing at length with other artists the type of putty that Byzantine and Roman mosaicists used. (124)
A life-long friend of Bell's, since their early days of sharing a studio, George Frampton was present when Bell gave his talk on mosaic technique for the Royal Institute of British Architects on Monday 18 November, 1901, and stated afterwards that Bell and others 'were doing a great service to the art of this country and to architecture, and that lovers of art should be grateful to these gentlemen for devoting their attention to the placing of mosaic and other decorations on the same level as fine arts'. (125) These Westminster works and related records shed a fascinating light on the nature of mosaic-work from the 1850s to the 1930s, revealing the mixed success with which dedicated artists sought to revive it, alongside other traditional forms of monumental art. (126) This author is working on further studies of the nature of mosaic-work over this period and Bell's life, works and artistic ideals and practises.
Bell's mosaic works have remained relatively unknown, but on Bell's own terms, as detailed in his writings, they were highly successful, both in their truth to ancient methods and as embodiments of eternal ideals. Bell wrote in 1922,
I have little sympathy with the desire to reduce our arts to the abstract. It is too austere and puritanical an ideal. They are the better, I think, where the work is conceived in a moment of fervent exaltation. It may be religious, it may come from poetry, from music, from the external beauty of Nature; it may come as the wind comes, one knows not whence, but it sets a flame, as it were to the imaginative mind, and in that flame the artistic subject is born. (127)
Bell 'continued to [create] imaginative figure subjects' (128) such as these mosaics into the 1920s. These important works highlight the ongoing efforts of such 'Last Romantics' (129) to create a meaningful figurative art for the 20th century, in the face of modernist movements.
(1) Robert Anning Bell, 'Notes on the Practice of Pictorial Mosaic', Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) VIII (1901), p38.
(2) Commissioner's Report, House of Lords Library, vol 19, no. XXXIII (1847), p267. Malcolm Hay and Jacqueline Riding, Art in Parliament: The Permanent Collection of the House of Commons, London, 1996 (=Hay & Riding), p104.
(3) Malcolm Hay in Hay & Riding, p104.
(4) Concerning Lord Leighton's frescoes on the north wall of the South Court, the Kensington Museum decided that 'fresco would be forever causing trouble--blistering, powdering, being scratched by careless visitors, or even ... by 'deliberate mischief.' John Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum: The History of its Building, Oxford, 1982 (=Physick), pp78-79.
(5) Various companies and artists worked with tiles too, but I have treated this as distinct from mosaics, despite the cross-over with floor mosaic.
(6) William Morris, 'Making the Best of It', about 1879, in William Morris, The Collected Works of William Morris, 24 Vols, London, 1914 (=Morris), XXII, pp108-9.
(7) See Bell, 'Mosaic' and 'A Lecture on Stained Glass', london, 1922 and 'Painted Relief', RIBA, XVIII (22 May 1911), pp485-500. Bell encouraged his students to work in a variety of arts to 'avoid staleness and repetition' in 'Stained Glass,' p16. Other writings included Charles Harrison Townsend, 'The Art of Pictorial Mosaic', RIBA, 3s, VIII (1901), p221, 'Mosaic: Its History and Practice' (The Cantor Lecture), typescript 1893, MSL/1929/1434, National Art Library, Papers for RIBA Journal on 'Mosaic' and 'Fresco' Typescript 1894, MSL/1929/1436, National Art Library, 'Mosaic Work and How it is Executed', The Girl's Own Paper, XIX, No. 414 (3 December 1887), pp51-52. Owen Jones, Designs for Mosaic and Tessellated Pavements, London, 1842, Lewis Foreman Day, 'Modern Mosaic in England', Architectural Record vol 2 (1892), pp79-88; Roger Fry, 'Modern Mosaic and Mr Boris Anrep', The Burlington Magazine, June 1923, pp272-8.
(8) Hay in Hay & Riding, p104. Reino Lieges, Antonio Salviati and the Nineteenth-Century Renaissance of Venetian Glass', The Burlington Magazine, CXXXVI (May 1994), pp283-290.
(9) Townsend, 'Mosaic', p221.
(10) Ibid. They had collected material together in Rome around 1898/9 for Bell's article on mosaic. Bell, 'Mosaic', p33.
(11) See Physick for details. Hay in Hay & Riding, p105.
(12) Julian Orbach, Blue Guide: Victorian Architecture in Britain, London, 1987, p220.
(13) Commissioners Report, op cit (n2 above), p267.
(15) Hay in Hay & Riding, p105. 'Mosaic and Fresco', Papers, RIBA, 1894, National Art Library.
(16) Obituary, The Times, 28 November1933, p19.
