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Arts feature

Let there be light

The bare brickwork of Westminster Cathedral’s ceiling was always meant to be covered in mosaic. Mark Greaves meets
Tessa Hunkin, who will bring the project to life

20 August 2011

12:00 AM

20 August 2011

12:00 AM

The bare brickwork of Westminster Cathedral’s ceiling was always meant to be covered in mosaic. Mark Greaves meets
Tessa Hunkin, who will bring the project to life

Three years ago, Tessa Hunkin was asked if she would like to undertake the biggest mosaic project since the Hagia Sophia. The project, which would probably take decades and cost tens of millions of pounds, was to decorate the ceiling of Westminster Cathedral. Monsignor Mark Langham, then cathedral administrator, told her, ‘We will have work for you for the rest of your life.’

The cathedral, built in 1903, was always meant to be covered in mosaic. The bare brickwork of its vast domes and vaults is not part of the design — it was just never finished. But momentum is building to change that. A businessman, John Hughes, wants to pay to get the project off the ground.

The first step is deciding who should draw up a design. The cathedral art committee has spent endless meetings discussing which artists might be suitable, and is not yet close to a decision. The person in charge of bringing that design to life, though, will most likely be Tessa Hunkin.

I meet her in her tiny central London studio. It is almost like a sweetshop: jars of brightly coloured glass and ceramic fill every shelf. She has spent much of the last decade creating mosaics for chapels, panels and apses at Westminster Cathedral; at one point she had ten employees. Now, though, she is on her own.

Hunkin is very fond of the cathedral. Its scale and simplicity, she says, are powerful. In fact, the challenge of the mosaic design, she suggests, is not to wreck it — not to ‘screw up the space’. A plain design might be better, she says.

We walk to a café round the corner. Hunkin has a gracious, easy manner. She speaks cautiously, but with a gentle sense of mischief. At one point she says, worriedly, ‘I have a slight tendency to be indiscreet.’

She started out as an architect but, by her late thirties, she had got bored. ‘I was at quite a low level, and spent a lot of time designing suspended ceilings, access panels and toilets.’ Anything decorative or ‘more interesting’, she says, was palmed off to specialists. A friend, Emma Biggs, was already making mosaics and suggested Hunkin join her. Together, they formed the Mosaic Workshop.

Partly, Hunkin says, it’s down to ‘control freakery’. She could design and make a mosaic herself: she has always enjoyed making things. ‘I’ve always thought better with my hands.’ She grew up fascinated by the Arts and Crafts Movement, with its idea that ‘material and technique and design [should] all work seamlessly together’. Mosaic offered her a way to try to do that.

At first they ‘absolutely scraped along’, using Biggs’s living room as a studio. The business grew and they moved to a bigger space, but things were always, says Hunkin, quite ‘hand to mouth’. It was varied, though: their customers ranged from Aston Villa football club to a London oyster bar, a magic circle law firm, a Welsh theatre, local councils and churches.

Just over a decade ago, Hunkin was approached by Westminster Cathedral art committee. It commissioned her, and her colleagues at Mosaic Workshop, to do a panel of St Alban (Britain’s first Christian martyr, beheaded in the third century). Like all the projects that followed, a painter, Christopher Hobbs, had come up with a design, and collaborated with Hunkin in producing it. In some ways, it seems a strange approach — a painter, after all, knows little about mosaic. Hunkin suggests that, for the ceiling design, the cathedral might be better off with a sculptor, or ‘someone who thinks three-dimensionally’. Painters are used to flat surfaces. ‘The challenge of the
architectural space is difficult for them — they are not trained to think like that.’

The collaborations, Hunkin says, have been a bit like relationships — ‘fraught but rewarding’. She praises one of the painters, Leonard McComb, for his ‘fabulous’ sense of colour. She enthuses, too, about working inside the cathedral. Some of the mosaic had to be fixed on directly, piece by piece. She describes ‘sticking little pieces of gold to the ceiling’ during a sung Mass, and feeling that she was doing ‘exactly the same thing that people were doing thousands of years ago’. It was, she says, very moving.

The last cathedral project — a panel of St David — was completed last year, just in time for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. No other commissions are looming just yet.

Hunkin has started work on two Olympic-themed mosaics for park walls in Hackney, east London. They will depict park-based activities — picnicking, kite-flying, frisbee-throwing. Hunkin will only do part of the job: she will mainly oversee a team of up to ten recovering drug addicts. It is not the first such project she has done. She has already completed commissions with a group of people with mental health problems — ‘people who have been in hospital and are trying to get back on their feet’. And it is something she would like to do more of. Mosaic-making, she explains, has ‘huge therapeutic value. If your mind is in turmoil and you’re worrying about things, it’s a way of having a little holiday from that. It takes over your mind.’

Adults with problems, Hunkin says, are ‘time-rich’, and they don’t know what to do with their time. Some people are ‘like me — working with their hands is important to them. But a lot don’t have the opportunity to try, so they don’t know what they’re missing. And when they start they find it does something for them, it helps them…’
Government funding for this kind of work, she says, is drying up. To make sure it can continue, she would like to set up a charity. For that to happen she would need a benefactor — or a series of benefactors.

In fact, she says, the cathedral project could also be carried out by people with mental health problems. In a way, that would reflect the inclusiveness of the building itself. ‘That’s another thing I love about it. Anybody can come in — it is a refuge for people with nowhere else to go. The strangest people wander in and wander round.’

Another idea would be for little bits of the mosaic to be made by members of the public. The work could be carried out — under a mosaicist’s watchful eye — on tables in the cathedral galleries (above the side chapels). Only tricky figurative areas, she says, need be done by professionals.

As we leave the café, I am struck by Tessa Hunkin’s lack of ego. She is happy, it seems, to hand a large part of her job to amateurs. Now, we just have to wait: it’s up to the art committee to pick an artist, agree a design and, after all these years, cover those bare, dusty vaults.

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