MOSAIC EFFECTS

PERIOD FEATURES 3: TILES; Victorian ceramic tiles - often neglected, chiselled off or covered up - add richness, colour and value to a home. Lesley Gillilan continues her series on restoration
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The Independent Online
"TO WHAT use can tiles not be put?" asked The Pottery and Glass Trades Review in 1878. "Cornices, door-frames and windows are set with them; hearths are outlined with them and staircases decorated... for the tile is always fresh and cool-looking in its bright design..." They might also have said that tiles can be used to turn a spacious hallway in residential Kensington into a glittering scene from the Arabian Nights. For, in the same year, artist Frederick Leighton was putting the finishing touches to his Arab Hall - an awe-inspiring masterpiece of tile-encrusted home decoration, so richly seductive in its colour and complexity you could sit and gawp for hours.

Based on a 12th-century Moorish palace in Palermo, and tiled largely with North African souvenirs, Leighton's Arab Hall nevertheless reflects a British Victorian passion. The booming tile industry of the late 19th century was fed by an insatiable demand for architectural ceramics. Builders capitalised on every opportunity to cheer up domestic and commercial interiors with squares of coloured, moulded, painted and glazed clay. In the home, they were used everywhere to clad porches to dado height and to frame the fireplace, drawing attention to prominent architectural features.

By the end of the century, Maw & Company's factory in Jackfield, Shropshire, was one of the largest tileworks in the world. There were dozens of rival firms, all churning out millions of hand-made and machine-pressed tiles. They kept up with shifting fashions and changing technologies by constantly reinventing the ornamental potential of the basic biscuit-fired tile. In its many forms, the British decorative tile - a fusion of fine art and industry - survived 100 years of aesthetic movements from the Gothic revival to art deco.

According to Kathryn Huggins, co-founder of the Tile Society, the Victorian love affair with the ceramic tile combined an obsession with hygiene (which was underlined by new building regulations) with a fondness for ostentatious home decoration. The tile was durable and easy-clean, at a cost most could afford.

The home-grown tile trade's slow decline started in the 1930s depression. Maw & Co closed down in the 1960s and the international market is now dominated by Italian products. In recent years, however, a smaller, crafts- led, British tile industry has benefited from the demand for reproduction Victorian and Edwardian tiles. The revival is likely to be boosted further by the centenary of William Morris's death (tiles were one of his first products), as well as that of Frederick Leighton. A flurry of tile mania might encourage a few more owners of period homes to reclad their denuded porches with walls of glossy ceramics.

Victorian aesthetes apart, there can have been few 19th-century homemakers more passionate about ceramic decoration than Hull builder David Reynard Robinson. Many of his gloriously tiled buildings in Hull have sadly been demolished, including his own offices in Freehold Street, but his piece de resistance - the curious house he built for his retirement in the coastal village of Hornsea, Yorkshire - survives. Calling the house Farrago, Robinson used every surface, inside and out, to experiment with multi-coloured, multi-textured tiles of every available type. Since he died in 1913, his effusive ceramic memorial has been desecrated. The task of undoing the damage has tested tile restorers to their limits.

Josie Adams (the curator of Scarborough Art Gallery and another co-founder of the Tile Society) bought Farrago in 1975. She was initially attracted by the richly tiled stairwell and first floor hall - a kaleidoscope of gleaming, glazed and printed colour inset with moulded, patterned and floral panels. When she moved into the house, she had no idea there was more of the same lurking behind a mask of paint, wallpaper and polystyrene tiles.

The glazed-brick and tiled exterior - which includes pictorial friezes set into the roof pediment, featuring a romantic castle against a rustic backdrop - was hidden behind white paintwork. The fireplace and tiled surrounds had been taken out; many of the relief designs on the tiled interior walls had been hacked away to make a smoother surface for hanging wallpaper; large sections of the remaining work had been removed or vandalised.

"When I discovered exactly what I'd taken on I was torn between smashing it up and doing it up," says Josie. She chose the latter option, but 20 years later the laborious task of restoring David Reynard Robinson's work of art is a long way short of completion. Josie's biggest headache is in finding the funds to continue. The house is now Grade II listed (partly because it is an early example of steel-framed construction) but grant entitlements only allow for repair, not restoration.

Removing all the interior paintwork was, says Josie, the easy bit. Common solvents will deal with stripping most household paints without destroying the surface of the tiles. With time, and a degree of delicacy, layers of plaster can also be removed. "Brick by brick, tile by tile, I've carefully chipped off the plaster with a hammer and chisel," says Josie. The problem arose when she tackled the exterior, to which several coats of cement- based paints had been liberally applied. "These paints are not meant to come off," says Josie, "and there are no solvents that will touch them. I've tried everything." Sand-blasting or using acids would probably remove the cement, but the fired skin of the terracotta tiles would be destroyed too.

