Putting the pieces together - Roman style

Laurence Payne trained as an intensive care nurse, owns a Mustang stallion and is a professional mosaicist. Partner Angela Hahn, who used to be an economist with the EC in Luxembourg, works with angels.

Victoria Hawkins

Laurence Payne trained as an intensive care nurse, owns a Mustang stallion and is a professional mosaicist. Partner Angela Hahn, who used to be an economist with the EC in Luxembourg, works with angels.

It's funny the twists and turns in people's lives. Take Laurence Payne's, for example. Up until a few months ago he was an intensive care nurse at Addenbrooke's Hospital - quite a long schlep from his home in Great Livermere - but now he's given up the day (and night) job to follow quite another path.

As a 21st Century mosaicist and copyist he practises the ancient and disciplined Roman craft of mosaic making. “I'm 42 now, so, yes, it was quite a change of direction!”

It was sheer fate that, at the beginning of this millennium, watching a programme on telly set him on a new course of life altogether, plunging him right back in time to pursue an art practised in the glory days of ancient Rome.

And he's as happy to undertake huge tasks - large floors, for example - as he is to make painstaking exact reproductions of old original fragments for museums and the like.

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The art, to him, is adhering strictly to the traditions and disciplines of a precise craft that was (literally in most cases) laid down centuries ago.

Laurence was always keen on ancient history but when he saw the documentary about the Zeugma mosaics, which came to light during a dig shortly before the Birecik dam was built in Turkey in the early Noughties, it set something in his soul alight. “Zeugma was the equivalent of a Turkish Pompeii. When they dammed the Euphrates they had to flood this valley, but before they flooded it they had this excavation. They had about six weeks to do it and all of a sudden they started unearthing these absolutely beautiful mosaics in what had been Roman villas and they were really stunning pieces.

“When I saw that, I knew that was what I wanted to do in life.”

Unlike most people, he didn't just sit there and dream about doing it, he did it. He found the best mosaic school in the world in Ravenna, in Italy - booked himself on a course, paid the 600 euro fee, took some holiday and went and learned from the experts. Fortunately for Laurence, they taught in both English and Italian.

That was in 2002. Since, he has juggled his nursing job with making mosaics, going on to the nursing bank and taking holiday to “commute” to Spain where he's been working on making pieces commissioned by The Biblical Museum in Tarragona.

Recently he took the plunge and went into the profession full time. From small beginnings - he joined a re-enactment group based in Portsmouth at first so that he could dress up and demonstrate his art at living- history events and displays - he's now evolved the business into running courses and passing on his skills to others, along with physically making exact stone-by-stone reproductions of original Roman mosaics and working on commissions for individuals.

As a sideline he also, through his website, sells reproduction Samian ware - a kind of Roman version of Spode - which he imports

from Spain, mainly to museums and museum shops (he sold four amphora to Chester museum for their Roman garden) as well as attractive reproduction 4th Century glassware.

“The woman I get the glass from works with the Berlin museum and the Louvre. Like the Samianware guy, they are both able to handle the originals and make them from those. The carafe we sell is similar to the one she produced for the film Kingdom of Heaven.”

But give him a floor to lay, hundreds of kilos of marble, a hammer and hardie (the mosaicist's trademark tools) and he's one happy man.

Laurence was born in Brighton, trained as a nurse in King's Lynn and has been in Suffolk for seven years. He lives with his partner, Angela Hahn, and their baby daughter Jasmine in an old listed and beamed brick cottage in Great Livermere. The building was once the village bakery, so it comes complete with a brick bread oven in their living room.

Angela's own story has a few twists in it, too. She studied at Dundee university and then the College of Europe in Bruges before working as an economist for the EC in Luxembourg for over five years. While she was there she became interested in light therapy through her piano teacher, which sparked an interest in alternative therapies. She then re-trained as a reflexologist and, having practised in that and several other therapies since, has now decided that Angelic Healing is what she wants to concentrate on.

“It's about the subtle anatomy, which is basically the energy system that we are, and it's working within that. I work specifically with a group of angels - or sort of beings of a different vibration, if you like.” So she is now running an Angelic Healing school, which involves running workshops in East Anglia.

She and Laurence met through one of her friends, who lives across the road and breeds mustangs - which turns out to be another passion of Laurence's. “He bought one of her stallions,” said Angela, “and ended up moving into her house as a lodger.”

Today Silver Sage, Laurence's five-year-old pure-bred mustang, who is one of only three such stallions in the country, lives in a field just up the road and earns his keep keeping the breed going.

“My father and sister did a lot of riding and I got dragged along for the comic interlude as a child because I kept falling off. It was only later I took it up again,” said Laurence.

And when he went travelling in his 20s, he actually worked with a horse safari outfit in Zimbabwe for six months and then on cattle stations in South Africa, moving cattle around.

As for making marble mosaics, he said he's no artist and explained that even making exact copies is basically simple as long as you master the discipline and stick to the rules!

“I am not an artist but a copyist, and I only work in marble. I had never done anything like it at all - I think I got a U in art at school - but this is not so much art, it's more of a craft; more akin to building.

