Fireplace Tiles in Historic Houses


A fireplace set of reproduction c1910 Art Nouveau Rose tiles - two five tile sets and a single tile, with plain field tiles finishing the design. From Charles Rupert Designs

A fireplace set of reproduction c1910 Art Nouveau Rose tiles – two five tile sets and a single tile, with plain field tiles finishing the design. 

The more one learns about Victorian fireplace tiles, the more interesting they become. They became fashionable in England in the late Victorian period, and continued in popularity through the 1920’s.

This historic design article will give some background on Victorian fireplace tiles, some useful tips about appropriate tiles and some examples of new fireplaces using historic tiles.

Victorian Fireplace Tiles

Early Victorian fireplaces did not feature tiles. Homes of the 1860’s, even finely finished homes, frequently did not have tiles, but rather a fine rendering of mortar on top of bricks for a good finish and fire protection – to stop embers from falling between the cracks to vulnerable wood framing behind or below. With the rise of the industrial revolution, and the potteries in England’s “Satanic north’, tile production became more widely available by the 1870’s and were ubiquitous in the 1880’s and 1890’s, and beyond.

North American importers would bring in the latest designs from England, then acknowledged to be the premier suppliers in the world of fine tiles. Producers such as Royal Doulton; Mintons; and Craven Dunhill were three of the well-known English names in tile manufacturing during the Victorian period.

A Mintons Tiles catalogue cover c 1885

A Mintons Tiles catalogue cover c 1885

Mintons was well known for employing famous designers to produce designs for their tile factory.
John Moyr Smith (1839-1912) was perhaps the best known of these designers. An artist and designer in his own right, over a twenty-year period he designed many of Mintons’ ‘picture-tile’ series. The topics would vary, but would provide a variety of possibilities for artistic interpretation.
Some of the over 20 series that he designed include: Four Seasons; Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly Novel Series; The sporting scenes of Old England; Idylls of the King – Morte D’Arthur; Shakespeare tiles; and more.

‘The Antiquary’ tile from John Moyr Smith’s ‘The Waverly Novels’ 1878 series of fireplace tiles by Minton’s. An action- packed and not very restful series, with the book identified at top left, the characters at bottom right, and the Chapter [CH XXI] tucked at the bottom. This set came in both 6”x 6” and 8” x 8” sizes.

‘The Antiquary’ tile from John Moyr Smith’s ‘The Waverly Novels’ 1878 series of fireplace tiles by Minton’s. An action- packed and not very restful series, with the book identified at top left, the characters at bottom right, and the Chapter [CH XXI] tucked at the bottom. This set came in both 6”x 6” and 8” x 8” sizes.


Many of these pictorial tiles were used in fireplaces, in appropriate settings. A literary series, such as the ‘Shakespeare’ tiles or possibly the ‘Waverly novels’ series would be used in a library; while the ‘English Sporting Scenes’ would be used in a gentleman’s bedroom or perhaps a billiard room. More romantic designs – such as the ‘Idylls of the King’, would be used in a lady’s bedroom. The ‘Four Seasons’, with appropriate floral tiles, were appropriate decoration for a front hall, where visitors were welcomed, and the ‘Aesop’s Fables’ series would have been used in a child’s nursery.

One of the tiles from John Moyr Smith’s ‘Idylls of the King’ series.

One of the tiles from John Moyr Smith’s ‘Idylls of the King’ series.

‘Aesop’s Fables’ series by John Moyr Smith for Minton’s

‘Aesop’s Fables’ series by John Moyr Smith for Minton’s

Another famous Victorian designer of tiles was William de Morgan (1839-1917), Britain’s most talented pottery and tile designer. A life-long friend of William Morris, he designed tiles, stained glass and furniture for Morris & Co. from 1863-1872. His tiles are often based on medieval designs or Persian patterns, and he experimented with innovative glazes and firing techniques. Galleons and fish were popular motifs, as were “fantastical” birds and other animals. Many of de Morgan’s tile designs were planned to create intricate patterns when several tiles were laid together.
Later in life de Morgan became a popular novelist – though by today’s standards, quite unreadable!

Left: ‘Stork and Fish’ two tile set designed by William de Morgan – available from Charles Rupert Designs. Right: ‘Exotic Bird’ designed by William de Morgan

Left: ‘Stork and Fish’ two tile set designed by William de Morgan – Right: ‘Exotic Bird’ designed by William de Morgan

Aesthetic-style ‘BedfordPark Daisy’ tiles by William de Morgan Available from Charles Rupert Designs

Aesthetic-style ‘BedfordPark Daisy’ tiles by William de Morgan 

Sometimes Victorian tiles were moulded, and multi-coloured, to give a richly decorative effect, as in this 1892 example

Sometimes Victorian tiles were moulded, and multi-coloured, to give a richly decorative effect, as in this 1892 example


By 1900, moulded tiles were very popular, and being made in England and shipped all over the world – as far as Australia.
Two similar looking tiles are made quite differently. There are ‘tube-lined’ tiles, and ‘moulded tiles’.
The first, ‘tube-lined’ tiles, are made by applying the design rather like piping icing onto a cake, and then hand-glazing colours between the ‘dams’ made by the piped decoration.

Hand-piping the decoration onto ‘tube-lined’ tiles; and a ‘Yellow Poppy’ tube-lined tile - available from Charles Rupert Designs.

Hand-piping the decoration onto ‘tube-lined’ tiles; and a ‘Yellow Poppy’ tube-lined tile –

Even in Victorian times, this was a labour intensive and expensive process, as one slip of the hand – or a sneeze – could destroy a design.
Accordingly, an alternative method of forming the designs on the tile was invented. The second method of making these tiles involved moulds. Tiles were now moulded; making sure the raised design was uniform on each tile blank. Then the glazes could be applied by hand. The tiles sold by Charles Rupert Designs – both in tube-lined or moulded variations – are still made in the same fashion as they were 100 years ago.

A ‘Margaret’ moulded tile – available from Charles Rupert Designs

A moulded Art Nouveau design tile – 

New Fireplaces using historic tiles

When building a new traditionally styled home, historic reproduction tiles can add an affective traditional feature to the house.
Below are five fireplaces that have been newly built in old houses, or have been retiled as part of a period renovation project.

Plain cream tiles laid like brick, with a border of moulded tiles in a remodeled 1910 house

Plain cream tiles laid like brick, with a border of moulded tiles in a remodeled 1910 house

Fireplace using dark green tiles, dark brown tiles and two moulded lemon tiles to give weight to a horizontal designed fireplace. Note how the grout lines add to the overall design.

Fireplace using dark green tiles, dark brown tiles and two moulded lemon tiles to give weight to a horizontal designed fireplace. Note how the grout lines add to the overall design.

Dark green tiles laid like brick, with three decorative moulded tiles - Available from Charles Rupert Designs

Dark green tiles laid like brick, with three decorative moulded tiles – 

This new fireplace has rich amber 3

This new fireplace has rich amber 3″ x 6″ tiles with two decorative moulded tiles in the corners. 

A lavish and carefully-planned treatment, using two five-tile sets of roses, with contrasting dark green and burgundy field tiles and five ‘Companion Rose’ tiles. All from Charles Rupert Designs.

A lavish and carefully-planned treatment, using two five-tile sets of roses, with contrasting dark green and burgundy field tiles and five ‘Companion Rose’ tiles. 

Fireplace Tiles can add a pleasing and historically appropriate design element to an historic home, or to a new home built in a traditional style.
By using reproduction tiles in the right sizes, designs and colours, they can look timeless and inevitable, as if they had always been there.