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Eduardo Paolozzi - What took him so long?

Given his interest in geometry, abstraction and pure colour, plus his skill as a print-maker, sculptor and designer of tapestries, Paolozzi was inevitably going to be good at mosaic, but it was only after an artistic career of more than 40 years that he picked up a pair of nippers.

Hop onto the main escalator at Tottenham Court Road Underground station and you glide downwards through an array of bright, brave mosaics which spill out from the escalator shaft and onto the Central and Northern Line platforms. The maker of this landmark piece of public art was Eduardo Paolozzi.  This year sees the centenary of his birth and it’s being marked with an exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland: Modern Two in Edinburgh. 

Photo portrait of Eduardo Paolozzi in his studio
Debra Hurford Brown, Eduardo Paolozzi, 1999, 2003. National Galleries Scotland

Paolozzi mosaics at Tottenham Court Road Underground station
Tim Adams, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunil060902; original art by Eduardo Paolozzi, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Paolozzi's parents, Rodolfo and Carmela, had arrived in Edinburgh in the early 1920s from Viticuso, a small town about 100 miles southeast of Rome.  They set up an ice-cream parlour in the port area of Leith (no one had told them about the weather).  The young Paolozzi, already visually attuned, played with ephemera from the shop, sticking labels and advertisements into scrapbooks.  But his childhood, like so many others, was ended abruptly by the Second World War.  On the night of 10th June 1940, a 2,000-strong crowd of Edinburgh locals streamed through the city vandalising Italian business premises and terrifying Italian Scots unfortunate enough to stray into the mob’s path.  Mussolini had that day declared war on France and Britain.  Fear was at a fever-pitch, and this added an extra layer of hysteria; Paris was expected to fall to invading German troops at any moment (and did so 4 days later), and the invasion of Britain seemed inevitable.  The day after the riot, Leith neighbours rallied around to help with the clear-up, but nearly half of Edinburgh’s 400 Italian Scots, the 16-year-old Paolozzi among them, were rounded up by the authorities. 


Eduardo was interned at Saughton Prison for three months. During this period, his father, grandfather and uncle were deported to Canada and here the story moves from unhappy to utterly tragic; the boat on which the three men were transported, the SS Arandora Star, sailed without Red Cross civilian identification and was torpedoed off the coast of Donegal by a German U-boat.  All three men were among the 800 who died. The effects of such traumatic events are unimaginable, but it does seem clear that Paolozzi’s dislike of militarism, his mistrust of political authority in general, and of the British state in particular, were rooted in these awful circumstances.  Perhaps this also gave him his constitutional unwillingness to conform, either artistically or personally – he had lost everything, and could risk everything.


An early collage by Eduardo Paolozzi
Eduardo Paolozzi, Collage, 1953. © The Paolozzi Foundation, Licensed by DACS Artimage 2023.

Before the War, Paolozzi had imagined that he might pursue a career as a graphic designer or technical artist, but the bleak realities of his experiences and the austerity of post-War Britain must both have played their part in turning him into a fine art student.  He enrolled initially at Edinburgh College of Art, and then at the Slade.  Public recognition came early, with a solo sculpture show in London in 1947 while Paolozzi was still a student.  Thereafter he displayed an extraordinary ability to be ahead of the field in his interests and attainments; he was creating explosive collages with commercial imagery long before the approach was commandeered by other members of the Pop Art movement of which he became a slightly unwilling figurehead, and his figural sculptures incorporated found objects and machine parts as early as the 1950s.  In the early 1970s he started to make wooden panels covered with abstract 3-D shapes, and his screenprints and lithographs featured complex geometric constructions and sharp colours.  The time was ripe for a move towards mosaic; working in the unusual medium of tapestry helped Paolozzi to think in the mathematical and reductive vein necessary for effectively placing tesserae. 

Eduardo Paolozzi, Illumination and the Eye, 1965. Screenprint on paper. Presented to the National Galleries of Scotland by the artist in 1994. © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation. Licensed by DACS, London 2023

1970s Screenprint by Eduardo Paolozzi
Eduardo Paolozzi, Allegro Moderato Fireman’s Parade (from ‘Calcium Light Night’), 1974-76. Screenprint on paper. Presented to the National Galleries of Scotland by the artist in 1994. © The Paolozzi Foundation, Licensed by DACS/Artimage 2023.