“Having done the first week-long course in Italy, I have been back several times since to keep up to date and also to do specific floor-laying weeks there. I now have an open invitation to go back and use the workshops.

“How good you get is more a matter of how many you do. They said there is nothing more you can learn, there is everything to experience, so you have to go away and do as many as you can and keep taking the photos back, which they go through with you.

“If you want to do ancient copies it's just about the best place in the world to go and do it. I specialise in copying Roman mosaics; I don't do any contemporary work.”

He has built up a huge body of photographic reference material from which he works. “I've been to Italy, Morocco, Algeria, Spain, Tunisia and places round Britain to see original mosaics. I tend to lean towards Mediterranean works, though; they never had the time to really get the standards up over here, though we have got some good ones.

“I love some of the Volubilis ones in Morocco and the Vatican Museum in Rome.”

His work at The Biblical Museum in Tarragona has spread out over 18 months. “The first piece was a tombstone mosaic for Bishop Optimus. They wanted an exact copy of that and when I finished that one they wanted this fish and loaves piece, which is called the Cairo symbol, to put above the altar in the chapel.”

A composite baptismal font, which he is covering inside and out in mosaic, is still in progress. “For that you make the panels up on the worktable and then place them on the font and do the rest of the pieces by hand.

“Another commission I did was for a chap who had two rectangular borders in his garden and he wanted 108 mosaic panels to go round them. The largest floor I have done so far was about six square metres - not very big - just geometric patterns for a private client in their house.

“As for restoration work, I can complete a part of something if a museum had a fragment, say, and wanted the rest made up, but you can't make it look like the real thing; you have to show that it is modern.”

When I think of mosaics in a modern setting, I think of people with huge houses and Olympic-sized swimming pools, so I asked Laurence if he would feel insulted or happy to be asked to do something like that. “Oh happy. My main aim now is to do large floor areas, because the framed pieces are very nice but I get a lot more satisfaction out of doing a large area.

“Most of my work is in Spain at the moment and I have got the font to go back and finish, but I have met a yacht designer out there who has a client who is interested in my work. One of the yachts he designed had about 40 square feet of marble on board. Not a sail in sight, not a bit of canvas anywhere.”

So who knows? This former nurse turned mosaicist may even end up taking his work on to the high seas!

BITS AND PIECES:

A contemporary mosaic artist using ceramic tiles doesn't have to work to any rules and can work very fast, which is totally different from working in marble, as Laurence does. “Doing copies is also much more labour-intensive and with Roman mosaics there are certain rules in the way that you set them. It's a strict discipline,” he says.

“If you look at any figurative Roman mosaic you will see this white line going round it. The reason being that in Roman mosaics they wanted everything to flow, so to stop that sharp line outlining the figure they have this border line. I have copies of Roman mosaics where people haven't followed the rules and you can see that straight away.”

Old mosaic marble floors, the equivalent of an expensive fitted carpet in a Roman villa or temple, were usually designed by an artist and then scaled up on to the actual floor in outline before the mosaicist set to work, starting in the centre and working slowly outwards. The further out from the centre, the less complex it became, so they could get the slaves in to give a hand with that.

“When we say 'marble', we mean any hard stone, which is a good natural colour. We don't have the access to the marbles the Romans had then, they are not used as much now, so you have to get whatever colours you can. If you are working in 10mm pieces, you need 26 kilos to a square metre, which is over 10,000 individual pieces for one square metre.”

Where his ancient Roman counterpart had a team of slaves cutting his stones for him, Laurence can “cheat” a bit today by buying marble rods which he cuts to size using his tools of the trade - a special hammer and a hardie, which is an oak block with a triangular chisel set into the top.

“Until recently it was very slow going, but now I can get these pre-cut rods of marble, a uniform 10 mm deep, from a supplier, so I have the equivalent of my 'slaves' doing most of my cutting for me in Italy.”

To make the pieces, you simply chop the marble in half again and again. “You can go tiny if you want,” he says. “You actually cut with your wrist by allowing the hammer to drop and it's the weight of the hammer - and there's 2.2lbs there - that does it. It's not like cutting a tile with nippers as much as fracturing the marble top and bottom; and, once your wrist is strong enough, you can cut almost all day. I have done about four and a half hours cutting straight and not had a problem. The material is still heavy and very dense but with the traditional tools it's very easy to cut.”

It's quite pricey work. There's a minimum of five kilos per colour and when he starts a piece he has to order it all at once or different batches could throw up minute but noticeable colour variations.

“It does work out as very expensive. If you got the company which supplies me to produce you a very simple pattern made up on mesh and delivered to your door (and you would still have to set it in) it would cost you in the region of £4,200 a square metre.

“The range I tend to work on is between £800 to maybe £1,200-£1,300 a square metre.”

Laurence runs workshops on mosaic making in his local village hall and sometimes in museums, taking about 8-12 people a time. “Some people are just interested in Roman art and others are just interested in craft,” he said. Everybody will end up taking away with them a piece of work, or two, at the end of the session, which costs £38 including all materials. The next two are on April 26 and May 31. For more information visit Laurence's website at www.minervaesacrum.com or phone him on 07958 418024.

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