If you happen to be in London, I recommend a visit to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, which houses one of the best painting collections in Europe.  The original building was designed by William Wilkins in the 1830s, has since had many extensions added, becoming the neo-classical heap you’d expect of a big national institution of the 19th Century.

While every sign and security guard says ‘No Foto’, we couldn’t help but document the surprising discovery of a motorcycle on the floor of the National Gallery. We are firmly in the camp of the Photo Liberation Front, a group of artist-tourists sick of being reprimanded for taking photos in museums!

We were delighted to discover on a recent visit the delightful mosaic of ‘The Pleasures of Life’, discovering a cartouche labelled ‘Speed’, which of course features a motorcycle! The entire entry and mezzanine level floors are covered in mosaic murals, but the upper right mezzanine is where you’ll find the bike. The image is stylistically rooted in the late 1920s/early 1930s, and depicts a readheaded woman astride a ‘flapper bracket’, with a fishtail exhaust beneath her high heels. The exhaust is distinctive; a sedate production item, and not a full-house racing ‘Brooklands Can’, and very much in the style of a four-valve Ariel single-cylinder ca.1930, or perhaps a Rudge.

A broader shot of Boris Anrep’s mosaic tile murals in the National Gallery lobby

As the mosaic covers the entire floor around the grand 1889 staircase (by Sir John Taylor), it’s not easy to find an information plaque explaining them, but a quick search revealed the artist as Boris Anrep, a member of the Bloomsbury group, which included the writer Virginia Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes, and painter Vanessa Bell. Anrep was a Russian lawyer who abandoned his practice in 1908 (age 25), to study art in Paris and Edinburgh, eventually settling on the mosaic as his chosen medium by 1917. He spent WW1 as a Russian officer in Galicia (an ethnically diverse kingdom in the Austria-Hungarian empire, now straddling Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic). In 1917 he was sent as a military attaché to London, and never returned to his homeland, probably because of the Revolution in Russia, as well as his burgeoning art career, and the commissions for mosaics which kept him busy the rest of his life.

Anrep on Oct 28 1929, working on the ‘Speed’ mosaic; what laborious work, and no assistants in sight! The scale of the image is clear, as is the pile of tesserae used to make the mosaic. [Getty Images]
Anrep’s work at the National Gallery began in 1928, the ‘Labours of Life’ and ‘Pleasures of Life’, of which the Flapper on a motorcycle is part; the mosaics took 5 years to complete. In 1952 he returned to lay the ‘Modern Virtues’ at the foot of the staircase, which incorporates portraits of Winston Churchill, Dame Margot Fonteyne, and Bertrand Russell…whereas the earlier mosaics included Virginia Woolf and Greta Garbo, but no attribution is given for the woman on the Ariel.

Greta Garbo as Melpomene, the Greek muse of Tragedy…

If you’re interested, there’s a book available on Anrep’s National Gallery work here.

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