The best of Dorset in words and pictures

More than the sum of its parts: mosaicist Robert Field

Joël Lacey meets mosaicist Robert Field, who takes fragments of ceramic and creates stunning art

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, aside from the aqueducts, they gave us mosaics – an art form which has been given fresh life over the couple of decades by a group of artists including Swanage’s Robert Field.

Robert at home in Swanage, in front of one of his art works

Mosaics, rather like the images printed in this magazine, rely on the human eye/brain combination’s ability literally to fill in the gaps. Some mosaics are incredibly intricate, others are the embodiment of the expression ‘less is more’. Some mosaics are high art, others more light-hearted, a dualism mirrored in the names of the publications of the British Association for Modern Mosaic (BAMM); the association’s glossy magazine, of which Robert was editor for five years, is entitled Andamento, its newsletter is called Grout.
Robert is in his twentieth year of creating mosaics, but has been an artist for around 45 years, first in oils then in acrylic ‘for the clean lines’, which was perhaps a sign of things to come. He started creating mosaics on taking early retirement as a Deputy Head in Surrey (when there was a change in number of the tiers of the education system) and he went on a course with the doyenne of modern mosaicists, Elaine M Goodwin.

This coal tit mosaic is a great example of how, even with relatively few pieces to work on, the human brain can interpret and recognise an image

Robert decided to do a mosaic as a gift for his brother – to celebrate a ‘landmark’ birthday, and created a sparrow: ‘I used lots of tiny pieces of different shades; for the next one, which was a coal tit, I chose to use few colours and laid them out in an “opus sectile” (see panel) pattern.’ This reductionism was taken to its logical conclusion in a series of art works – which Robert based on 19th-century geological engravings by Thomas Webster – wherein Robert used just a single colour of tile, white, contrasted with the grout.
The inspirations for a piece may come from anywhere and Robert’s next two proposed mosaic projects demonstrate that not only can something extraordinarily complex be achieved with something as simple as white and grey, but that, conversely, a single word or two can open up a near-infinite array of possibilities; those two words are ‘bark’ and ‘lichen’. Equally, where miles of cliff can be scaled down to a wall-hangable mosaic, so a square centimetre of lichen could be blown up to the size of a wall and still not reveal all its complexity.

This monochromatic rendering of Handfast Point was inspired by an 1811 geological engraving by Thomas Webster

This appropriately repeating return to patterns – Robert has had five books on geometric patterns and one on mazes published – stems from his original fascination with Roman mosaics. In a piece created for an exhibition for Pontefract Museum he created a Roman-style mosaic using the colours of liquorice allsorts entitled The colours of Bertie. Robert is a member of ASPROM (Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics) and part of his forthcoming Dorset County Museum show in November will be his recreations of two Roman mosaics of the seasons autumn and winter, which were uncovered in the Roman town house in Colliton Park in Dorchester. They were traced in 1937 when the mosaics were uncovered; they were re-covered and when, in 1996, a cover building was placed over the villa, it transpired that winter had disappeared and little of autumn remained. Robert was key to obtaining funding to ensure preservation of the tracings, which will also be on display at the exhibition.

Robert at work on The colours of Bertie, a work inspired by Roman geometrical mosaics… and liquorice allsorts!

Although some mosaicists like to work with vitreous (glass) tesserae or smalti (see panel), there is a rather prosaic reason why Robert concentrated on ceramic – his cats: ‘I’ve always worked at home, Robert explains, ‘and it’s bad enough with bits coming off the ceramic tiles, but glass was very bad for my cats’ feet.’
Cats aside, there is one other problem with mosaics, and it is one which must occasionally ruffle the feathers of even as affable a character as Robert: ‘It is only once you have finished and applied the grout to the image,’ says Robert, ‘that you know whether it has worked or not.’

Using thin, light ceramic fragments for the petal edges, and different shades of pink and its complementary colour allows Robert to create the illusion of form and depth in this rose flower

Given the number of pieces a work requires, the amount of punctilious nipping ceramic tiles to size, not to mention the vision to ‘see’ the mosaic in the first place, it must be a gut-wrenching moment of discovery if it doesn’t work. Luckily, as is evident from his prodigious and immensely creative output, this is a rare occurrence indeed for Robert Field.

• An exhibition of Robert Field’s mosaics, A world in fragments, is at the Dorset County Museum between 3 November 2012 and 26 January 2013. For more information on the artist see www.robert-field.co.uk or www.quarrart.com; for information on making mosaics, visit www.bamm.org.uk

The language of mosaics
As with all art forms, there is a certain amount of jargon used in the world of creating mosaics; in recognition of its Roman and Venetian origins, this tends to be Latin or Italian. More confusingly, terms may relate to different things when dealing with ancient or modern mosaics.
A mosaic style, for example, is called an ‘opus‘, the tiles from which it is formed are ‘tesserae‘.
Opus sectile normally refers to ancient works made from large pieces of different coloured marbles cut to specific shapes to make designs for the wall or floor of palaces or the Senate House, but sometimes forming pictures on the wall, such as the tigress killing a bullock from the Basilica of Junius Bassus in Rome.
Opus tessellatum uses regularly cut tesserae which form the background to figures, sometimes following the shape of the figures. It can be in different colours to make various patterns.
Opus palladianum is where irregular, crazy-paving-like, tesserae are used.
Opus vermiculatum – a wormlike work – is where very small pieces are used to compose the design or the shading within it.
Andamento was originally coined to describe a ‘fugue of unusual length’ in music, in this context, it refers to the flow of the mosaic – the line of the tesserae as they form the image.
Smalti (singular smalto) coloured glass, originally coloured with Cobalt oxide (smalite) but now used to mean glass fused with coloured metallic oxides; it is derived from the German verb to melt.

Dorset Directory