The Hidden Wonders of Westminster Abbey: Cosmatesque Mosaics & Genuine Crappers

Our editor, JULIE GARDINER, gives us a sneak peek into the production of a unique book, its presentation to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and a few other hidden wonders she came across during the book’s launch.

On 13 October 1269 the third Abbey Church of Westminster Abbey was consecrated in the presence of King Henry III. On 13 October 2019, precisely 750 years later, to celebrate that anniversary, her majesty Queen Elizabeth II was presented with a copy of a rather lovely book – The Cosmatesque Mosaics of Westminster Abbey. The Pavements and Royal Tombs: History, Archaeology, Architecture and Conservation, by Warwick Rodwell and David Neal, published by Oxbow Books.

David S. Neal and Warwick Rodwell with a copy of the book at the launch. Image courtesy of Picture Partnership/Westminster Abbey with thanks to Andrew Dunsmore.

Westminster Abbey contains the only surviving medieval mosaics outside Italy created by the renowned Cosmati family. They comprise: the ‘Great Pavement’ in the sanctuary; the pavement around the shrine of Edward the Confessor; the saint’s tomb and shrine; Henry III’s tomb; the tomb of a royal child, and some other pieces. The Great Pavement, in front of the High Altar, has provided the platform for many a significant ceremony down the centuries, including the coronation of the present Queen (at which time it was covered by a carpet) and, more recently, the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, by which time it was resplendent in its newly cleaned and restored state. Surprisingly, the mosaics have never before received detailed recording and analysis, either individually or as an assemblage.

Warwick approached us at Oxbow in October 2018 to see if we would be interested in publishing the book (bit of a no-brainer!) but on the understanding that the date of presentation was fixed and was a ‘no-fail’ date. Given that this was to be a large, two volume book with many images, several fold-outs, an index and lots of colour – and was still being written – it would be a bit of squeeze! Working to our usual motto that the impossible we can do and it is only the miracles that take a bit longer, we took a deep breath, devised a detailed programme and went for it.

Books presented to Royalty are always sent first to the Royal Bindery where they are encased in the finest hand-tooled leather with gold lettering and all the trimmings – fit for a Queen. So that meant we actually had until the beginning of September to get two printed but unbound copies to the bindery. There were a few anxious moments along the way and some late nights of proof checking but the unbound copies were delivered several days ahead of schedule – go team Oxbow!

Largely written by Warwick in his customary clear, concise and eminently readable style the book is illustrated with David’s meticulous and precisely scaled watercolour paintings and many superb colour photographs. It would certainly win our vote as most beautiful book of the year (but then again, we are a bit biased). It describes the various Cosmati mosaics, discusses their origin, creation, the history of the monuments they decorate and the programme of conservation and restoration that provided the opportunity for full recording and analysis. Steeped in and entwined with the extraordinary history of one of Britain’s most iconic buildings it is a fascinating read. I can’t avoid superlatives!

Oxbow’s Production Manager Mette Bundgaard and Publisher, Julie Gardiner with The Dean of Westminster, The Very Reverend Dr John Hall. Image courtesy of Picture Partnership/Westminster Abbey with thanks to Andrew Dunsmore.

On 17 October Oxbow’s Production Manager Mette Bundgaard and Publisher, Julie Gardiner, attended a launch for the book, kindly hosted by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall. The launch was held in the stunning 14th century Jerusalem Chamber, part of the Abbey complex, which has a magnificent decorated wooden ceiling and is hung with 16th century tapestries. The chamber is not open to the public – and it is always a treat to get ‘backstage’, of course. It was was quite awe inspiring to think of the historic events the chamber has witnessed over the last 700 years: the coffins of many famous people have rested in its tranquil space before their funerals in the Abbey; the committees engaged on writing the various Authorised Versions of the Bible have met there since in 1611; and King Henry IV died in front of the ornate stone fireplace in 1413 having been brought to the chamber following a probable stroke while praying at St Edward’s Shrine in the Abbey.

The Dean gave a lively introduction to the history of the Cosmati mosaics and the programme of work that led to the writing of the book followed by Warwick’s more detailed and amusing account of some of the processes and procedures that had been required to complete the work – and his sincere thanks to the Dean and his staff who allowed ‘access all areas’ with enthusiasm and assistance, even in the face of such requests as to remove the lofty and fragile canopy from the Tomb of St Edward! Many of the specialists involved were present and glasses were duly raised. Nibbles were circulated and glasses refilled, copies of the book were bought and anecdotes exchanged. A jolly time was certainly had by all.

A further highlight of the evening: on arrival we decided we should pay a visit to the bathroom before festivities commenced. I was delighted to find myself enthroned – my feet dangling several inches off the floor – on a genuine Thomas Crapper, a mighty, decorated porcelain edifice with a massively thick wooden seat worn comfortably smooth by the buttocks of ages (Crapper’s company redid the plumbing, he is not buried in the Abbey but his name appears on manhole covers in the floor). Another hidden wonder of Westminster Abbey revealed!




The Cosmatesque Mosaics of Westminster Abbey
The Pavements and Royal Tombs: History, Archaeology, Architecture and Conservation
By Warwick Rodwell and By David S. Neal

Presents a holistic study of an outstanding group of monuments – mosaic pavements, tombs and shrines – in their historical architectural and archaeological context.

9781789252347 | Hardback | Oxbow Books | 2 Volumes, 724 pages | £65.00