(17) Jerusalem War Cemetery and Memorial Chapel, Palestine, RIBA Online Catalogue
(18) Obituary, loc cit (n16 above).
(19) First Commissioner of Works, 1868.
(20) AH Layard, Letter to the Editor, The Times, 2 April 1883, p8.
(22) First Commissioner of Works, 1869.
(23) AH layard, loc cit (n20 above).
(24) MH Port, The Houses of Parliament, London and New Haven, 1976, p187, n27.
(25) Anon, Letter to the Editor, The Times, 4 April 1883, p5.
(26) Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, 1908, 1914.
(27) Lionel Earle, JD Batten, Earl of Plymouth wrote to each other, 30 November 1919, 5 December 1919, 6 December 1919. Subsequent letters/documents, until otherwise stated, are from this file: Mosaics in the Central Lobby, 1919-1937. PRO 18.104.22.168 (1).
(28) First Commissioner of Works, 1916-1921.
(29) Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, vol 139, 1921, pp2405-6.
(30) David Alexander Edward Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford & 10th Earl of Balcarres, politician and art connoisseur.
(31) St David cost 927 [pounds sterling] in 1898. Letter from Crawford to Sir Samuel Waring, dated 5 April 1921, Estimated cost of current panel at 1500 [pounds sterling], letter from Crawford to Waring, 9 November 1921.
(32) Frank Baines and Jack Gilmour wrote letters.
(33) Jane Ridley, ODNB, online biographical entry, 2004-8.
(34) Office of Works Memo, 28 April 1921.
(35) From Jack Gilmour, undated, but placed in chronological order in the file.
(36) Letter from Bell's wife, 21 June 1922.
(37) Mosaics in the Central Lobby, 1919-1937. PRO 22.214.171.124 (1).
(38) HJ Wilson, rev. Mark Pottle, ODNB, online biographical entry, John Henry Whitley, 2004-8 (=Wilson).
(39) Office of Works Minute Sheet 28 September 1922.
(40) Ibid. The problem of light is mentioned in letter from Lionel Earle to Lord Crawford 11 October 1923.
(41) Note dated 14 July 1922 signed by Frank Baines and Mr Wilson.
(42) Telegram from Robert Anning Bell to Lord Crawford, from Burford Priory, Oxon, Shipton Station 29 August 1922.
(43) Letter from Crawford to the Secretary, Office of Works, 5 September 1922.
(45) Noted in Office of Works Memo by the Chief Architect, 13 November 1922.
(46) From an extract from an unpublished autobiography by Sir W Raeburn. I thank Emma Gormley, curator at the Palace of Westminster, for locating this within the Commons Library and bringing it to my attention.
(47) Office of Works Memo, 18 June 1923.
(48) As desired and noted by Lionel Earle ten 13 October 1923 and in a hand-written note added to a minute sheet 17 October 1923, (Subsequent letters/documents, unless otherwise stated are from the following file: Mosaics in St. Stephen's Hall, PRO WORK 11/277).
(49) First Commissioner of Works, 1922-4.
(50) Letter from the Speaker to John Baird, 15 October 1923.
(52) Letter from JH Whitley to John Baird, 15 October 1923.
(53) Unsigned letter to the Speaker dated 15 October 1923.
(55) Letter from Lionel Earle to the First Commissioner of Works 18 October 1923. This document again insinuates that the Speaker might act rashly or without agreement froth others. Various documents ten the file detail Earle's research.
(56) Letter from John Baird to the Speaker 31 October 1923. Letter from the Speaker to John Baird, 1 November 1923.
(57) Lionel Earle letter to Frank Brangwyn 16 September 1924. Unsigned letter to Lionel Earle 6 January 1925.
(58) Letter from Martin Conway to the Speaker, 18 December 1924.
(59) Who Was Who.
(60) Letter from Conway 18 December 1924 to the Speaker.
(61) Minute Sheet 22 December 1924 which Lionel Earle wrote for First Commissioner of Works.
(62) Bell, 'Stained Glass', p4.
(63) An Owen Jones ideal detailed in his book, The Grammar of Ornament, London, 1986 (originally published 1856 by Messrs Day and Son, London), pp5-8.
(64) Interestingly, Bell owned a copy of Francis M Kelly and Randolph Schwabe, Historic Costume: A Chronicle of Fashion in Western Europe, 1470-1790, London, 1925, probably a gift to Laura Parker, Bell's niece. Private knowledge--this remains in the family's possession.
(65) Bell, 'Stained Glass', p4.
(66) Christine and Jacqueline Riding The Houses of Parliament: History Art and Architecture, London, 2000 (=Riding), p235 and n235.
