Signing mosaics _ painters do it so why don’t we?
Hello to you and hello to our new uncertain world. I had lots of good intentions, believe me, when the doors closed behind us and the world shrunk to these four walls. My To Do list was a work of art in itself. I should have printed it out and framed it so that I could now revel in all those impressive ambitions to use the time productively. It would be a salutary reminder about just to see how little I, or any of us, understood about what was happening. The good news is that I did have a stab at sorting out my sock drawer along with at least half of the world’s population, but that’s about as far as it got.
During the first few weeks of effortful inactivity I made an impulse decision to support a fellow artist by buying a little painting of a tea cup that she had posted on Instagram. An innocuous act, a simple transaction and something pleasing for my kitchen wall. But when the painting arrived I was somewhat taken aback to find that despite the littleness of the painting – scarcely larger than a postcard – my artist friend had signed it across the front. I had no right to object. After all, that’s what artists do. But somehow the signature intruded on my private connection with the work. It was no longer just me, the tea cup and the pleasure its simplicity gave me. The artist had joined the party.
Down the years I have intermittently thought about the dos and donts of signing mosaics but have never managed to settle on a conclusion. At first, my ‘signature’ was a sliver of gold placed in the bottom right hand corner (see the black and white bird above) but I quickly found it intrusive and distracting. Later, I chose three rectangular shaped tesserae in the colours of whatever mosaic I was making, also neatly tucked into a corner. Again, I wasn’t satisfied. Later still, I gave up altogether and it has been a long since I have attempted to leave any mark on my mosaics. Instead, I trust in the fact that all of us have our distinctive styles and I know that my work is plainly mine. But then that little ol’ tea cup turned up in my life, and I started rethinking my strategy.
Signing mosaics _ what the ancients did
Back in the day, when Roman slaves were the ones largely responsible for the placing of tesserae, signing mosaics or attributing them to the workmanship of a named artist was rare. In her seminal work, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World, Katherine Dunbabin notes that there are up to 80 signatures preserved in mosaics covering the whole chronological span from 4th century BC pebble mosaics in Greece to 7th and 8th century AD church pavements found in today’s Middle East.(1) She explains that the repeat occurrence of the same signature is so rare that it is impossible to build up a sense of the style of any individual workshop or particular mosaicist. ‘At no time nor place was it normal for mosaicists to sign their work.’ she writes. (2)
Signing mosaics – disrupting the flow
Even if there were consistent historical precedents, the question of signing mosaics is more complicated than that of simply adding a spontaneous flourish to the bottom of a painting. The flow of tesserae, or andamento, is an intrinsic part of the nature of mosaic and a mosaic signature is almost always going to interrupt this flow, causing a visual disruption which, if not carefully managed, can spoil the overall effect.
Mosaicists who sign large scale works can get away with it because the size of the signature in relation to the work is such that however bold and brazen the signature is, it is just another detail among many. Take the examples of Eduardo Paolozzi’s signature at Tottenham Court Tube Station in London (left) or George Garson’s mosaic in the Adam Smith building at the University of Glasgow (right). The signatures are not attempting to be anything other than what they are, and although they obviously stand out, they do not distract from the work.
However signatures on smaller works are more intrusive. Look at the two mosaics below: the first is a photograph of a church mosaic dating from the 1960s on the island of Evvia in Greece. The second is from the MAR Museum in Ravenna and is a mosaic rendition by Romolo Papa (1923 – 1996) of a work by the Italian painter Franco Gentilini (1909 – 1981). In my view these signatures get in the way. The church mosaic is quite large and placed high up on the building so in theory the signing in the corner should not stand out. But it does, and it bothers me. The same is true for Papa’s work. Paint and mosaic are entirely different mediums and whereas Gentilini’s flamboyant signature sits elegantly at the bottom of his paintings, it becomes an entirely separate and erroneous part of the composition when reproduced in mosaic.
Signing mosaics _ considerations and solutions
The obvious solution to the thorny issue of signing mosaics was to ask today’s mosaic artists. Do they or don’t they sign their work? If they do, how do they do it? If they don’t, why not? I got some interesting replies. Some opt for a discreet purpose-made stamped ceramic insert, or glass in Jim Bachor’s case. Sonia King incorporates a K into the work using the material of the piece, Elaine M Goodwin uses two half moons, Emma Biggs doesn’t sign at all, Dugald MacInnes uses a dremel on the frame, and Helen Bodycomb signs on the rear.
However, let’s start with the Hackney Mosaic Project who deal with this issue by including all the names of those who worked on the mosaics in exuberant lettering and to hell with worrying about the dos and donts.
