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The mosaics completed after 43 years


The Completion of the Mosaics - after a space of 43 years!

Charles Lutyens (great-nephew of the famous architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens) began our mosaics at the age of 30. He was already an artist who had exhibited his work but he had never created a mosaic before!

black amgel detail mosaic arm
mosaic hand angeldetail

The mosaic cycle of the 'Heavenly Host' was an intended and integral part of the church when it was designed by Robert Maguire (architect) and Keith Murray (designer) from 1956 with the Foundation stone laid in December 1958 and the building consecrated and Dedicated on 30th April 1960. The original intention was for Keith Murray to create this work but as this proved not to be possible as Maguire and Murray formed an architectural practice and moved on to other commissions. The work was then given to Charles Lutyens to execute.

When offered the commission, Charles was very clear that it was not as simple a task as might be thought, to represent the 'Heavenly Host' ! In the Christian and Jewish tradition angels have various functions and duties. There are those who act as Divine Messengers - great figures such as Gabriel, Raphael, Michael. There are others whose task is confined to the heavenly realms - to surround the Divine Being with ceaseless worship and praise, to wait upon and attend and minister to God. It is these beings - the 'Heavenly Host' - who were to be represented on the spandrels prepared above each of the pillars in the church to receive them and left blank at the Dedication of the church in 1960.

church interior church interior

These views above show what the church looked like in these first years after the church had been opened for use. The mosaics were not to be started until 3 years after the church was dedicated as preparations were made and Charles Lutyens went to the island of Murano (in Venice) fabled for its production of mosaic tesserae. He was to choose 700 colours as the palette from which he would work! You will notice that other essential items were not yet in place such as the 'Ciborium' (altar canopy) above the altar. There was also a temporary organ in place for a few years before the present instrument by Mander was installed.

When given the commission, Charles made the point that no-one has ever seen the Heavenly Host - that angels, in any case, cannot just be summoned or conjured up - they appear when they are sent, they come when they come! His task would, therefore, be to wait upon these figures to come as they were 'sent.' This was a very 'uncommercial' approach to an artistic commission and this kind of total integrity to his artistic 'calling' has marked his work throughout his life.

The work was to be paid for by war reparation funds. The former church, destroyed in the War, had some large and impressive stained glass and the reparation funds were somehow translated from stained glass to Venetian Murano glass tesserae - in itself a remarkable triumph of negotiation! Work began in 1963 and during the next five years Charles Lutyens worked on this huge expanse of 800 square feet, day by day and piece by piece, an astonishing endeavour for one person by any reckoning. Hopefully the story of the mosaics will be contained on this site one day - Charles is gathering his own archive together on the mosaics and we hope to be able to include some of that here.

mosaics in progress detail of mosaics in progress

The work progressed and here is one of the few views we have (plus a close-up view) of the work in progress. You can see that none of the angels is yet complete. Charles really did leave himself open to their creation and development as he went along. Apart from a broad general template upon which each of the angels was based, the details appeared over the years of the mosaic's creation as they were 'sent'.

earth creature air
Earth Air
fire water
Fire Water

One of the many wonderful 'inner' secrets of these mosaics lies in the corners of the building. Even though asked to fill even those spaces with members of the 'Heavenly Host' he was very clear that you cannot 'bend' an angel! It simply would not work. He therefore, with ancient precedent, set the four elements of Creation: Earth, Air, Fire and Water, one in each of the corners.

More than that, apart from the Fire corner (because there are no 'Fire Creatures') he created each of these corners as an embodiment of each of these elements, as Creatures formed of those elements Thus we have an 'Earth Creature, an 'Air Creature' and a 'Water Creature' in each of those corners! They are each flanked by their own elemental angels, one to each side of the Creature, and the colour of that element spreads outwards across the neighbouring angels.

