The Old College mosaic

Part of the Old College mosaic by Charles F. A. Voysey is thought to represent the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer Archimedes.

Part of the Old College mosaic by Charles F. A. Voysey is thought to represent the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer Archimedes.

29 November 2023

Described as a “blot” and “unfortunate” by detractors in the latter part of the 1800s, the mosaic on the southern-most wing of Aberystwyth University’s Old College has become a defining feature of the iconic Gothic Victorian building.

Commissioned and paid for personally by architect John Pollard Seddon, the mosaic was designed by the artist Charles F. A. Voysey and manufactured by the Jesse Rust Mosaic Company from Battersea, using recycled glass fused with sand and pigment.

Installed in 1887 as part of the rebuilding of Old College following the devastating fire of 1885, its colours remain undiminished by the elements and it immediately catches the eye when looking down from the grounds of Aberystwyth castle.

138 years on and the Old College is being transformed once again, this time into a major cultural and creative centre for Wales.

Scaffolding erected to facilitate the work recently afforded Aberystwyth based artist Alison Pierse an opportunity to study the mosaic up close and review its condition.

A mosaic maker herself and Lifelong Learning Coordinator and Teacher at the University’s School of Education, Lifelong Learning, Alison published an article on the mosaic in the C. F. A. Voysey Society’s journal The Orchard in October 2022.

Opening with the response of a certain Professor Ainsworth to the mosaic as being ‘The only blot to spoil the picture being the unfortunate mosaic!’, Alison outlines its development and the controversy that followed.

“Seddon persuaded the College Committee to incorporate a mosaic on the exterior of the new south wing of the University College – with a theme that would reflect the new advances in science and industry in the late Victorian period. He gave the young Voysey the task of designing a three-panelled mosaic for the new Science department, to be set within a sandstone picture frame carved into the wall.”

Highly influenced by William Morris, Voysey was to become a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement.

“Voysey’s illustrations for the original mosaic design (now in the RIBA archive) vary considerably from the mosaic as executed. The original design is asymmetrical – the right-hand figure is in a three-quarter, contrapposto pose, half kneeling, holding a book and brandishing lightning bolts to symbolise electricity. The left-hand figure holds a steam train and a globe. The central figure is seated, as if in thought, his chin supported by his right hand.”

However, the design included elements that would prove controversial and could have led to the work being removed entirely just a year after it was installed.

The central figure is thought to represent the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer Archimedes and was originally sat on a throne that featured symbols of sacerdotalism including a papal tiara.

According to Voysey, this was intended to “suggest the conflict between science and dogma”, but it didn’t go down well.

Alison adds: “It was not until the mosaic was made and mounted on the wall of the Old College (1887) that the College Board Committee noticed the sacerdotal symbolism that Voysey had incorporated into his design. Words recorded in College Board minutes such as ‘offensive, unfortunate and objectionable’ reveal the strength of feeling amongst chapel-going members of the College Board, who insisted that Voysey either make revisions to his design, or the mosaic would be removed completely.”

The cost of removal proved to be too great and so the mosaic was changed and the Catholic images removed.

It appears that The University College of Wales remained sceptical of the mosaic and there was another attempt to removed it in 1897. Once again, it was the cost of taking it down that saved the day.