Jim Bachor: In my opinion it’s difficult to sign a mosaic in an understated manner (which I prefer). I have these ‘signature murrinis’ made of my logo – not cheap – but work beautifully. I never get to talk about them so thanks for the opportunity!
Helen Bodycomb: Personally, I tend to dislike seeing signatures on artworks, particularly mosaics. Unless signatures on artworks are extremely discreet I don’t like the way they interrupt the visual flow of the work. They read as an intrusion. If I am making a work on a flat panel I usually sign and date it on the rear, just using a permanent marker. I figure that the visual record of my works is sufficient to attribute them to me as author. I doubt that in future anyone is going to try to forge any of my mosaics. If they do – good luck! With larger scale permanent installations, they generally have a plaque of some kind fixed nearby which is sufficient to identify me as the author.
Emma Biggs: I’ve had a schizophrenic attitude about this. When I started, I thought mosaic was part of a workshop tradition, and that artisanal works were not signed, so to honour that, I resolutely didn’t sign them — and in any case, some of the stuff Tessa and I (3)conceived together, so we would both have had to sign the work — and that takes up space! As our projects became more solitary, and each of us felt it was something we really were responsible for, I wondered about that attitude a bit, but there is so much internet documentation of everything it didn’t really feel necessary. Now, people have started asking me to sign things, although I have only done it once. The Fruit & Wool Exchange people promised to put up a plaque, but they still haven’t. Have a large work starting soon — I may put in something — not sure!
Rachel Davies: I frame most of my pieces and I usually sign them on the back. I also have some stickers with my name and website on that I always put on the back of anything I sell.
However, I have been thinking more recently about trying to do something that can go on the front of a piece. Just before lockdown I got some clay with the intention of making some signature tiles that I can include in my work and I have considered trying to engrave small pieces of slate using my dremel. I admire those who have created some kind of distinguishing mark that can be incorporated into their mosaics and I might explore this possibility as well I think that part of the difficulty in signing work is creating a signature piece that doesn’t stand out too much/detract from the rest of the piece. I do feel that signing my work is important, particularly if its a piece I am proud of, but for the moment I’m signing the back as a way of making my mark.
Elaine M Goodwin: I signed the very first mosaic I made way back in the 1970s, shortly after leaving Exeter College of Art and Design. I knew from the start that that mosaic was going to be my medium. I chose a simplified design – a half moon in white above a half moon in black. Usually this appears on the bottom left of the art work
Sonia King (see photo at top of page): My signature was inspired by the interesting way my dad made a ‘K’ in his name. He was educated in Europe and was taught to make the letter by making a large ‘V’ (with the left being vertical) and then a small downward stroke on the right. Looking at that in terms of tesserae, it’s essentially three triangles. So that’s always my signature now in a lower corner and out of the same material as the background so it’s not too obvious.
Dugald MacInnes: I usually find a suitable place for my name normally at the bottom where I use a dremel hand tool to inscribe it. Some mosaics, however, do not have a suitable surface so I just sign on the reverse.
I think it is nice to sign work but I usually forget. My sister helped me make little glass tessarae in the colour of the dark blue smalti I was using for the background of the church mosaic of Mary – I wrote Joy and 2018 on them and she re-fired them … but I forgot to insert them in the final mosaic! Since then I have added one of the Joys in to my recent “Head” sculpture – of course the 2018 is now out of date so couldn’t date it – I have attached a picture but it is hard to see because it is just a cropped bit of a photo of the whole piece but it will give you an idea. I think I used this method to sign the 3 mosaics on the front of the church – I quite like that the signature says only Joy.
Marian Shapiro: I must confess that my practice over time with regards to signatures could best be described as oscillating wildly. When I started I did try to put signatures onto the face of the work. I put my initials in some things, sometimes using background tesserae, sometimes with alphabet millefiori. I often forgot though. Occasionally when using unglazed ceramic, I have used a dremel to incise my initials and darkened the engraving with grout I wasn’t ever that consistent, and on smaller work I felt it was too intrusive. So because I couldn’t really find a consistent and unobtrusive way of signing on the front, I took the line of least resistance and pretty much stopped doing it on artwork. As to permanent installations; on public commissions, I insist on a small plaque sited by the artwork. This has included fabrications, where I am named as the fabricator along with the original artist. For commissions in private settings, I don’t usually do anything. They know who I am and I have built up a direct relationship with the client.For studio work, I sign and date the back.
On reflection, I guess I don’t feel it matters that much to me personally to be signed on the front. I keep good records of my work and could easily prove that my work is mine and when it was made, should there be any copyright issues in future.
- Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World, Katherine M.D. Dunbabin. p270
- Ibid. p271
- Tessa Hunkin, who now runs the Hackney Mosaic Project, and Emma Biggs started up the Mosaic Workshop in London in the 1980s and worked together for many years.