Fireplace Tiles in Historic Houses

Four Victorian fireplace tiles.
Top left: Tube-lined and hand-glazed yellow poppy
Top right: Moulded and hand-glazed Macintosh rose
Bottom right: Moulded and hand-glazed Art Nouveau flower
Bottom left: Transfer printed ‘galleon’ tile

A fireplace surround made with two five-tile sets of moulded and hand-glazed ‘rose’ sets; one single ‘rose’ 6″ x 6″ tile; two plain burgundy 6″ x 6″ tiles; and two 1 1/2″ x 6″ burgundy ‘filler’ tiles

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.


Mintons Tile Catalogue cover c1885

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 Moyer Smith’s ‘The Waverly Novels’ 1878 series of fireplace tiles by Mintons. An action-packed, and not very restful series. Each tile depicts a scene from one of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, with the book title at top left, the characters at bottom right and the Chapter [CH  XXI] in Roman numerals tucked at the bottom. This fourteen-tile 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 considered suitable for 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.

Two tiles from John Moyer Smith’s ‘Aesops’ Fables’ set for Mintons

One of the tiles from John Moyer Smith’s ‘Idylls of the King’ series for Mintons, depicting the legend of King Arthur

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!

Aesthetic-style ‘Bedford Park’ Daisy tiles designed by William de Morgan

Two examples of transfer-printed tiles, both designed by William de Morgan. Left: ‘Stork and Fish’; Right: ‘Exotic Bird

Tiles with Raised Designs:

By 1900, English-made tiles with raised designs were very popular, and  were shipped all over the world – even as far as Australia.

Though similar looking, two different types of tiles were made: ‘tube-lined’ tiles, and ‘moulded tiles’.

Tube-lined 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 a “tube-lined” tile; 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.

Moulded Tiles with hand-applied glazes:

A pair of handsome Art Nouveau moulded tiles

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. Traditionally made tiles  – both in tube-lined or moulded variations – are still made in the same fashion as they were 100 years ago.

A Moulded and hand-glazed Art Nouveau 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 remodelled house built in 1910

Fireplace using dark green tiles; dark brown tiles; and two moulded lemon tiles give visual weight to a horizontally designed fireplace. Note how the placement of grout lines add to the overall design.

Dark green tiles laid like brick, with three decorative moulded tiles, accent the arched design of this fireplace.

This new fireplace has rich amber 3″ x 6″ tiles and two decorative moulded tiles in the corners, with coordinating 6″ x 6″ tiles on the hearth

A lavish and carefully planned treatment of tiles, using two five-tile sets of roses; with contrasting dark green and burgundy tiles and five single 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.