On Our Doorstep

There is so much craftsmanship to be admired in the details of  Manchester’s amazing architecture. Have you noticed how many Victorian mosaic floors and thresholds we have in the city centre?

Manchester’s neo-gothic Town Hall has been in the news this week and, just like Buckingham Palace, we’re told that it needs ‘future-proofing’ to ensure its structural integrity. It has an abundance of stained glass leaded windows sagging under their own weight; fairy castle sweeping spiral staircases of stone leading you from one opus sectile marble floor to another featuring, of course, the iconic worker bee and cotton flower motifs in marble mosaic.

In 2015, J W Restoration were commissioned to replicate the cotton flower mosaics for a new floor in Library Walk, which runs between the Town Hall extension and Central Library.

Step out into Albert Square and there are more mosaic details within a few short steps of you. Across on the corner of Lloyd Street and South Mill Street, the circular portico at the entrance to what is now Red’s True Barbecue Restaurant has a fine example.

Over at the other side of the square at 14 Princess Street is the Northern Assurance Buildings. Here you can see a large – more than five square metres – threshold mosaic of a similar age, made using the same traditional method and materials. The mosaic material is unglazed porcelain. Just like the floors that I repaired at Victoria Station a couple of years ago and a more recent restoration in the Royal Exchange Shopping Arcade.

Over on Rochdale Road, one of my favourite pubs and former home to the cellar brewery of Marbe Beers, is the Marble Arch pub, well known for its sloping floor. Last Christmas, the Chorlton Mosaic Group was invited to put up an exhibition in the pub’s back room. Below you can see the progress on my “Piece of the Marble”, copied from the pub floor, with a few minor colour modifications. This was purchased by the brewery and now lives on their office wall.

Just like “Well Crafted”, again made in unglazed porcelain, making mosaics like this is great practice for commissioned threshold mosaics like the one below that transformed the entrance to Pettigrew Bakeries in Cardiff.

Jesse Rust repair at Churchgate House

A close-up of part of the floor outside the Mayoral office in Churchgate House. Jesse Rust glass mosaic – it was popular stuff in it’s heyday. Jesse Rust worked with Alfred Waterhouse and you can see his firm’s work in Manchester Town Hall as well as in the corridors of the old part of Manchester Royal Infirmary. These floors underwent a major overhaul and full restoration a few years ago by fellow mosaic restorer Gary Bricknell and the team from the Mosaic Restoration Company. Gary gave me some useful advice when I was researching for this repair work.

As it was only a short length and, for the most part, a single row of tesserae that was missing from the floor, it was not going to be viable to have glass specially made to match the original material. This is how I improvised…

Bisazza glass mosaic, carefully chosen for the colour and quality, shaped and abraded to best fit in with Jesse Rust’s beautiful colour palette, as seen in the opposite side of the floor in question, below. His mission had been to create a beautiful but affordable flooring material as an alternative to marble.

“I take old glass of any description and fuse it with a large quantity of sand together with the colouring matter. I thereby get a material resembling marble, but which is much harder and will resist moisture. Any colour and shape can be made in a fused state. I then press it into moulds, in the shape required either for geometric designs, or in squares to be broken up for mosaic.”

Following meticulous removal of first the repair epoxy that had been used to temporarily fill the gap in the mosaic floor, then the damaged mortar bed and lastly the broken screed beneath, I repaired the floor beneath the glass tiles in three stages. Finally, here are the pieces lined up ready to fit…

Fixed, grouted…

All done!

Mosaic Floor Repair Project, Victoria Station, Manchester

The original floor was laid circa 1910, probably by a team of expert Italian mosaic floor layers. Large expanses of white opus circulatum, broken up with occasional silver grey tesserae, framed by a simple geometric border embracing blues, greens, yellow and silver grey follow the shape of the room. A modular unit of half-inch square tesserae, approximately ten millimetres thick, hand cut to shape from unglazed porcelain tiles.

At some point in the station’s history, the space was divided with partition walls to create a warren of offices and their floors were covered with carpets. To facilitate the 2014 heritage refurbishment, the carpets were lifted and the walls removed, revealing ingrained dirt, thick deposits of carpet adhesive and wide channels of completely absent floor. Some of these channels were deep but they were all different. In total, I calculated from the plan later, they constituted a total surface area of about four and a half square metres.

Areas for repair (through the dust)

During my site visit, I collected a selection of salvaged tesserae for colour matching, a set of dusty grey images taken on my phone camera and a sketch plan of the areas to be addressed, with notes. My ‘to do’ list was already considerable: match and price materials, check delivery times, estimate the work involved and submit a quotation, consult with technical advisers about cleaning, adhesives, put together a team of assistants etc; etc…. It was the middle of April and the First Class Refreshments Room refurbishment was scheduled for completion at the end of May. Hmmm…

However, when working with contractors who are contracted to main contractors who are working for developers who check everything with the client the paperwork takes a few weeks to process. Four weeks later, I was given the go-ahead to order materials and a start date of the first week of June!

Checking the patterns

The first task was to make patterns for the missing floor areas. I used newsprint paper and cobbler’s wax to take rubbings of the surrounding tesserae and pick out the shape of each missing section. Then I marked onto the pattern the colours of the tesserae for reference. Back at the studio, my team – Paul and Karen – cracked on with the relentless cutting and washing of tesserae.

Checking Test Panel on Site

I met with the Site Manager and Heritage Officer on site to look at a made up sample of mosaic work and check that everybody was happy with the quality of the work, the colour match and the reproduction of the geometric pattern. They were delighted. Within a week I was ready for the first stage of installation: the replacement mosaic sections in the priority lobby area, just outside the First Class Restaurant.

Making up floor sections at the studio

In total, the job took just under six weeks to complete. During these weeks, Karen was helping me to produce the mosaic sections in the studio, Paul continued to cut down tiles for at least two days a week and I installed on site in stages, making the most efficient use of the team’s availability throughout the project.

Installation of mosaic sections on site

The completion of the work was immensely satisfying and has been an excellent experience.