We were on holiday in Tunisia and if we fancied a break from lazing around the pool, the tourist rep said she was arranging a free trip to see some Roman remains. It wasn’t much of an trip – in the heat of the day we walked crocodile-style a few hundred yards from the hotel down a dusty road – but the pay-off was a sight that has stuck in our memory.
The rep was carrying a bucket as we picked our way through the what looked like a building site but it wasn’t for donations for the tour guide. After asking us to stand aside, the guide dipped the bucket into a trough of water which he flung across the ground. As it washed away the sand, there revealed to us for the first time was a magnificent marble mosaic floor. A closer look showed that the ornate patterns were made up of tiny square-shaped pieces of coloured stone tiles, called tesserae. It must have taken hours of painstaking work to lay.
Perhaps that’s why we collect tiles like the ones pictured here. After all, they owe their existence to the Romans. Ours are somewhat younger, though, dating from Victorian and Edwardian times but, in our opinion at
(Pictured: A selection of tiles designed by William de Morgan
least, no less beautiful than those decorating the floors – and walls – of Roman villas.
Monastic potters were making tiles, largely by hand, for the floors of cathedrals by the end of the 10th century. Italy had gained renown as a centre for tin-glazed floor tiles by the 16th century and travelling potters introduced their techniques to Spain, France, Holland and Portugal.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, London, Bristol and Liverpool were centres for the manufacture of so-called ‘blue delft’ – with a small ‘d’ – tiles that were copies of the Dutch Delft originals. However, it is machine-made tiles produced at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century that we collectors of limited means are most interested in today.
The man to thank is Samuel Wright, a potter working in Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent, who in 1830 patented a tile-making machine. Working alone, commercial success eluded him. However, the potential was recognised by the potter Herbert Minton. With the backing of his father, the great Thomas, founder of the Minton empire, Herbert bought a share in the patent and went on to dominate the industry.
Another leap forward came in 1840 when Birmingham inventor Richard Prosser patented a process for making buttons from clay dust compressed between metal dies. Minton saw the potential and adapted machines to produce tiles.
Decorative wall tiles did not come into general use until the late 1860s and through the 1870s, when fashionable society was gripped by the Aesthetic Movement. The period also saw a challenge to Minton’s supremacy. Shropshire makers Maw and Co. were the most prominent, while Doulton, Della Robbia, Pilkington, Copeland and Wedgwood all produced highly collectable tiles.
Transfer Printing Revolutionised Everything
Liverpool played a significant part in tile-making, thanks to Sefton newspaper proprietor John Sadler (1720-1789. He and his assistant Guy Green swore an affidavit in support of a 1756 patent application that they had invented a method of decorating tiles using a mechanical transfer printing process.
They claimed to have printed 1,200 earthenware tiles with different patterns within the space of six hours that were "better and neater, than one hundred skillful (sic) pot painters could have painted in the like space of time in the common and usual way".
The process used a copper plate engraved with the required pattern, which was "inked" with the desired coloured glaze. Tissue paper was then pressed onto the engraved plate, transferring the pattern to the tile which was then fired, leaving the pattern fixed permanently.
The process revolutionised the pottery industry and is still in use today. Josiah Wedgwood, the father of the British pottery industry, purchased the right to use the technique in 1763, and began sending thousands of pieces of his creamware to be printed at Sadler’s factory where decoration could be done by comparatively unskilled workers.
Spot the difference: Top and bottom: Liverpool mid-18th century delftware tiles printed with Dutch canal scenes by John Sadler. It contrasts with the two London hand-painted delftware tiles, decorated respectively with a sailor and a Biblical scene. The estimate for each pair is around £300
As further research adds interest to the hobby, so attention is switching to the output of different designers. Names such as William De Morgan, Walter Crane, C.F.A. Voysey, Lewis Day and Doulton’s Margaret Thompson are well known and their work in tile design thoroughly documented.
De Morgan (1839-1917) was to tile design what his friend William Morris was to wallpaper. Look for lustre decoration and patterns with a Persian influence. De Morgan disliked the idea of mechanisation and unlike most British tiles, which were machine-made, his output was handmade and comparatively small.
Crane (1845-1915) is best remembered as a book illustrator. However, he designed tiles for Wedgwood for 10 years from 1867 and later for Maw and Co and Pilkington. A founder member of the Art Workers’ Guild, Crane produced designs that lean towards the illustrative.
His first designs for floor and wall tiles, accepted by Maw and Co., date from 1875. They were decorated with Boy Blue, Bo-Peep, Tom Tucker and other nursery characters, mirroring themes from his famous children’s books.
Voysey (1857-1941) was an architect and a Guild member who was influenced by the Art Nouveau movement. Best known as a furniture designer, he was however also a major designer for Pilkington, producing some popular patterns for tiles embracing naturalistic themes.
Lewis Foreman Day (1845-1910) was another founder member of the Guild who initially started designing stained glass windows. Like William Morris, he went on to cover the entire field of interior furnishings, but without the constraint of being opposed to mechanisation. His tiles are naturalistic with a strong emphasis on line.
Margaret Thompson (fl. 1890-1930) worked mainly on commissions to design and produce murals made from tiles for major public buildings, notably hospitals. Her unique panels were produced by Doulton and Co in the early 1900s.
Collectable tiles are readily found and easily affordable with prices suit all pockets. We bought two Edwardian tiles in an antique shop for £1 apiece. The superb and rare William de Morgan lustre tiles illustrated each have saleroom values of £400-600. The other joy of tile collecting is that much remains to be discovered and identified, with corresponding rewards for the finder.