Friday, January 25, 2008

New Mosaics in Westminster Cathedral

What the chapel in Westminster Cathedral will look like when finished

In The word made mosaic, Apollo Magazine has a feature on the artist Tom Phillips who has been commissioned to prepare a series of designs for new mosaics for a chapel in Westminster Cathedral, London.

Phillips works from his house in Peckham, South London.

"Six years ago he presented a ‘Summary Treatise on the Nature of Ornament’ to the Architecture Forum at the Royal Academy, a critique of modern Western practices that gives a nod to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art. Like so much that he does, it is an assimilated work, fusing academic theory and personal concerns, part generated, perhaps, by the Westminster commissions.

It provides a vehicle with which to castigate the demotion of the term ‘craft’, and assert the spiritual significance of calligraphic ornament, ‘where form embodies truth directly’. These concerns inform his mosaic designs.

Designing for the chapel cannot have been easy because this little space already enshrines a great deal of art, emotion and polemic, an altarpiece by Eric Gill, polychrome marble and a memorial to Catholics killed in World War 1.

He concedes that it wasn’t straightforward, ‘I went quite often to the cathedral. And sat there and thought, “What would be right? What was it all about, these martyrs?” And they were sparks of faith spanning a dark period, and that was in fact what I did.’

While the saints’ names take flight across the ceiling on little tongues of lambent flame , St George is represented by a frieze of dragon-scales and his red cross (‘but if he was a saint he was almost certainly an Arab, which is how you would have to depict him now’).

The altarpiece he adjudges a late work and not really all that good, but Gill still remains the best artist to have worked in the cathedral.

‘The other artists they have used inhabited the twilight world of religious artists, and they represented little stubby people enacting various events, as if people still can’t read now,’ he opines. This would come under his definition of false ornament, ‘a use of literal illustration or unassimilated narrative’.

To Phillips the presence of the word is the key. ‘Here is a place where art with the word is appropriate, it is art of the word. To me what’s really happened is, in old churches, nobody could read, so you had to tell them the story in pictures. Now everybody sees pictures all the time, and they can read, so what they need is the word. To me, that short line [of text] in my work is important.’...

Westminster Cathedral has provided Phillips with a strong sense of purpose and fulfilment; it is, he says, really what he would be content to do for the rest of his life.

But since he is temperamentally programmed to treat his work as a progress, the slowness and long pauses of the commissioning process leave him frustrated.

Now he is making another design for the cathedral, for a panel of St David, his own patron saint, ‘because I’m Welsh’. I suggest that he makes a self-portrait of it. ‘Oh, I have, he’s halfway between [the opera singer] Bryn Terfel and me.’ "