The 2010 mosaic scuplture by Gary Drostle called Time’s Hand happens to be my favourite piece of public art with a heritage theme. Located adjacent to a children’s playground, it also qualifies as a further example of a heritage dimension/theme to a play area.
The mosaic art is located in Edgar’s Field, Handbridge, Chester, close to the old Dee Bridge. It comprises a circular base of dark red tesserae with a black border and with white lettering. The medium and design clearly intentionally evoking the Roman past of the city and its environs. Deliberate informality is introduced in the placing of occasional dark tesserae within the red. The text reads:
TIME’S HAND FORMS OUR SPACE.
Linking the sandstone evidence of an ancient desert, the river’s course carving through it, the Roman quarries that created the space beside the Dee, and the Minerva shrine carved into the quarry face, the text evokes the effect of sedimentation, riverine action and human agency: the ‘Roman chisel’. They have together forged the space and constitute ‘time’s hand’.
Other aspects of the site’s past are represented visually on the cuboid block at the centre of this mosaic circle. On the river-facing side is the Minerva shrine: the only open-air surviving Romano-British shrine in Britain. It is situated within sight of the stone across Edgar’s Field but here it is rendered in vibrant colours, affording a sense of how it might have appeared when freshly carved and painted in the Roman period.
The primary focus is on the top of the stone, however, the depiction of a boat navigating the Dee. This is a stylised depiction of the story of King Edgar being rowed on the River Dee by the Kings of Britain, supposedly in AD 973. This is the Edgar whose primary association with Chester was this striking event (even if of questionably historical accuracy) and which inspired the naming of the field.
The design of the ship and figures is not based on any early medieval art from these shores. I suspect it is instead directly inspired by the ships and the figures on Gotlandic picture stones: broadly contemporaneous but far flung from Chester. Still, this representation does attempt to show the complex interactions of Chester with the Viking world in the 10th and 11th centuries AD.
Between the shrine and the boat is the river itself flowing around the stone and showing the historic weir and leaping salmon as well as the Dee Bridge itself. The footprints of prehistoric beasts also walk over the stone, evoking the distant geologic past.
Putting this all together, the mosaic provokes interaction and the flow of water over stone. Different temporalities are afforded by different perspectives. Both stone and the river, the chisel and the mosaic evoke time. The art thus resonates with and distils different agents that together create ‘time’s hand’: geological, archaeological and historical.
I think it is particularly apposite that this art was selected for the cover of a new edited book in honour of Professor Richard Bailey entitled ‘Crossing Boundaries’ and containing a new research paper by David Stocker and Paul Everson about Chester in the 10th/11th centuries AD.
Still, the art is more than a commentary on the Anglo-Saxon/Viking heritage of Chester. It is more than about time carving space as history creating place. As such, the mosaic draws on multiple strands of the past to create social memory in a public environment and play area.