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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.