Where she can, Josie has cleaned, mended, reset and repainted many of the tiles herself. She has copied some of Robinson's hand-painted tiles (such as the exterior castle scene), by replicating the original images on to blank tile biscuits of the right thickness (modern tiles are thinner than the old ones) bought from Jackfield Tile Museum (see directory). The pictures are drawn on to the blanks with underglaze paints, covered with a transparent glaze and fired in a kiln.

For those who lack these skills, one alternative is to find second-hand tiles. Gone are the days, however, when you could pick them up cheaply from junk shops or retrieve them from skips for nothing. Original transfer- printed or single-colour moulded tiles - the cheapest of the decorated varieties - can now cost anything from pounds 5-pounds 12 each. You can pay a lot more for hand-painted or complex relief patterned tiles.

There is a premium to pay if the work is attributed to the tileworks of Minton Hollins, Maw & Co, Coalbrookdale, Craven Dunhill or H&R Johnson - among the better known and more artistic of 19th-century tile manufacturers. Originals by the high priest of the hand-painted tile, William de Morgan (whose work features in Leighton's Aran Hall), can now fetch breathtaking prices. Authentic hand-made Victorian tiles have become collectors' items and are displayed individually like treasured ornaments. A matching set in an accessible price range is a rare find.

Robinson's Farrago tableaux are largely made up of cheap printed tiles, imported from Spain or Holland, dotted with an occasional group of expensive indulgences. The latter includes a flawless arrangement of Maw's encaustic tiles which cover the floor of Josie's landing, complete and undamaged.

The art of making encaustic tiles - a medieval craft product found largely in religious buildings - was reinvented under patent by Samuel Wright and Herbert Minton in 1830. In essence, the process entailed stamping a design into a plain, unfired tile (made from compressed clay dust) and filling the impression with liquid clays in contrasting colours. Typically, an encaustic (derived from the Greek word meaning "inlaid") tile combines natural, earthy colours - dark browns, buffs and terracottas - with creamy whites, dark greens and brilliant blues. The designs are usually of a neo-Gothic flavour and are used on floors as part of a mosaic, combined with plain geometric tiles in matching colours. The encaustic art died with the decline of the tile industry, but it has recently been revived.

The encaustic tile's renaissance came about when H&R Johnson (which now manufactures tiles under the Minton Hollins brand name) was asked to restore an original Minton floor in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington in 1974. To respond to the commission, the company had to refer to archival material and build a picture of how 19th-century tile-makers went about producing an encaustic tile. With slight modifications, researchers came up with a convincing reproduction of the original.

"The new technique is an interesting mix of computer technology and old craft skills," says Andrew Adam of Minton Hollins. Other tile producers have copied the technique, but all modern encaustic tiles carry a luxury price tag. Minton Hollins estimate the cost of a single tile at pounds 12-pounds 20. If you include the cost of laying a floor, this can work out at over pounds 80 a square metre. A cheaper option (around pounds 35 per square metre) is a printed tile that apes traditional encaustic designs. The real thing wins, according to Minton Hollins, on "the life costing angle." In other words, it is extremely durable, as Josie's hall floor testifies.

The fireplace tiles - ripped out during the Sixties - did not fare so well, but again Josie was lucky. She stumbled on a pair of fireplace panels 15 years ago in a Hull house during a refurbishment, and saved them from the skip (intact, undamaged panels are rare as they are set into reinforced cement). Farrago's living room hearth is now framed by a pair of gorgeous peacocks depicted in a series of tube-lined tiles. These were made by piping lines of clay on to a flat tile, like icing on a cake, and filling the spaces in between with coloured glazes. Good second-hand examples are hard to find, but reproductions are available.

Virtually the only components of a period tile that cannot be reproduced to a degree of authenticity are lead-based glazes. They are no longer in use (the 19th century tile factory was a dangerous place to work), and none of the modern equivalents come close to reproducing the vibrant, translucent qualities of an original lead-based glaze or the attractively uneven finish produced by a hand-dripped glaze. "Technical perfection makes a uniform and bland tile," says Kathryn Huggins, but she admits modern tileworks are making "some pretty fine stuff these days." What you can't buy off the shelf can be made to order.

The cost of reproducing a multi-coloured relief tile or a hand-executed pictorial design is comparable to commissioning a painting, warns Lesley Durbin of the Jackfield Conservation Studio in Ironbridge, Shropshire. Most of her work is in public or commercial buildings (she is currently restoring the original art deco tile decoration in the Boots factory in Nottingham). You can ask for advice by phone, or send her cracked, broken and frost-damaged tiles - each can cost from pounds 25 to pounds 100 to repair, which gives an inkling of why an owner less dedicated than Josie might have given up on Farrago.

