Thousands of people walk over Anrep's mosaic in the National Gallery every day. Source: Phoebe Taplin

Boris Anrep in London

Take a tour of London's mosaics of Russian artist

Tuesday, May 12, 2015 - 4:15pm
Text and photos by Phoebe Taplin

Petersburg-born artist Boris Anrep (1885-1969) left his mark on the city of London in a series of colourful mosaics. Nearly one hundred years ago he completed his first successful mosaics: a byzantine, turquoise floor for the Chelsea home of Ethel Sands. The last walk passed the city’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral to glimpse Anrep’s work. This tour takes in three more of his London sites.

Start: Leicester Square tube

End: Pimlico tube

Distance: about 3 miles

Walk along Charing Cross Road as far as Trafalgar Square and turn right to enter the National Gallery. 

In 1933 Anrep designed a marble mosaic for the first landing inside the National Gallery's main entrance. Thousands of visitors walk over it every day. Characteristically, Anrep illustrated his classical theme, “The Awakening of the Muses”, using portraits of modern celebrities or personal friends from the Bloomsbury Group. Look out for movie star Greta Garbo as the tragic muse Melpomene and modernist writer Virginia Woolf, holding a quill, as Clio, Muse of History.

Boris Anrep's mosaic of Virginia Woolf as Clio, muse of history

One flight up, on the next landing, Anrep added allegorical mosaics that celebrate “The Modern Virtues” in 1952. Winston Churchill, facing a monster, represents “Defiance”, philosopher Bertrand Russell is “Lucidity” and don’t miss ballerina Margot Fonteyn in the octagon marked “Delectation.” Along one edge the artist has signed the piece with a tiled Latin tag “ANREP FECIT” (Anrep made it). Two earlier sets of mosaics, depicting “The Labours of Life” (1928) and “The Pleasures of Life” (1929) with everything from Christmas pudding to theatrical acrobats, decorate the landings on either side of the main staircase.

Cross Trafalgar Square, turn right along the Mall through Admiralty Arch and into St James’s Park. Walk left over the bridge across the lake. On the far side of the park, turn right again along Birdcage Walk and on into Buckingham Gate, turning left into Palace Street and second right into Cathedral Walk. Fork left and then right to keep going along Cathedral Walk towards the striped building ahead emerging onto Victoria Street.

Look right to see the domed Victoria Palace Theatre topped with a gold statue of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova.

A gold statue of Anna Pavlova

Alfred Butt, owner of the Victoria Palace in 1911, had a gilded statue commissioned in honour of the ballerina he had introduced to London. Pavlova herself superstitiously drew the blinds in her car as she went past.

Cross Victoria Street and enter the cathedral.

The Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral ahead is an extraordinary building. Anrep designed the mosaics that decorate the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, in the far left corner of the cathedral, in his Paris studio in 1956 and they were installed in the early 1960s. Guarded by archangels, the chapel (dedicated to silent prayer) has scenes from the old and new testaments.

The mosaics by Anrep in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel

Anrep is also responsible for the lovely peacock and phoenix mosaics, representing immortality and resurrection, in the niches as you approach the chapel. The eyes on the peacock’s tail are a symbol of omniscient God.

Boris Anrep's mosaic eagle in Westminster Cathedral

St Paul's Chapel, on the other side of the cathedral, has some of Anrep’s latest mosaics, including Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus and his shipwreck off Malta. They were installed in 1965 and Anrep died in 1969 aged eighty-five.

A café in the cathedral’s basement serves cheap refreshments.

Turn right out of the Cathedral door and right again down Ambrosden Avenue, left past the Windsor Castle pub, right into Emery Hill Street and on along Vincent Square. Turn right at the end of Vincent Square, left into Vincent Street, right into Marsham Street and finally left and right again to reach the back of the Tate Britain Gallery.

Go in through the Millbank Entrance on the far side of the building and turn left through the main shop to find a small octagonal gallery.

In 1922 Anrep designed the eight mosaics for this gallery to replace the floor, which had been damaged by zeppelins in World War I, and installed them the following year free of charge. The Times in 1923 reported that Anrep had worked not for money, but “for love” and the Daily Mail called him the “foremost mosaicist of the day”, while Roger Fry compared him to “the artist craftsmen of Byzantine times”.

Mosaics in the octagonal gallery at Tate Britain

The pictures, radiating out from a central wheel of fire, illustrate William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”, written in 1790. “He who desires but acts not breeds Pestilence”, reads one, while another depicts: “The Eyes of Fire; the Nostrils of Air; the Mouth of Water; the Beard of Earth”. Works by Blake, which were originally to be displayed in this room above the mosaics, now form an interesting series of displays in the Tate’s Clore Gallery.

Turn right along the Thames, right again along Vauxhall Bridge Road and left along Drummond Gate to reach Pimlico tube station.