Why the rich and famous love the mosaics of a Lancashire artist

Peacock At Stevenson House

Peacock At Stevenson House - Credit: Archant

Film director Peter Jackson and Tory grandee Lord Heseltine are fans of Lancashire mosaic artist Maggy Howarth. Sue Riley and photographer Kirsty Thompson visited her workshop

Cholmondeley Castle

Cholmondeley Castle - Credit: Archant

Maggy Howarth’s distinctive mosaics grace towns and gardens across the UK. In the Lune Valley, where she lives, it’s almost impossible to find a village which hasn’t commissioned her at some time or another.

For the past 30 years she has been slowly and quietly working away in her Wennington workshop at her suitably named home, Hill Top, and in the process making quite a name for herself.

Her handmade pebblestone mosaics and fountains are in the gardens of the likes of the Duchess of Westminster and the Marquess of Cholmondeley as well as film director Peter Jackson – a mosaic of two dancing figures was installed at his home near Pinewood Studios – and the Tory politician Michael Heseltine. If you’re not on that sort of garden party list you will still have encountered Maggy’s mosaics as they are scattered throughout the north, from town centres and shopping malls in Garstang and Whitehaven to parks and municipal areas in Lancaster and Lytham.

Some of her public commissions have been very poignant; particularly the ones to commemorate the schoolchildren murdered at Dunblane and the 104 miners killed in an underground explosion in Whitehaven in 1947. Many celebrate particular moments in time, from personal events to major milestones.

Bonnington House

Bonnington House - Credit: Archant

‘We got to the millennium and they all thought of Maggy!’ she says, describing the many commemorative pieces which decorate the Lune Valley and further afield. She’s also exhibited at Chelsea Flower Show several times and worked with some of the country’s leading garden designers, including award-winner Arabella Lennox-Boyd, who lives in nearby Caton.

Although Maggy’s mosaics are often to be seen in some of the country’s most glamorous gardens, she and her colleague Mark Currie also make a range of smaller pieces which they call ‘ready mades’ and are aimed at people who have £1,000 or less to spend. Most feature natural scenes with fish, finches, butterflies or her trademark geometric designs.

She started her Cobblestone Designs business at her Lancashire home more than three decades ago, just after she turned 40. Always an artist, she had been working in touring theatre and then after having a baby was ‘looking for a new direction’. ‘I always thought the pebbles were a great idea, I just dreamt it up. I had seen a few things in books, an image of a village in Florence with pebble mosaics and thought “I could do that”. It was a huge struggle,’ she remembers.

‘I had always liked gardens and thought what a good idea it was to put small items of interest to walk over in a path.’ She created some mosaics for her own garden to work out how to make them and knew she was on to a winner when one of her neighbours visited. ‘Mrs Atkinson at the farm said “I like that Maggy” and I thought if she likes it…. She would not have anything to do with art.’

It wasn’t until she was asked to create a mosaic for Williamson Park in Lancaster that she had her breakthrough. It was a community project where she had to train people and one of those was a youngster called Mark Currie who volunteered because he was bored being ‘on the dole’. He was a natural mosaicist and Maggy asked him to continue working with her, at first in the old cow byre beside her home. ‘When I started there was no electricity and we worked by gaslight!’ said Mark, who now makes all the mosaics from Maggy’s designs.

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When she started out she was the only cobblestone mosaicist in the country and says she is still the only one capable of handling large, complicated projects. ‘No one can really touch us and, if they can, then good luck to them. That’s a good thing. It’s the combination of the art and the craft,’ she said.

All her pieces are subtly coloured with a range of greys and slate to indicate shadows and create a 3D look; sometimes up to eight shades are used. ‘It’s a lot of trouble but we have always thought we will take the amount of trouble we need to take,’ said Maggy. She likes the gentle colours of the tens of thousands of pebbles she has imported from the Far East – the arduous job of hand picking them off beaches (with a licence) stopped many years ago. ‘The Chinese pebbles are wonderful, they are quartz. Very durable and quite a lot of colours, yellow and red, black and white.’

Most of her work is commissioned and she will usually make a site visit to discuss the design before producing a sketch showing the design and how it will be constructed and fitted together. Then her long-term colleague Mark starts selecting the right stones for colour and dimension before he assembles the artwork in individual moulds. Maggy then likes to oversee the on-site installation and, until recently, has also grouted it in place.

Now 70 she says much of the physical work is being done by Mark these days. ‘I can’t make them any more so that’s down to Mark. It’s taken a long while to build up the business and we have all the pebbles we could possibly want so it makes sense to continue,’ she said. And, having just made her largest mosaic to date (for a shopping mall in Scotland) there’s no indication that interest is waning in Maggy and Mark’s unique outdoor artworks. w

For more details go to www.maggyhowarth.co.uk