On 24 May 1921 Mr and Mrs Behrend offered £250 towards the cost of a mosaic decoration at the Tate Gallery and suggested that Boris Anrep be presented with the commission. The subject – ‘Creation’ – was initially chosen for the floor beneath the Rotunda. Within a few months a new subject and site had been chosen: the text of the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ by William Blake (1757–1827) from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell written in 1790; and the floor of the octagonal Gallery II, which needed replacing following Zeppelin damage during World War I.
Born in Russia, Anrep settled in Britain after the war. He quickly established his reputation making mural mosaics, and in 1919 made a small decoration in the house of the artist Augustus John (1878–1961). Anrep was willing to work for the Tate Gallery without recompense and wrote in a letter to the keeper Charles Aitken that he was ‘quite convinced that your letters on my behalf to private individuals will be most ‘tactful’ and convincing but I am a pessimist in general about the rich species of the human breed and therefore I consider, it will be a miracle if you will squeeze a penny out of them’ (Boris Anrep, letter to Charles Aitken, May 1922). Money for the materials was, however, forthcoming, the art dealer and patron Sir Joseph Duveen providing £100 in the hope (which seems to have been ignored) that it might ‘provide a specimen of work for decorations in the modern foreign gallery’ (Sir Joseph Duveen, letter to Sir Lionel Earle, Secretary, Office of Works, 24 October 1922). Anrep carried out the work during August and September 1923.
Following the unveiling of the mosaic in the Blake Room at the Tate Gallery, Anrep was hailed at the ‘foremost mosaicist of the day’ (Daily Mail 17 May 1923). In the octagonal room he had fitted eight panels illustrating Blake’s proverbs (listed here with the author’s numbers):
- Expect poison from Standing Water (45)
- He who desires, but acts not, breeds Pestilence (5)
- The Fox provides for himself, but God provides for the Lion (28)
- Exuberance is Beauty (64)
- The Cistern contains, the Fountain overflows (35)
- If the Fool would persist in his Folly, he would become wise (18)
- The Eyes of Fire; the Nostrils of Air; the Mouth of Water; the Beard of Earth (48)
- The Roaring of Lions, the Howling of Wolves, the Raging of the Stormy Seas, and the Destructive Sword are Portions of Eternity too great for the Eye of Man. (27)
The sequence begins opposite the door leading from Gallery I and follows round to the right. Each panel radiates outwards from the circle of flames which surround the ventilator grating in the centre of the room. The whole design is surrounded by a border of green mosaic and marble. The mosaic was executed in tesserae (small squares) of different coloured marbles which were glued separately onto strong paper, with the design in reverse. The sheets were then laid onto the prepared concrete floor upside down and water was applied so the paper could be peeled off. The indirect transfer method allowed for the majority of the work to be carried out in the studio.
The mosaic was greeted warmly by the press. Roger Fry enthused in the Athenaeum on 10 November 1923 that Anrep had created a ‘mosaic pavement with the same ease and mastery, the same power of working freely within the limits of his medium, as the artist craftsmen of Byzantine times, to whom we have looked back for so long with sentimental regret and wonder’. It was noted that Anrep had not received any fee but instead had carried out his work ‘for love’ alone (The Times, 3 November 1923). Following his success at the Tate Anrep received many more commissions for mosaics including the floor for the Entrance Hall and Upper Landing of the National Gallery in 1927 and 1952 respectively and for Westminster Cathedral in 1924, 1957 and 1961.
Although it was hoped when the mosaic was completed that the Blake collection would remain in this room, Gallery II is now used for temporary exhibitions.