(67) Otto Demus, Byzantine Mosaic Decoration: Aspects of Monumental Art in Byzantium, New Rochelle and New York, 1976, pp6-7.
(68) Bell, 'Mosaic,' p26.
(69) Unpublished typescript, Robert Anning Bell File, Royal Academy of Arts, pl.
(70) Bell, 'Mosaic', p25.
(71) Ibid, which directly echoes Morris's sentiments regarding delightful grey toning, n 11.
(72) Bell, 'Mosaic', p26.
(73) Ibid, p34.
(74) Morris, pp108-9.
(75) Thomas Wilson (Deputy Keeper of Westminster Hall and Clerk of the Works), Historical Note on the Mosaics al the Palace of Westminster: Booklet printed for private circulation on completion of the mosaics in St. Stephen's Hall and handed out at the unveiling of the mosaics, 28th October 1926 by the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, p3.
(76) Wilson, p5.
(77) Bell's Obituary (n16 above).
(78) Bell, 'Mosaic', p26.
(79) Ibid, p37.
(80) Ibid, p26.
(81) Undated Office of Works Memo, PRO WORK 11/277, Press document for the unveiling, 1926, PRO WORK 11/248, 'New Mosaics at St. Stephen's', The Times, 29/10/1926, p17.
(82) The Times, 29 October 1926, p17.
(83) W Raeburn, op cit.
(84) Bell, 'Mosaic', p30.
(86) Ibid, p31.
(87) Bell, 'Stained Glass', p10.
(88) Burne-Jones expressed this in a letter to TM Rooke cited in Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, London, 1973, p131. Regarding Poynter's mosaics, see The Times, 5/11/1926, p15 and Port, op cit, p182.
(89) Bell, 'Mosaic,' p31.
(90) Ibid, p38.
(91) At Liverpool School of Architecture, 1895-9 for example.
(92) Wilson, p3.
(93) Here and in other statues and paintings, Riding, p18.
(94) RJB Walker, Catalogue of Paintings, Drawings, Engravings and Sculpture in the Palace of Westminster, Croydon, 1988.
(95) Burne-Jones also chose a late Byzantine style, based on mosaics he had seen in Venice and Ravenna: Harrison, op cit, p134.
(96) Bell had also used a lot of white in his Tympanum mosaic over the west entrance to Westminster Cathedral.
(97) Commissioners' Report, op cit (n2 above), p267.
(98) Riding, p235.
(99) Wilson, p11. The Times, Friday 29 October 1926, p17.
(100) Note for the Unveiling in St Stephen's Hall.
(101) 'Mr Peer's Criticisms and Suggestions', 23 January 1924.
(102) Wilson, p11.
(103) Lionel Earle wrote to the Speaker, 28 January 1924.
(104) Letter from the Speaker to John Baird, I November 1923.
(105) Lionel Earle wrote to the Speaker 28 January 1924.
(106) 'Lord Crawford's Criticisms and Suggestions on Mr. Aiming Bell's Cartoons'.
(107) 'Sir Lionel Earle's Criticism and suggestions with regard to Mr Bell's Cartoons for the St. Stephen's Hall Mosaics'.
(108) 'Note on Second Sketch'.
(109) 'Earle's Criticisms', op cit.
(110) 'Lord Crawford's Criticisms', op cit.
(111) Wilson, p.13.
(112) The Times, Friday 29 October 1926, p17.
(113) 'Earle's Criticisms', op cit.
(114) 'Mr Peers' Criticism and suggestions with regard to Mr Bell's Cartoons for the St. Stephen Mosaics' 23 January 1924.
(115) Riding, p186.
(116) 'Crawford's Criticisms', op cit.
(117) Wilson, p13.
(118) The Times, Friday 29 October 1926, p17.
(119) The Times, 5 November 1926, p15.
(120) 'Notes for the Unveiling Event'.
(121) Minute sheet from the Office of Lord Crawford 28 June 1922 cites this over-ambitious project. Letter to speaker, 15 October 1923. Letter from John Baird to Lionel Earle 16 October 1923: 'The Speaker knows that he cannot act without sanction--but I am glad that Crawford impressed that fact upon him.'
(122) The Times, 5 November 1926, p15.
(123) 'Take Art to the Public: Professor Bell's Views', The Times, 18 March 1921, p11 and 'Painted Relief', RIBA, 22 May 1911, pp485-500.
(124) Bell, 'Mosaic', pp31, 35.
(125) Ibid, p32.
(126) The latter which he was attempting to advance at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, 'Take Art to the Public', op cit.
(127) Bell, 'Stained Glass,' p14.
(128) John Christian ed, The Last Romantics: The Romantic Tradition in British Art, London, 1989, p15.
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|Publication:||British Art Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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