Our Tile exhibition opens in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of tiles, the ways that they are produced and used. Last month’s visit to Jackfield Tile Museum at Ironbridge really helped. The museum is housed in the original offices of Craven Dunnill est. 1872 with the adjacent factory open to the public on specified days.

Craven Dunnill at Jackfield, tile press

Jackfield Tile Museum & early tile press

Press technology developed in the nineteenth century remains the industry standard; the  presses (now hydraulic) ram clay powder into plaster moulds to produce flat or textured tiles. Despite the use of hydraulic presses, the production line is still very labour intensive – perhaps not in comparison to our “potter’s tiles” in the exhibition – but in terms of modern factory production, this is very “hands on”.

making encaustic tiles at Jackfield

Rammed, textured tiles for slip infill – aka encaustic

The museum area is fascinating – my favorite room being the light, bright Design Room which now houses a snap-shot of art history through tiles 1840 to 1960 and the most fabulously tiled employees “loos”. As most people know the heyday for decorative tiles in this country was undoubtedly the Victorian era; a time when anything that could be decorated, would be.

The Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast

At the Tile Museum I was particularly struck by a reconstruction of a Victorian bar – where tiles were made that formed an arc both horizontally and vertically and had decorative textured surfaces – just think of the engineering involved and the confidence that sales would justify the set-up costs. Perhaps this is easier to imagine when one realises that this small area of Jackfield (home to the largest encaustic tile factory in the world in the 1870s, Maws & Co.) produced more tiles than anywhere else, the factories even had their own railway lines and exported worldwide.

The Trade Showroom and loos at Jackfield

The Trade Showroom & Employees Facilities at Jackfield

But what of contemporary tile use today? With architectural projects spending millions on polished concrete for the outside of their buildings, is their anyone considering extensive use of tiles as an alternative? Well, a quick google search reveals lots of ceramic cladding, a few plain glazed flat tiles covering large areas but oh,  for the colour, pattern and texture that there could be……architects, designers awake….. if anyone has some invigorating examples of architectural tiles, please send them in to us. In the meantime do come and see Tile Art at Tinsmiths from 16th March.

Floor Tile by Andrew & Claire Mc Garva

Floor Tile by Andrew & Claire Mc Garva