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Sir Christopher Wren

  • Object:

    Mosaic

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1869 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Crowe, Eyre, born 1824 - died 1910 (designer)
    Minton, Hollins & Co. (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Ceramic mosaic

  • Museum number:

    A.26-2009

  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 126, case EWAL

This picture is part of a cycle of monumental mosaic portraits depicting famous artists, here Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). The series of originally 35 mosaics was created between 1864 and circa 1875 for the South Court of the South Kensington Museum, the later V&A. The mosaics were originally installed on the side walls as part of a decorative scheme celebrating the arts.

The subject here is the English architect, astronomer, mathematician and founding member of the Royal Society, Sir Christopher Wren. After the great fire of 1666, Wren produced a masterly plan for the rebuilding of London, which was never executed. He designed, however, many new buildings, most notably St Paul's cathedral. From 1670 to 1711 he executed 52 London churches. Wren's other buildings include Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, Trinity College Library in Cambridge, Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, and the Façade of Hampton Court Palace. Crowe depicts Wren in the Valhalla portrait in his most famous role, as the architect of new St Paul's Cathedral; he holds a pair of dividers in one hand and an architectural ground plan of the cathedral in the other. The plinth to his right is decorated with a relief sculpture of a phoenix rising out of a fire, with the Latin inscription 'RESURGAM': 'I shall rise again'. One of the liveliest of the Valhalla portraits, it depicts Wren looking thoughtfully up to one side, as though assessing the architectural space, and seemingly in the act of designing. The portrait of Wren is derived from prints after a 1711 portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller (National Portrait Gallery).

The series of mostly idealised portraits against gold backgrounds soon became known by the public as the Kensington Valhalla. The term alludes to the Vallhall as eternal home of heroes in Norse mythology. It also refers to the concept of a reunion of outstanding personalities of different periods by the means of art. An earlier example of such a hall of fame is the Walhalla near Regensburg in Germany (opened in 1842).

The selection of the Kensington Valhalla includes many famous artists, from Phidias and Apelles as representatives of ancient Greece to contemporaries such as the Irish painter William Mulready who had died only five years before his mosaic was completed.

Mosaics played an important part in the canon of materials and techniques used for the interior decoration of the new South Kensington Museum. The ambitious project of a revival of the art of mosaics involved one of the major Venetian mosaic companies of the time, Salviati & Co. It also led to the innovation of the technique by the introduction of vitrified ceramics mosaics made by Minton, Hollins & Co. These ceramics mosaics were created following the cartoons of professional artists by female students, including members of the family of Henry Cole.

The Kensington Valhalla remained in place until 1949. Some of the mosaics are now on display in other galleries of the museum. In addition to the mosaics themselves, preparatory sketches and cartoons by established contemporary artists such as Edward Poynter or Lord Leighton are part of the V&A collection.

Physical description

Vertical oblong ceramic mosaic with curved top depicting idealised full-length portrait of Christopher Wren with dark coat and breeches and red waistcoat, holding a ground plan in his left, his right hand with a compass and resting on a plinth with a phoenix relief; standing on voluted plinth in front of a golden background

Place of Origin

Great Britain (made)

Date

ca. 1869 (made)

Artist/maker

Crowe, Eyre, born 1824 - died 1910 (designer)
Minton, Hollins & Co. (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Ceramic mosaic

Marks and inscriptions

'WREN.'

Dimensions

Height: 2.675 m approximate, Width: 0.905 m approximate, Depth: 0.045 m approximate, Weight: 220 kg

Object history note

This mosaic was created for the decoration of the South Court of the Museum. It is part of a cycle of mosaic portraits of famous artists. They were created between 1863 and ca. 1875 and installed in blind arcades on the upper level of the South Court.

Historical significance: Only few extensive mosaic cycles were executed in the 19th century. Apart from the South Kensington Valhalla the mosaics of the Albert Memorial, Albert Memorial Chapel at Windsor, and at Saint Paul's Cathedral, all begun in 1864, were the only other comparable projects of the time. All of them were made by Salviati & Co.
The mosaics of the South Kensington Valhalla are based upon designs of a variety of artists, some of whom were, or were to become, major figures of the Victorian art world. The commission is extremely well documented. The related documents and cartoons at the V&A make this cycle of mosaics not only an outstanding group of artistic value, but are also an excellent case study for the history of the buildings of the Museum.

Historical context note

The Museum played an important part in the revival of mosaic in Britain in the 19th century. The technique goes back to ancient times and was always regarded as one of the most precious and long-lasting techniques for adorning walls and floors. The enormous costs of mosaics limited its success in the 19th century.
The early mosaics for the South Court were made using the traditional material glass. They were created by the Venetian company Salviati & Co., the most successful mosaic makers of the time who had branches in London and New York. The majority of the mosaics consist of vitrified ceramics which were provided by the English company Minton, Hollins & Co. The Mosaics were made by the Mosaic Class of the Art School of the South Kensington Museum and were supervised by a representative of Minton. Amongst the students were family members of Henry Cole.
A second, less ambitious series of mosaics was created for the north cloister between 1868 and 1874. In 1878 a ceramic mosaic memorial for Sir Henry Cole, designed by Frank Moody was installed on the first landing of the Ceramic Staircase and is still in place today. The use of mosaic at the museum also included marble mosaic floors, some of them laid by 'Female Convicts' of Woking Prison from 1869 and was dubbed Opus Criminale by contemporaries.

Descriptive line

Mosaic panel, ceramic mosaic, depicting Sir Christopher Wren, by Florence H. Cole and Amelia Gibbon after a painting by Eyre Crowe, Britain, about 1869

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Physick, John. The Victoria and Albert Museum. The history of its building. London: The Victoria & Albert Museum 1982. Pp. 62-67, no. 32.

Production Note

Made by Florence H. Cole and Amelia Gibbon, superintended by Samuel Cooper for Minton, Hollins & Co.

Materials

Ceramic

Techniques

Mosaic

Subjects depicted

Phoenix; Compasses (drawing instruments); Plans (drawings)

Categories

Portraits

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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