The Pop Culture Mosaic

Freddy Mercury, E.T., Mickey Mouse, et al – the framed mosaics, niftily hung on temporary frames, were the chosen subjects of people who visit Tessa Hunkin’s studio to make their own mosaics, and work with her on larger projects.

Hunkin is one of Britain’s leading modern mosaicists.  Her work features in several posts on the  Spitalfields Life  site including recent work at the entrance to London Zoo, installed in 2019.   But in a class visit to her Hackney Downs studio and mosaic project, there was a  mosaic miscellany on the wall.



Hackney Downs, Hackney mosaic, Tessa Hunkin

Choices, choices: mosaics at Tessa Hunkin’s Hackney Mosaic Project studio

They included, on the table, a rather moving memorial to the Footballers’ Battalion of World War I,  due to hang in the Clapton Orient Football Club.   Mosaics and war memorials  go well together; the medium lends itself to that nostalgic, early modern 20th Century quality.

I carried off one of the pieces, for my collection, a leaf by Gabi Liers, the veins picked out in transparent beads, with small springs, tiles, and broken pottery.

Mosaic Leaf

There were two other particular favourites, however:    Dr Who’s Tardis, spinning through space  with a trail  pale blue flames, and another, of orange searchlights reaching through a wartime sky across the darkened silhouettes of warplanes.

Tardis mosaic

Birds, patterns, pop artist portraits, in an art form whose heyday ran from Greeks and Romans to late medieval, along with 19th and 20th century revivals.  It took me back to El Djem, in Tunisia, with its magnificent Roman amphitheatre, more impressive than Rome, with the absence of tourist crowds, and with the shafts still visible and visitable, that lifted caged animals from the basement to the floor of the arena.    There are magnificent mosaics in the El Djem Archeological Museum, to rival the Bardo in quality, but in a shopping arcade outside the amphitheatre, different choices.

El Djem Tunisia mosaic

El Djem antiquities

Hunkin – her biography on her own site here – had a background in architecture, meaning she had trained in technical drawing.    She developed an interest in mosaic as a site-specific art form.   Her approach underlined the emphasis on planning, organisation, discipline  for an artist approaching a  mosaic.

If you’re designing on commission for a client , as she often does, with teamwork that have included community groups and those in recovery, being specific is vital.  One has to consider site, and place, how the mosaic will be looked at, from what distance.   It is vital to get the drawing absolutely right – investing extra hours in the design stage, can save days in the making.

On the right of the wall is a group piece with a Zen-like calm where Hunkin set the palette and overall design but let makers choose their own style.     People see mosaic in different ways.

Tessa Hunkin Mosaic

Work of Many Hands

Outside in the park proper are the Hounds of Hackney Downs, a spirited collection of dog portraits in roundels in a wall mosaic.


Tessa Hunkin Hackney project

Jack and Bonnie

The mosaic is made in reverse, which explains the mirror writing.   And here’s some that were finished earlier.

Hackney Hounds Tessa Hunkin

The Hounds of Hackney Downs

Owners have lately paid a ridiculously small fee to have their beloved’s portrait included.  We heartily agreed the scheme should be extended to other parks, with a little more upfront for the hounds of  Hampstead Heath.

Running Hounds

The piece de resistance in the gardens is the Roman-inspired Hackney Downs playground shelter, completed with a volunteer group in 2014.  An extraordinary piece of work, vivid and light, where the plaque to its makers gives a reminder of Domenico Ghirlandajo’s description of mosaic as “vera pittura per l’eternita”, or painting for eternity.

Hackney Downs playground shelter: a nine month project.