As the smallest city in England, Wells is famous for its rich history. Home to the towering Wells Cathedral, a traditional market square and Vicar’s Close, the oldest residential street in Europe, Wells is a city overflowing with character. It is the ambition of local project group, Wells in Mosaic, to install a contemporary artwork in the heart of the city that celebrates its vibrant past, which may itself go on to be enjoyed for centuries to come.
The mosaic will be six-metres in diameter, the largest part of which will be a walkable map of the centre of Wells. 750,000 quarter-inch ceramic tiles will depict artistic representations and front-on aspects of the most prominent buildings in Wells. A circle of gothic windows surrounds the map, each depicting a period in Wells’ illustrious history. Those shown here represent William Turner, the herbalist, who became Dean of Wells Cathedral in the mid-1500s and established a herbal garden which stands in the grounds of the Old Deanery. The film image represents Wells as a popular filming location, showing here Hot Fuzz, Wolf Hall and The Huntsman. With the cost of the project at between £80-100,000 and three years of work, the project is no small feat.
The design was envisaged by local artist, Ruth Ames-White. Ruth says that the process of transforming a drawing into a mosaic is an interesting artistic challenge as there is far less flexibility than when using pencils or paint. Each phase of the design has its challenges, but this is Ruth’s favourite part of mosaicking! The mosaic is created using the indirect method, meaning you work backwards. It enables the mosaicist to create large scale work in the studio to then transfer in pieces to the installation site once complete.
Having lived and worked here most of her life, Ruth’s work is heavily inspired by the local environment. For those who remember the ‘Swans of Wells’ event, which saw uniquely designed swans popping up all over the city, Ruth completed a beautiful mosaic swan commissioned by and displayed in ‘Junior Toys’ on Wells High Street. This new project presents even more of a creative challenge. Ruth’s ambition, however, is to produce an enduring art piece worthy of presence in any ancient Roman atrium.
Part of the design Ruth is particularly looking forward to is the carousel horse, representing The Charter Fair which comes to Wells every year. ‘I’ve always loved the bold colourful artistry on fairground rides, I hope I can do it justice in mosaic!’ says Ruth. Ruth is also looking forward to depicting the swan ringing the bell for food, a tradition dating back to the 1850s. ‘It’s an image that always takes me back to my childhood, when my mum would bring my sister and I into Wells clutching our bags of stale bread that we had saved for the swans’.
The design phase is complete and in lockdown Ruth has begun to the task of laying each intricate tile. This community-led project is entirely funded by public donations, local business sponsorship and the generosity of local civic groups. Project sponsors will have their names will be hand-carved in to blue-lias stones set around the perimeter. Fundraising is a gradual process and while Ruth has been able to begin work, there are currently insufficient funds to cover the cost of materials and completion of the piece.
Wells in Mosaic is therefore reaching out to the wider Somerset community to help support this project which will immortalise the city’s history and will be available for all visitors to see for many years to come.
Article by Caroline Easterfield featured in Somerset Life June 2020