All fired up in Ironbridge

You can tell a lot about a country's history by its creative and artistic use of ceramic tiles. Mark Rowe tries his hand at making them at one of a series of special workshops running this summer at Ironbridge

'The tile designs tend to follow popular culture," said Jennifer Hill, education workshop manager at the Jackfield Tile Museum in Ironbridge, Shropshire. We are standing in the museum's workshop, where visitors can create their own tiles. "Earlier in the summer with the World Cup, the children were designing flags and footballs. We've also had a lot of Daleks."

For those of us whose interest in tiles has previously extended little further than the azulejos so prevalent in Iberia, it is instructive to learn that, in the second half of the 19th century, Britain, and more particularly Ironbridge, led the way in terms of craftsmanship and production of tiles.

The Jackfield Tile Museum is housed in an immense Victorian tile factory, built by tile maker Henry Dunnill in 1874, and offers workshops where visitors can try their hand at their own tiles. My first attempt was at an encaustic tile. Encaustic tiles are made from pre-carved moulds. So, generally, visitors and amateurs are presented with a mould - in my case of a dove.

Under Jennifer's watchful gaze, I set about my task. First, filling in the mould with clay, then flattening the mould with a mawl, scraping away the excess clay and then using slip, or liquid clay, to fill in the mould. After this, the tile is left to dry and then fired at 1,100C for three days. The museum posts your work to you.

Across the studio, a group of children was deeply involved in the business of making tube-lined tiles. These are more bespoke: you choose a pattern, or simply sketch your own on to the tile, then use a tube of paint with which to firm up the outlines, and fill in the gaps with colours of your choice of bee, penguin, Dalek or other motif.

It fleetingly brought back school-day memories of art classes, where I would desperately try and fail to produce a clay pot, any clay pot, while the boy at the next desk finessed a classical Grecian urn. Nevertheless, I found the experience unexpectedly relaxing and hypnotic. The kids, aged six to eight, also clearly buy into the idea; there is just enough of a physical element for it to appeal to boys as well as girls.

The traditional encaustic tile-making technique was brought back into fashion by the Victorians, who, in what was described as "tile mania", adorned their churches, civic buildings and suburban villas with hard-wearing, beautifully inlaid clay tiles. A quasi-religious fervour fuelled the industry. "Encaustic tiles had originally been put down on church floors and cloisters in the 13th century. It was thought it was good for the soul and the Victorians picked up on that ethic," said Michael Vanns, curator of the tile museum. "The tile industry was driven by enlightenment. Tiles showed propriety, permanence and cleanliness. The Victorians felt they were building a better society and tiles embodied that sense of being built to last."

As this was the heyday of empire, tiles from this quarter of the Severn Valley can be found in India and other colonial outposts. The company, now called Craven Dunnill, continues as a working concern within the museum complex. A major part of its business is restoration and conservation. It produces tiles for the London Underground, and its reach extends across the globe. The museum entrance greets you with a tile-patterned peacock, copied from the floor of a palace in Mysore in India, originally made in Ironbridge.

Mr Vanns explained their broader appeal. "It's the variety, the colour, the design," he said. "People want to have tiles in their fireplaces, to have geometric floor patterns in the halls. Tiles could be seen as boring. No one in their right mind is going to walk on to the platform at Covent Garden and say 'look at those nice tiles', but when you see them as works of art they take on a different role."

The workshop is enjoyable, and your tour will also visit a master craftsman at work. To gain an insight into the role that tile-making has played down the centuries, it's worth exploring the rest of the tile museum. There's a serenity to the place, particularly in the 19th-century gas-lit tile trade showroom, the equivalent of a walk-in colour catalogue where Victorian buyers would have chosen their tiles. There are outstanding examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, while the executive gentlemen's toilet has been beautifully maintained, a true retreat, complete with emerald green tiles.

Galleries display delicate examples of encaustic tiles, from single, rather plain, patterns, to vast wall panels. The tiles are used to create mock-up rooms, including the bathroom of an Edwardian villa, a church floor from Derby, original may-pole scenes from a 1929 children's ward from London's Middlesex Hospital and mock-ups of a section of Covent Garden Tube station in London. As Mr Vanns said: "This museum is about education, but it's also about inspiration."

Jackfield Tile Museum runs tile workshops every Friday 10.30am-3.30pm until 1 September. Workshops also take place during school holidays. Workshops cost £6 plus museum admission; fired tiles can be sent home later for £2. Ironbridge Tourist Information Centre (01952 884391; ironbridge.org.uk)

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