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Plate 3.39: Tessellated Pavement at Colchester
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 3.39
This plate of a tessellated Roman pavement in Colchester, Essex was delineated by J. Dunthorne in 1793 and engraved by James Basire upon the order of the Society of Antiquaries shortly after Thomas Walford’s letter describing its “lightness, elegance of design, and variety of pattern” was shared, along with Dunthorne’s drawing. Walford praised the accuracy of the drawing, claiming it had “no part omitted, or any introduced to make it more beautiful” (Walford 1796).
Numerous borders comprise the pavement’s design and contribute to the “lightness, elegance of design and variety of pattern” that Walford (1796) described it as having. These include an outer border of red tesserae, the delicate floral scroll border further within the pavement, and circular borders at the center made up of wave and triangle patterns. Most remarkable are the two wine goblets depicted at each corner of the innermost square surrounding the outermost ring; known as “canthari,” these goblets bore an unusual painterly quality, produced by the use of a shading technique involving colored tesserae. Given the symbolism of these goblets, the pavement was most likely located in the area of a home designated for entertaining. Found in South East England, which is closest to continental Europe, the pavement came from a region that was the first to encounter Roman culture and be settled by Romans. The pavement is no longer extant.
A Tesselated Pavement, in the Parish of St. Martins, Colchester
Sumptibus Soc. Antiquar. Londini.
Publish’d according to Act of Parliament, 23d. April, 1796
Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plate 3.39.
Commentary by Julie Park: The Roman Pavement at Colchester, Essex (Plate 3.39), which was newly discovered around August 1794 in the garden of a baker named Bragg on St. Martin’s Lane, is one of many Roman mosaics depicted in Vetusta Monumenta. Others include the Roman pavements at or near Cotterstock (Plate 1.48), Wellow (Plate 1.50-52),Warminster (Plate 2.43), Cirencester and Woodchester (Plate 2.44), and Winterton and Roxby (Plate 2.9). The number of pavements that appear in Vetusta Monumenta indicates that mosaics were still not uncommon in the eighteenth century as traces of England’s ancient Roman occupation. It also indicates the fascination they held in the eighteenth-century antiquarian imagination.
Among this mosaic’s distinctive qualities is its geographical location. As the only tessellated pavement represented in Vetusta Monumenta from the southeast of England—the area closest to continental Europe—the Colchester Pavement is from a part of the country that was first to be settled by Romans and thus encounter Roman civilization. Therefore it was among the earliest mosaics created in Britain, during a time when the south of Britain prospered. It was also from an area known for its number of early mosaics, a number greater than anywhere else in England. A “barometer of wealth,” mosaics appeared in homes belonging to the wealthiest citizens, which demonstrates the extent of Colchester’s prosperity in the second century (Neal and Cosh 2009, 85).
Disarticulated from its original architectural setting, an ancient Roman pavement when represented by any engraved print can only suggest one aspect of its original existence as an architectural element of day-to-day life in the mid-second century, when Colchester was known by its Ancient Roman name as Camulodnum. Mosaic pavements were not constructed as movable artifacts, as medals, seals, horns, urns or caskets and other antiquities were, but built-in features of architectural spaces. As such, they originated in the household environment of a villa or town house.
The Colchester mosaic was a town house mosaic, meaning the home that originally housed it was located next to a road. Given its impressiveness—the fineness and intricacy of its design and craftsmanship—the mosaic was most likely located in a reception room or a central apartment, where guests could view it when being entertained. Its depiction of canthari—or wine cups—flanking the corners of its central square—allude to dining and conviviality, and worked to encode the room’s function as a site for social activity. The central room might have had a wide entrance, and a striking view into the landscape of a garden court, connected to a porch just outside the room (Neal and Cosh 2009, III.85). Before it eventually became buried, fragmented, and wholly effaced through time, guests would have stood on the pavement, talking, drinking, and enjoying the view into the courtyard. The mosaic was a vital aspect of the room’s elegance, beauty, and its very architecture, serving as a conduit or substrate for life itself. In its original context the pavement offers a material trace of Roman life in Britain and the embodied experience of it. Given that the mosaics were most likely conceived in concert with the rooms in which they appeared, attempting to reconstruct their original architectural setting with the information available is critical to understanding their history and function.