In quantity, tiles are not the easiest of materials to live with. Farrago would not seem out of place in the Moorish-Andalusian towns of southern Spain. But aside from the glassy reflections and the exhausting jangle of colourful patterns, wall-to-wall tiles are perhaps a little too fresh and cool-looking for the chilly north-east of England. Josie Adams is still pondering the problem of heating the place. Fitting a radiator against a wall is almost impossible without defacing or obscuring sections of Robinson's masterpiece. In fact, any home improvement which entails laying pipes or wires causes problems - but most of the headaches of living in Farrago are counterbalanced by rich rewards.

Beneath some old (ironically) fake-tiled linoleum in the kitchen, Josie discovered an extraordinary piece of Robinson artistry which could have been inspired by Gaudi. The small area is paved with a brilliantly coloured, abstract mosaic - made from fragments of broken tile - which rambles into the larder in a patchwork of ceramic patterns highlighted with red and green squares and blue circles. So even in period houses you can break with the tried and tested formulae of Victorian tile decoration; and if all you can afford is a bag of factory seconds or a pile of cracked, chipped oldies, you can make use of those too. !

USEFUL CONTACTS

For information on the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society (devoted to the study and protection of tiles) contact: The Membership Secretary, Reabrook Lodge, 8 Sutton Road, Shrewsbury SY2 (01743 236127). Good suppliers of modern reproduction tiles include: The Decorative Tile Works at Jackfield Tile Museum (see below), Ironbridge, Shropshire (01952 882840) which offers a large range of standard retro tiles and a bespoke design service; Kenneth Clark Ceramics, Lewes, East Sussex (01273 476761) whose range includes Victorian-style border tiles, William de Morgan repros and hand-glazed tiles in an endless selection of colours; H & R Johnson/Minton Hollins in Stoke-on-Trent (01782 575575) reproduce all kinds of period tiles including Delft, Art Deco and authentic encaustic floor tiles; Original Style in Exeter (01392 474058 for stockists) make repro William de Morgans, pictorial friezes, dado borders and printed encaustic lookalikes; The Original Tile Company (0131 556 2013) in Edinburgh specialises in hand-painted originals; Fired Earth offer installation and maintenance products and a huge range of tiles. For a list of showrooms and mail order details telephone 01295 812088.

For restoration advice and services contact: Heritage Tile Conservation in Much Wenlock, Shropshire (01952 728157) which specialises in the restoration of public or large historic buildings; or Jackfield Tile Conservation Studio (see text) in Ironbridge, Shropshire (01952 883720).

PLACES TO VISIT

The Jackfield Tile Museum in Ironbridge (01952 882030) is based in the old Craven Dunhill factory, displays thousands of 19th century tiles and features a working tile factory, a shop and DIY tile-decorating courses. The Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke-on-Trent (01782 319232) has a large collection of tiles. The Grill Room at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7, is lined with Minton tiles. The National Trust's Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton (01902 761108) features tiles by de Morgan and William Morris. The William Morris Gallery, Forest Road, London E17 (0181 527 3782) is dedicated to the work of Morris and his associates and their followers in the Arts & Crafts Movement. As part of a series of events planned for the centenary of Morris's death, the museum is showing a special exhibition of tiles from September onwards. Leighton House, 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 (0171 603 9115), the home of the artist Lord Frederic Leighton, features a vast tiled hall decorated with thousands of English and middle Eastern tiles. Leighton's private palace of the arts is now a museum and is currently celebrating the centenary of his death with "Relentless Perfection" tours - a 20 minute "at home with Leighton" theatrical experience. Tickets pounds 3.50(pre-booking essential).

You don't have to trawl round museums to see the best example of 19th century British tilework. Kathryn Huggins (one of the founders of the Tile Society, see above), suggests the Barton Arms and the Church Tavern (both in Birmingham), The Princess Louise, High Holborn, London and The Mountain Daisy in Sunderland as some of the best examples of our tiled public houses.

FURTHER READING

The history of ceramic tiles in architecture and interiors is covered in detail in a recent book The Decorative Tile by Tony Herbert and Kathryn Huggins (Phaidon, pounds 39.99). Another excellent, well illustrated reference book is Tiles in Architecture by Hans Van Lemmen (Laurence King, pounds 28). The Victorian Society (0181 994 1019) produces a series of Care for Victorian Houses guides, including one devoted to decorative tiles (pounds 3).

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