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Saturday, June 19, 2010

William Christian Symons

William Christian Symons 1845 - 1911
Cactus dahlias; pink, orange and yellow dahlias in a vase with a handle
Watercolour
300 millimetres x 232 millimetres
The British Museum, London

William Christian Symons 1845 - 1911
High Tea in the Walled Garden
Oil on canvas
51 by 61 cm. ; 20 by 24 in.
Private collection

William Christian Symons, R.B.A. (1845-1911)
The favourite pet 1878
signed and dated 'W. C. Symons. 1878.' (lower right)
Oil on canvas
30 1/8 x 25 1/8 in. (76.5 x 63.8 cm.)
Private collection


William Christian Symons (1845- 1911) was the artist father of Mark Lancelot Symons (see post below)

In 1870 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

He was extremely friendly with Whistler, as well as Sargent and Brabazon.

Although recognised and feted by fellow artists, he never did achieve public popularity.

Part of this was due to his retiring over-modest nature.

He produced designs for some of the mosaics at Westminster Cathedral: the Chapel of the Holy Souls, the altar piece of St Edmund blessing London in the crypt, the panel of Veronica in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart and that of Joan of Arc in the north transept.

(In 1916 the Sacred Heart Shrine mosaics were taken down and replaced the new Holy Face being based on one in St Mary's Cadogan Terrace, Chelsea)

Chapel of the Holy Souls, Westminster Cathedral


Bentley had insisted on the technique of opus sectile (glass tesserae were inserted individually directly into the putty of lime and boiled oil on the walls and vault) in the composition of the mosaics and it is thought that this technique detracted from the designs by Symons.

In 1899 Bentley had asked Cardinal Vaughan that Symons should decorate one of the chapels (with Bentley himself doing another).

Correspondence between him and Symons in 1900 on the themes for the mosaics of the Holy Souls Chapel reveals that Symons suggested the Three Youths in the Burning Fiery Furnace for the west wall, while Bentley suggested the Purgatory scene with the Archangels Raphael and Michael for the east wall.

Symons also suggested portraying Adam and Eve though Eve was later rejected in favour of Christ for the north wall.

" 13, John Street, Adelphi,
March 3rd, 1900.

Dear Mr. Symons,

Like yourself, but not so severely, I have been very unwell and had to keep in bed. I am delighted to hear that you are now convalescent, and hope you will be soon in harness again.

Some time ago you said you would like to undertake the Holy Souls' Chapel. What subjects or figures would you suggest ?

There will be an altarpiece with a subject over and a subject opposite, both within semi-circles, about 18 ft. across, and figures in the ceiling—two would suffice.

We must avoid anything pictorial and the drawing must be severe and very Greek in character. More anon.

Always sincerely yours,
John F. Bentley."



" 13, John Street, Adelphi,
March 6th, 1900.

Dear Mr. Symons,

I think you have made a good suggestion—the type of Purgatory—but on the space over the altar what think you of representing Purgatory itself with St. Michael on the right, leading out souls, and St. Raphael (the angel of death) bringing others in ? I am not sure about Adam and Eve : I think we may suggest something better ; besides, those figures are sure to come in elsewhere.

In a day or two I will send you diagrams of the chapel.

In the meantime think the matter out. All I say after, and including this, is on the authority of the Cardinal. Think also about the style ; personally I am convinced that for mosaic the design should be simple and the style Greek in character.

Always sincerely yours,

John F. Bentley."


Bentley wanted 'a severe and very Greek style' and supervised the sketches and subsequent full-size cartoon in Symons' studio, designing two garlands for the vault himself.

George Bridge who was responsible for the actual construction and installation of the mosaic explained the difficulties of actually transforming the plans into reality:

" I think Mr. Bentley took an interest in me from the first interview he gave me, when I showed him a mosaic panel that I had designed and executed entirely myself. It was a peacock executed in pieces of glass which were simply little lumps broken from large lumps, while the plain background was the only part worked in the ordinary tesserae, producing an effect which was quite out of the ordinary.

He then told me he wanted an individual to be responsible for the execution of the mosaic—not a firm and thus a direct personal interest as opposed to the supervision of a foreman. He desired moreover that the individuality, not only of the principal, but of each worker should be freely expressed in the work, although under one control.

As regards material, he did not mind whether the fixing medium was water or oil, so long as it was the most durable and always providing that the mosaic was worked in situ on the walls. It was decided, however, to use the oil mastic, since it does not set nearly so quickly as water cement and can be worked in for two or three days after application to the wall surface.

Mr. Bentley came constantly to my studio and seemed to be able to teach a craftsman a little more about his craft every time he came in contact with him. He did not believe in the modern Italian method of working mosaic by fixing the tesserae face downwards on paper and then pressing them into the cement and beating them flat with wood blocks hammered by a mallet, a procedure which renders the work utterly flat and lifeless.

Moreover in this way the right strength of colour cannot be gauged, since the tesserae are matched to the cartoons and laid upon the paper under a top light, a light which they do not receive when fixed upon the wall. Actually the colour of the mosaic must be very much stronger than that of the cartoons and the right strength can only be gauged wliile actually working on the walls.

Further, the cement joints tend to lower the colour, and this can be seen at once upon the walls and allowed for.

Yet another objection to the use of the Italian method is that a mosaic, like a picture, requires altering not only while in progress, but even at the end to get the right values.

To prove all this, imagine a figure stuck down on paper surrounded with gold—when the gold on back shows green ; when this is reversed on to the wall and the gold face exposed, the effect is totally opposite ; since the colours of the figure, which when in a horizontal position and surrounded by shimmering green may look wonderfully beautiful, will be killed completely when reversed and surrounded with glaring gold. . . .

When I began work and asked Mr. Bentley for instructions as to the method of execution, he told me to go ahead and translate the cartoons into mosaic.

We started on the little winged busts of the ten Mercies in the Holy Souls' Chapel and these obtaining, without alteration, the approval both of Mr. Bentley and of Mr. Symons, set the key for the whole of the mosaic in the chapel. . . ."


Symons` drawings and paintings for the Chapel of the Holy Souls and other chapels can be seen in W C Symons - a Glimpse of Heaven

The mosaics were installed in the chapel from June 1902 to November 1903.

W C Symons - Sketch for Chapel of the Holy Souls

Other sketches and designs for the Chapel of the Holy Souls by Symons :