As an aesthetic object, the Colchester Pavement was unparalleled for its “lightness, elegance of design, and variety of pattern,” claimed Thomas Walford, in the brief explanatory account of 14 August 1794 accompanying the plate (Walford 1796). It was, in fact, Walford’s account and the accompanying drawing by J. Dunthorne (first name unidentified), presented as a letter to the Society of Antiquaries (SAL), that prompted them to have an engraving created of the Colchester Pavement (SAL Minutes III.210)1. Notable in the pavement was the “elegance” of its borders, including the outer border of red tesserae (usually made from recycled brick or tile), as well as the delicate floral scroll border further within the pavement, and the circular border at its center (Walford 1796).
Yet most remarkable in the Colchester Pavement are the canthari mentioned earlier, the wine goblets—Walford (1796) calls them vases—depicted at each corner of the innermost square, surrounding the outermost ring of the circular panel, filled with a simple dark gray wave pattern against a dark ground. These vases, Walford points out, are distinguished for bearing a painterly quality from a shading technique achieved by “softening” the tesserae colors (“but the colours are softened into each other equal to any painting”), rather than contrasting dark and light ones against each other. This unusual element of shading to create a sense of verisimilar depth ran counter to the angularity that typified Roman mosaic design, and contributes greatly to the pavement’s significance, as well as its alleged beauty. The goblets’ “shape is extremely beautiful,” Walford notes.
Walford’s account is critical for providing further material details about the pavement, such as its dimensions of approximately twenty-two by seventeen feet. His reason for not being able to supply more precise measurements is that the pavement extended beyond Bragg the baker’s garden—where it was discovered—past a stone wall into the adjoining garden of a neighbor who refused to remove the soil covering its remaining portion. A letter written by J. Wire (1794) to the Gentleman’s Magazine ten days after the discovery decries the rough treatment to which the pavement was subjected, hastening its ruin (801). Dirt “of all kinds” was thrown onto it, and each time a curiosity seeker came to view it, it was scrubbed off “with violence…with brooms.” For Wire, the abuse was egregious given the pavement’s beauty, about which he agreed with Walford. While its colors were notable for Wire as well (“the colours are charming”), the tesserae themselves were distinguished too for their remarkable thinness, “one-eighth part of an inch thick” (801).
The pavement no longer survives, and it remains unclear at what point it ceased to exist. If it had not been thoroughly wiped out by the regular broom “scrubbings” it endured during the eighteenth century, then it might have been obliterated or removed by a nineteenth-century proprietor of St. Martin’s Lane/Bear Lane who failed to see the purpose of preserving it. The diary of J. Wire’s son, William Wire, famed nineteenth-century clockmaker and postman antiquarian who closely documented his findings of Colchester’s archaeological remains, suggests how it might have eventually been destroyed in the nineteenth century, if not the eighteenth. Repeatedly he records the discovery of Roman pavements by locals during the course of altering a property, usually when digging or enlarging its cellar, and their actions to remove them. When informed by a laborer in the midst of demolishing a public house called the Bear on High and East Stockwell Streets in 1834 that a Roman pavement of “different coloured tesserae” had been found there, he notes not without a hint of sorrow that it “shared the same fate as others found here” (W. Wire qtd. in Hull 1958, 158). By this he meant that after the pavement had been found, its tesserae were broken up and taken away by the proprietor of the public house.
Evidence for the remains of the Colchester pavement, like many other Roman antiquities of Britain, exist only in the words of those who recorded their viewing of it firsthand, such as Thomas Walford and J. Wire, and the beautiful engraving made of it by James Basire for the published pages of Vetusta Monumenta, based on Mr. Dunthorne’s drawing (SAL Council Minutes III. 210). Noah Heringman has noted that for many of the artifacts and monuments appearing in the book, the prints representing them are the only records of how they looked, as they have themselves disappeared. The prints, then, were critical to carrying out the Society’s goal of making more widely known the antiquities of Britain on one hand and preserving the knowledge and information about them on the other.
Yet, in the case of the Colchester Pavement, the print itself relied on the documentation provided by the drawing of the artifact. Made by Dunthorne for Walford, the Colchester Pavement’s drawing was noted for its accuracy. When comparing the pavement itself “upon the spot” with the drawing, Walford commented he was “pleased to find no part omitted, or any introduced to make it more beautiful” (Walford 1796). Taken together, Dunthorne’s drawing and Basire’s engraving of the drawing function in the way a photograph today might in one medium. In providing an eyewitness and immediate record (evaluated “upon the spot”) of the engraving, the drawing provides direct documentation of its existence. In rendering the drawing in a medium that can be reproduced, the engraving allows the image of the pavement to be copied and distributed widely. Eighteenth-century prints based on drawings, engraved by such master printmakers as George Vertue and James Basire for Vetusta Monumenta, are in fact superior to modern photographs as accurate records. As Neal and Cosh explain, photographs of the early twentieth century, which were enlisted as substitutes for more laborious scale-drawings of the mosaics, proved to be deficient, for they were taken at an oblique angle, from the side of a ditch, and effaced or obscured many details (Neal and Cosh 2009, III.5).