If you look carefully, you will see the open jaws of the water creature like those of a huge whale as it leaps upwards. The Air Creature is made up of great swirls of air and is just 'landing, like a swan, with its bent neck and orange beak pointing downwards in the angle of the mosaic and its tail fanned out behind it. The Earth Creature is decribed in more detail below.

horn of creature nostrils

One of the Earth Creature's
two horns

The two nostrils


protest patch
The one completed eye The unfinished eye

The so-called  'Earth Creature' is very brown in colour and crystalline in form. If you look closely you can then see two horns rising out of its head, two nostrils at the bottom of its head and two eyes looking out. Or ... rather ... just one eye on the left, as you look up at the Creature! Where the other eye would be was where Charles had left han unfinished area of the mosaics and none of us here either knew this or noticed this, from their completion in 1968 until the Incumbent learned of this from Charles Lutyens in a casual conversation in 2009!

fire angel
The left hand Fire Angel

Having worked in some detail on one of the earliest angels - the 'Fire Angel' to the left of the 'Fire' corner (above the font) and refined and refined details until he was satisfied, Charles soon realised that there simply would not be time to do this with each of the angels as they were completed. Time and funding were limited and so Charles finished this enormous work just as the funds ran out but not fully satisfied with what he had created. In his mind the work was unfinished and so to express this dissatisfaction he left a small patch of raw cement up in the 'Earth' (south-west) corner, almost as a kind of 'protest'! This was unknown to all of us until comparatively recently and not even noticed, although very clear to see once it was known where to look!   

This view below (and detail) is the only one that we have in our archive of Charles actually at work on the mosaics. As time ran out he had to seem a certain amount of assistance with work on the mosaics and here we see Maria Ronceros, a young artist who understood what Charles was trying to achieve and who assisted with the broad general areas of the mosaics while he took charge of the essential details and overall outcome. By chance we see him working, almost certainly in 1968, on the very area of the 'Earth Creature' described above and, as we now know, very consciously left unfinished.

charles and maria charles and maria


There came a point between 1968 and more recent times when Charles Lutyens reached a point of very firm acceptance of how remarkable his mosaics were, though still with slight reservations about some of the details he had not been fully satisfied with.

 In 2010 an invitation went out to Charles from the Vicar and the church to bring together a selection of his life's work in a retrospective exhibition set within the span of his most extensive work - the mosaic cycle fo the 'Heavenly Host.' When photographic glimpses were seen by the Incumbent of Lutyens' developing 'Outraged Christ' being worked on in his Oxfordshire studio, he felt strongly that this remarkable figure should be seen by the public, though Charles had not made it to be seen but, as with so much of his work, because it was within him and needed to be actualised. An invitation was extended and accepted, for this figure to be brought to St. Paul's, Bow Common, as part of the retrospective exhibition.

Realising that the mosaics still remained uncompleted and that Charles was now very satisfied with them, a further invitation was made for him to complete this work before the exhibition came to the church.

Thus it was in June 2010 that Charles came to the church to examine his mosaics closely for the first time since he had left them unfinished in 1968. This image shows him at the top of a ladder on that day (with the Vicar very close at hand!)

charles up a ladder 2010

He is examining the area of the 'Earth Creature' and, in particular the area he had left unfinished. His intention was now to 'claim ownership' of his great work by signing the mosaics. He would do this in completing the unfinished right 'Eye' of the Earth Creature.

It would be nearly a year before Charles was to return, on 9th May 2011, with buckets full of the original glass tesserae from Murano, in Venice, purchased way back in the early 1960's to use a few of them to sign his largest ever work - very likely also the largest contemporary mosaic work in Britain, one of the largest of any age and certainly the largest executed by one person.

The views which follow speak for themselves. This all took place on May 9th 2011 with his wife, Marianna, and the Vicar present. Even at the time it felt like a hugely significant moment in the story of this church and, indeed, in the life of this remarkable and hugely gifted artist who has left an indelible mark on our church's history and, through his exhibition here in 2011, has continued to do so. After 43 years, at the age of 78, here was final closure on this work, with the second eye of the 'Earth Creature' being finally 'opened', now to look out upon the church and its ongoing life through the initials 'CL' (Charles Lutyens) which now form that Eye of the Beast.

Theses view uniquely track the way in which Charles worked, adding and removing pieces of mosaic as his artist's eye dictated. First he marked his initials on the formerly blank space and then, as you can see, he worked up, over a period of a few hours, the final result which you can see at the end. Charles brought a scaffolding tower with him but this proved not to take him high enough and so all this work was done from the tall church ladder - not the easiest platform for such work!

Opening the 'Eye' of the Earth Creature after 43 years ...


9 may 11 9 May 11 9 may 11
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4 5 6
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10 The man himself The Eye is open
and the mosaics are finally signed
before after
1968 2011

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