Bath mosaic gets Bristol showing

Just for a change l am about to promote an event at a museum which is not within Bath and North East Somerset. However, you are going to have to go as far as the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery if you want to take advantage of a  rare chance to see an amazing example of this district’s heritage and history.Orpheus vits pf2

It’s a miracle the  so-called Orpheus Pavement still survives to be viewed nearly two thousand years after being laid on the floor of a third century roman villa on a site between modern-day Newton St Loe and Bath. It was discovered in 1837 during the cutting of the Bristol to Bath railway line.

The coloured postcard.
The coloured postcard.

The mosaic shows Orpheus – lyre in hand – charming a circle of wild animals with his music – while a fox leaps up towards him.  The figurative work is highly coloured and the movement of the animals unparalleled. It maybe the earliest of only nine such illustrations identified as such in Britain – dating from the late third to early fourth century AD.

This section of line was part of the Great Western Railway Isambard Kingdom Brunel was building to link Bristol with London. Although time is money, Brunel allowed a young trainee civil engineer called Tom March time to record and then lift two of the mosaics for a museum he had in mind – but which never materialised.

The Orpheus pavement was moved instead to the newly built Keynsham railway station and set in the floor. It remained there until 1851 when, for some unknown reason, it was decided to pick-axe the mosaic up and give it to the Bristol Institution – a forerunner of the present-day Museum at the top of Park Street.

It was packed in tea-chests and went into storage at the Institution to await the building of a new museum. By the end of the 19th century it was thought lost.

In the 1930’s the then Curator of Archaeology, G.R.Stanton, recognised what he had found in store and laid it out in the basement. The mosaic was already highly fragmented. Stanton took record shots which, along with Tom Marsh’s archive which was given to the Museum, proved invaluable when it came to putting it all back together again.

After the basement display the Orpheus seems to have been packed away again. During the 1960s its transfer to Bath was suggested but , at that time, Bristol was to have a brand new museum and the idea was refused. The mosaic was sent to several secondary stores before eventually ending up at the old Industrial Museum on the Floating Harbour – stored in a far from ideal series of pallets and crates.

Identifying pieces in the old Industrial Museum store. © Anthony Beeson
Identifying pieces in the old Industrial Museum store. © Anthony Beeson

In 1999 the current Curator of Archaeology, Gail Boyle, suggested try to display the whole mosaic again but this time within a space open to the public so people could watch this giant jig-saw puzzle slowly take shape.

The job was given to Anthony Beeson who is an acknowledged Classical iconographer and an expert on Roman and Greek art and architecture. He is also the Honorary Archivist of the Association for Roman Archaeology and a member of the Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics.

You can read his account of his ‘restoration’ elsewhere within the Virtual Museum web-site. The direct link is http://wp.me/p2Fe1D-Bd

The mosaic taking shape. © Anthony Beeson
The mosaic taking shape. © Anthony Beeson

Gail Boyle has already told the Virtual Museum that the mosaic is so fragmentary that it would be impossible for them to send it anywhere without a huge and very expensive conservation programme. However, if one was suggested and supported with funds, the Museum would be open to suggestions.

The Orpheus Mosaic should really be back in the area in which it was discovered but , as l have said many times before, there is no Museum of Bath – or indeed of Keynsham – that could even house it! It is our own example of Elgin’s Marbles but unlike the Greek Authorities we have no-where capable of  accommodating it – if it was to be returned.Orpheus vits pf2

Anthony Beeson restoring Orpheus at Bristol Museum. © Anthony Beeson.
Anthony Beeson restoring Orpheus at Bristol Museum. © Anthony Beeson.

In the meantime the central roundel of the pavement is going on display from next Saturday August 3rd at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It will also be accompanied by some of the Museum’s lithographic prints which illustrate other mosaics from the South West, as well as some of the Thomas March archive images.

The Orpheus will be taking the role of a  ‘warm-up’ exhibit to help build excitement for Bristol’s next major show – Roman Empire: Power and People which opens on September 21st and runs until January 12th.

This will explore the story of one of the most formidable empires the world has ever seen with over 600 pieces from the British Museum – including sculpture from the villas of the Emperors Tiberius and Hadrian, coins from the famous Hoxne treasure, beautiful jewellery and even near-perfectly preserved children’s clothing.

The exhibition debuts at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and this will be its only stop in the South West before touring the UK.