The Building Conservation Directory 2023

158 T H E B U I L D I N G C O N S E R VAT I O N D I R E C T O R Y 2 0 2 3 | C E L E B R AT I N G 3 0 Y E A R S C AT H E D R A L C O M M U N I C AT I O N S VICTORIAN DECORATIVE TILES JONATHAN TAYLOR U NTIL THE 19th century, all floor and wall tiles were made and decorated by hand. Production was slow and required great skill, so decorative tile schemes tended to be used in only the most prestigious buildings, such as churches and the homes of the wealthy. Following the industrial revolution, this changed dramatically. Better transportation combined with new working methods and the development of new technologies through the century enabled the mass production of highly decorative tiles on an extraordinary scale. By the end of the century, rich carpets of tiles lined the hallways of ordinary terraced houses. Even more lavish displays can be found on the floors and walls of many of the most important civic and public buildings of the period, from town halls to gin palaces. As well as offering the new middle classes an affordable way to express their importance and to add pattern and colour at the entrance, tiles had the advantage of a hard-wearing surface that could be easily cleaned. For us today it is difficult to imagine just how dirty and polluted the towns and city centres of Victorian Britain were, but with coal fires heating every building, soot, coal dust and smog were pervasive problems. Homes and many other building types were entered though a hall paved with brightly coloured tiles that could be cleaned quickly and regularly. From a practical perspective this use makes sense, as does their use by the fireside itself, where panels of tiles inserted into the cast iron surrounds provided a splash of colour which was both fireproof and easily cleaned. More prosaic uses of tiles encompassed wet areas like toilets and public baths, lightwells where bright white tiles reflected light into interior spaces, and places where hygiene standards were high, such as hospitals, dairies and butchers. QUARRIES AND GEOMETRIC TILES The simplest tiled flooring used the inherent colour of the fired clay – typically red, black (or Staffordshire blue clays) and buff – often assembled in chequered patterns of two contrasting colours or with borders of different colours. More intricate patterns could be created by using small geometric tiles, and by the mid-19th century these were supplemented by richly patterned ‘encaustic’ tiles which were inlaid with clays of different colours. Typically 25 to 38mm thick, laid in a weak cement mortar, the floor tiles were not glazed. However, when the clay was pressed out of the mould it was wiped with a damp cloth to smooth the surface, giving the tiles a glossy lustre once fired. Although not fully vitrified (which would have caused the tile to slump), a greater degree of vitrification occurred between the fine particles at the surface, creating a ‘fire skin’ which makes the tiles relatively impervious when new. Relief pressed tiles combined with moulded tiles and architectural terracotta by Burmantofts in the entrance to the former offices of the Refuge Assurance Company in Manchester (Alfred Waterhouse, 1891)