Eighteenth-century consumers of both painting and print were alert to the affordances of both media in supplying experiences that were nothing short of miraculous and even emotional by restoring and preserving the images of lost loved ones. Painting, for instance, “has a divine virtue, and is a perpetual miracle; for it makes our absent friends present, and preserves in our memory a pleasing image of those we loved” (Cosmetti 1767, 15). The art of engraving, by inference, can only expand painting’s capacity to bring back and retain the semblance of those absent or dead, for it “multiplies the copies of fine pictures, and the impressions may be circulated all over the world” (Cosmetti 1767, 26). In turn, engravers work in a mutually beneficial way with the original creator of the drawing, for they “do honour to the pictures they copy” (Cosmetti 1767, 27).
Historian of print culture Elizabeth Eisenstein and historian of prints and printmaking Antony Griffiths have both commented on the impact that print engravings, through their “repeatability,” had on the dissemination and introduction of new knowledge in the early modern period (Eisenstein 1980, 52-53; Griffiths 1996, 9-10). For Griffiths, “Prints had become essential elements in managing everyday life and information” (Griffiths 2016, 24). Yet, as suggested by the scant information available on the Colchester Pavement, as well as the legacy of Vetusta Monumenta, prints also performed the recuperative work of defending against the loss and extinction of ancient artifacts.
The eighteenth-century emergence of Vetusta Monumenta reveals how the basic act of binding disparate prints to form a book, and then publishing it, constitutes a valuable maneuver of preservation and of making the ancient past relevant to everyday life. The clean-edge linearity of print engraving, with its ability to render the smallest details with precision, was the perfect medium to capture the likeness of mosaics like the Colchester Pavement (see Goddard, this volume). Despite the aggressive broom scrubbings it endured and probable dismantling and removal by a later proprietor, Basire’s print based on Dunthorne’s drawing of the Colchester Pavement, with its winsome painterly canthari, ensured it would remain intact as a visual resource both within the pages of a book and now on the screen of computers (albeit without the subtleties and richness of texture and lines apparent in a print on paper). In doing so, the visual remediation of the Colchester Pavement through print technology and now digital technology carries into the future the intention of William Camden, founding father of antiquarianism, to reveal and restore Britain’s ancient heritage through the close examination of its remaining artifacts. Although the print cannot capture the embodied experience of the ancient Roman house of South East England in which the Colchester Pavement was located, it preserves what is left of its design, within the house of a book of ancient monuments.
1 According to the minutes, it was “Ordered that Mr. Walford’s account of a tessalated Pavement at Colchester be printed in the Vetusta Monumenta and that Mr. Basire do make an Estimate for engraving the beautiful Drawing that accompanies the same” (SAL Council Minutes III. 210).
Camden, William. 1607. Britannia. 6th edition. London: George Bishop and John Norton.
Cosmetti [pseud.]. 1767. The Polite Arts, Dedicated to the Ladies. London: Roach and Dell.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth. 1980. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griffiths, Antony. 1996. Prints and Printmaking. Berkeley: University of California Press.
------. 2016. The Print Before Photography. London: British Museum.
Hull, M.R.. 1958. Roman Colchester (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London, No. XX). Oxford: University Press for Society of Antiquaries.
Neal, David S. and Stephen R. Cosh. 2002. Roman Mosaics of Britain, Volume 1: Northern Britain. London: Illuminata Publishers for the Society of Antiquaries.
------. 2009. Roman Mosaics of Britain, Volume III: South-East Britain, Part 1. London: Illuminata Publishers for the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Society of Antiquaries of London. 1754-. Minutes of the Council of the Society of Antiquaries.
Walford, Thomas. 1796. “Vol. III. Plate XXXIX.” In Vetusta Monumenta, Vol. 3.
Wire, J. 1794. “Fine Mosaic Pavement at Colchester.” Gentleman’s Magazine 64: 801.