Sunday, July 8, 2012

Gertrude Martin - master mosaicist

Perhaps it's my choice of TV viewing but lately my thoughts have been turning to my childhood spent in Brixton, South London.  A tour of the area courtesy of google maps shows a very different Brixton to the one where I grew up, still pockmarked by WWII bombsites in the early 1960s.

Clicking on the little yellow man I attempted to recreate the walk I used to make from St John's Crescent to my friend Susan's home on Loughborough Road.  First I crossed Wiltshire Road then I walked along Angell Park Gardens behind the church into Angell Road.  I then snaked through the blocks of flats and through to Loughborough Road from where it was a relatively short hop to Elmore House.  A longish walk for a little girl under ten years of age pushing a dolls pram, but the streets were safer then, or so we like to think.

Susan never came to my house - my mum worked from home and didn't encourage playmates - and we had a snappy corgi dog which Susan didn't care for - and neither did I!  Susan's mum also worked but we were supervised by her elder sister Joyce who I secretly wished was my elder sister too.

Susan's family was among the first to be rehoused in modern post war council accommodation, her old home in St James's Crescent had already been bulldozed and redeveloped by the late 1950s.  Our other friends Christine, Jane and Julia lived there in the early 1960s in blocks of high rise housing.

Records for the ancient manor of Lambeth Wick date back to the 12th century when it was granted to Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury.  In the mid 17th century the manor was divided into twenty small parcels of land comprising approximately 230 acres.  At the beginning of the 19th century this prime building land was let to Richard Vassall 3rd Baron Holland and development took off in 1829.  Henry Currey, architect and surveyor, planned the layout for St James's Road (now called St James's Crescent), Millbrook Road and Barrington Road and building lots came on the market in 1843.

In 1911 number 24 St James's Crescent was occupied by George Martin, a retired Insurance Brokers Clerk, and his wife Harriett.  At home on census night were sons Alban 26; Garth 25; George 22 and Laurence 20 who were all employed as clerks.  Fifteen year old Patrick was presumably still in education.  Two of the couples five daughters were also at home, Agnes 34 and Gertrude 29 a painter.  Her father adds in parenthesis 'artist' to clear up any misconception that Gertrude might be painting walls for a living.  In fact Gertrude went on to become one of an elite group of women master mosaicists.

Gertrude was born at 6 Belle Vue Park, Thornton Heath, the fourth of George and Harriett's ten children.  She was baptised at St Peter's Church, Dulwich on January 18, 1882 and spent her childhood at various addresses in Croydon.

Along with her sisters Margaret and Dora, Gertrude was apprenticed to George Bridge, an artist and worker in mosaics, who had a business premise in Mitcham Park and a studio in Oxford Street.

In 1902 George and his 26 women mosaicists began an extended period of work in Westminster Cathedral. Gertrude is pictured here in 1913 working on the prophet Isaiah mosaic.

Gertrude studied mosaics in Ravenna, Milan and Venice, and along with her sister Margaret was employed on some prestigious commissions.  In the 1920s the sisters worked on two arched panels in the Central Lobby in the Houses of Parliament.  Designed by Robert Anning-Bell the mosaic depicting St Andrew was completed in 1923 and St Patrick in 1924.  Between 1928-1932 Gertrude and Margaret worked at St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, designing and producing mosaics in the Baptistry, the Chapel of Holy Spirit, the tympanum above the West Doors and the mural of St Patrick above the entrance to the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.

The photograph of the five sisters held at the Lambeth Archives and published with thanks to Jenny Bedson and Rosie Pearce, was taken in the back garden of No 24 c1910.  The rear of the houses are similar to others in Brixton still standing during my childhood.

Gertrude died at her home in St James's Crescent in February 1952, two years before my parents moved into neighbouring St John's Crescent.  Sadly by the time I was trotting round to play at Susan's house in the early 1960's the houses had long gone as well.

For more images of Brixton visit Landmark Lambeth on

No comments:

Post a Comment