Screenprint by Eduardo Paolozzi
Eduardo Paolozzi, Calcium Light Night (from ‘Calcium Light Night’), 1974-76. Screenprint on paper. Presented to the National Galleries of Scotland by the artist 1994. © The Paolozzi Foundation, Licensed by DACS/Artimage 2023.


I haven’t been able to establish exactly when Paolozzi made his first mosaic, but it was probably in the late 1970s and he quickly became accomplished enough to be awarded major public commissions.  In 1979 a member of the London Transport team responsible for improvements to Tottenham Court Road station saw a mural by Paolozzi in Berlin, and the Underground mosaics were commissioned on the strength of this.  At around the same time, Paolozzi began work on a series of 12 huge mosaic panels for a shopping centre in Redditch, Worcestershire, on the subject of the town’s historic connection with the sewing industry and, more specifically, the manufacture of needles.

Eduardo Paolozzi mosaics in the Kingfisher Centre, Redditch
The Redditch Kingfisher Centre mosaics.PHOTO: Des Colhoun, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Fabrication of these mosaics – around 220m²  for Redditch and 950m² for London – would have been daunting for most mosaicists but Paolozzi had not just the technical competence necessary, but also crucially the kind of charismatic ebullience that carries others along on projects.  He started each by drawing up and hand-colouring the various elements of the designs.  These pieces were then scaled up and photocopied to equalize the colours, and the resulting pieces were collaged together into full-size cartoons. Fabrication was carried out by expert teams in Spilimbergo, the historic mosaic centre near Venice.


The Tottenham Court Road scheme is widely considered to be Paolozzi’s greatest mosaic achievement.  He drew inspiration from life on the streets some 25 metres above, and images famously include moths, saxophones and a bionic cow.  Despite the bright colours and the clarity of the individual motifs, the character of the scheme is not one of cheerful inanity, indeed there is something faintly menacing about the fusing of the animate and the inanimate. If you have that kind of mind, you can almost hear the sinister muffled flap of moth wings, the whirr of the camera and the relentless churn of cogs and pipes.

Photograph of Paolozzi mosaics at Tottenham Court Road Underground station
A contemporary photo shows the newly-fabricated mosaics. © National Galleries of Scotland, GMA A40/10/1/104


The scheme was completed in 1986 and was a popular success.  But public affection wasn’t enough to keep it safe.  London Underground redeveloped the station in 2015, making room for a massive new ticket hall and for connections with the soon-to-be-constructed Elizabeth Line.  Around 20m² of the Paolozzi mosaics were removed, including the famous arches at the top of the escalators, and it took a noisy campaign lead by the British Association for Modern Mosaic (BAMM) and the Twentieth Century Society, buoyed up by huge public support, to ensure the safety of the rest of the mosaics.  One exhibit in the Edinburgh exhibition is the fragment illustrated below. A tongue-in-cheek visual pun on ancient mosaic fragments and, at the same time a reminder of how close the mosaics came to destruction. The demolished and damaged areas were ultimately restored (a painstaking project overseen by mosaicist and then-BAMM Chair, Gary Drostle).


Demolished mosaics at Tottenham Court Road
The now-demolished triple archway that ushered you down into the mosaics, © Oxyman / Mosaic, Tottenham Court Road station escalators

Mosaic fragment from Tottenham Court Road
A mosaic crumb from the near-disastrous station renovation of 2015 © University of Edinburgh, 0362

You can immerse yourself in Paolozzi’s work at the Edinburgh show; not only does it feature 60 works spanning his career and showing clearly his direction of travel towards mosaic and his wider cultural impact, it also allows you to pay a visit to his London studio.  He bequeathed its contents to the Gallery, where it has been recreated and forms a part of the permanent display.

The exhibtion Paolozzi at 100 is showing at the National Galleries of Scotland: Modern Two, Edinburgh

On now until Sun 21 Apr 2024

Open daily, 10am–5pm

Admission free


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