What are Victorian Tiles?

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I can't tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.
~Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Restoring a Victorian Home

De Morgan Persian / Iznak inspired tile fireplace in the Tapestry Room at Kelmscott manor, the studio where Rossetti worked the summer of 1871 when he stayed at the manor
De Morgan Persian / Iznak inspired tile fireplace in
the Tapestry Room at Kelmscott manor, the studio
where Dante Gabriel Rossetti worked when he summered
at Kelmscott in 1871 while Morris was in Iceland

Whether you are restoring a Victorian home or simply like the age, it's difficult to go wrong with tile. The popularity of tile reached its height in the second half of the 19th century and Victorians had many choices. Victorian tile covers a range of tiles: They can take their image from the natural world, or from symmetrical and geometric designs, or in the case of the Iznak-inspired tiles that Morris installed at Kelmscott Manor, both. They can be inlaid, muted, mass-produced, hand painted or pressed, or made in individual or small runs. Any of those can also be story tiles or art tiles, a single tile with a repeating design, or tiles in a series.

Some Victorian tiles two colors such as blue and white, green and white, red lustre on white. Others are polychrome with many colors, or composed of one or more earthen colors. They can be bright or subdued. Tiles could be ceramic, pressed clay, terra cotta, or a combination.

Victorian restorations themselves were not "period correct". Medieval-style inlaid tile was installed in modern churches and homes. William Morris's "Arts & Crafts" tiles were installed at Red House, the medieval-inspired home Morris built as his first married home, and at Kelmscott Manor, the 17th tudor home that inspired Morris for the last 25 years of his life.

The Hard Part: What Is 'Victorian'?

Before we examine the characteristics of the subtypes of Victorian tile, we should agree on what we mean by the term 'Victorian'. Early nineteenth century tile, exending into Victoria's reign, was medieval in character. Art Nouveau tile appeared in the early 1880s and could not be more different from the early medieval-style. So what is the commonality that we can use to tie these two styles together?

Easy answer: Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901. The Victorian Society not only defines 'Victorian' as created or occuring during Victoria's reign, but also includes the Edwardian homes and furnishings, thus extending the period to 1910. So Edwardian and Queen Anne, also. That is so general that it is not helpful for tile at all. Let's start again.

Working definition: Victorian tiles, for our purposes, are tiles representative of Victorian methods, values, trends, preoccupations, and reactions to those things. The Victorian era was a time of unprecedented growth, of contradictions, of industrialism and urban growth, of optimism and a melancholic longing for earlier days, an interest in and romanticism of medieval culture and legends, over-intellectualized, over-spiritualized, transcendent, occult. This may work to our benefit, however.

Victorian fireplaces.  From top: early Minton transferware tiles still installed in a restaurant in Bournmouth.  Center: Floral pattern tiles installed at a fireplace in William Morris's first married home and birthplace of the Arts and Crafts movement, Red House.  The design is not William Morris design but brings together Victorian symmetry in a very Morris naturalistic theme. Bottom: The blue and white De Morgan artichoke fireplace tiles are installed in the Green Room at William Morris's final home at Kelmscott manor.  The early Art Nouveau influence is apparent in this marriage of a classic Morris natural design with the slightly more stylized influence of the Iznik blue and white tiles that were popular with the Morris, De Morgan and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Victorian Fireplaces

It's difficult to overstate the importance of the fireplace in a Victorian household. Victorian novels were often published in installments and in the evenings, the family and any staff would gather around as the head of the household would read the latest George Eliot or Dickens. Tile was more commonly featured on fireplaces and the breadth of what qualifies as a Victorian tile is nowhere as evident more evident. All three of the fireplaces shown are "Victorian":

The top photo shows early Minton transferware tiles from a fireplace removed at Bournmouth. These were mass-produced and readily available, anathema to Morris's philosophy of the decorative arts. The second photo shows floral pattern tiles installed at a fireplace at first married home and birthplace of the Arts and Crafts movement, Red House. They are not a William Morris design but bring together Victorian symmetry in a very Morris naturalistic theme.

The blue and white De Morgan artichoke fireplace tiles at the bottom are installed in the Green Room fireplace at William Morris's final home at Kelmscott manor. The artichoke was a popular theme, Morris produced an embroidered artichoke panel at Merton Abbey and John Henry Dearle designed an artichoke wallpaper for Morris & Co. The early Art Nouveau influence is apparent in this marriage of a classic Morris natural design with the slightly more stylized influence of the Iznik blue and white tiles that were popular with the Morris, De Morgan and the Pre-Raphaelites (Like Rossetti and other Victorians of means, William Morris had a blue and white ceramic collection).

Let's look at these types of tiles in more detail.

Types of Victorian Tiles

Victorian 'Encaustic' Floor and Fireplace Tiles

Victorian Palace of Westminster tiles

The late 18th fascination with things Gothic (think Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, 1816-1818), extended well into Victoria's reign. In addition to turrets, towers, arched doors, and windows, we find 'Gothic Revival' inlaid tiles in classic patterns. Such tiles were incorrectly called encaustic tiles because they resembled medieval encaustic tiles.

True encaustic tiles derive their pattern not from the glaze applied to the tile but from different colors of clay. Victorian era 'encaustic' tiles are inlaid tiles, with a coating, often 1/8 thick, laid on top of a terra cotta or pressed dust tile. Minton, Hollins and Co. developed a process to successfully mass produce these tiles and they were made available to the general public. These mass produced tiles stood up well to heavy traffic in churches and public places. Patterns were geometric and could become quite complex, building on classic patterns with contrasting borders, such as the Greek key pattern. These inlaid tiles were also installed in fireplaces.

Terra cotta tiles decorated by transfer with stylized geometric patterns, were also popular for fireplaces.

Victorian Decorative Tiles

Despite their differences, all of the following are Victorian tiles:

Minton Tile

Minton printed tiles from The Old Testament, Shakespeare, and the Morte D'ArthurMass produced Victorian tiles are often referred to as 'Minton Tile', whether or not it was actually made by Minton Co.. Herbert Minton made the Industrial Revolution work for him, developing new production techniques and making profitable business alliances with leading architects and designers. In addition to decorative encaustic tiles, mass-produced printed decorative tiles made by Minton and others were installed in churches, public buildings, palaces, and simple homes. The demand was huge and Minton kept up: During the 19th century, the population of Britain grew from 14 to 32 million. A rural society gave way to an industrial urban society. By the end of the century, the population of London has tripled from 2 million to 6 million. New communities, such as Bedford Park, were built to accommodate the increase. At the same time, the cultural capital of Europe moved from Paris to London.

Victorian majolica tileMinton can reasonably be credited for a large part of the 'tile revival' that took place mid-century. Minton Tiles were well-received and he expanded the company's product range. He introduced Victorian Majolia tiles, moulded tiles with colorful translucent glazes, at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Arts & Crafts Tiles

Not everyone was a fan of mass produced goods. One burly, idealistic, and slightly grumpy man was generally unhappy with what he saw as the dehumanization and industrialization of Victorian society in general, and the quality of its goods in particular. That man was William Morris. He and several of his friends had designed and decorated his first married home, with the furnishings done by hand in the manner of medieval craftsmen. Red House was never intended to be a period-true reproduction. Rather, it embodied the Nature of the Gothic. Morris had envisioned living in Red House for the rest of his life, but like many dreams of an idyllic rural life since, it fell prey to a bad commute and Morris moved back to London five years later.

The Arts & Crafts Movement: An angel did not sound a horn heralding the birth of the Arts and Crafts movement. Rather, the Arts & Crafts movement was conceived after a few bottles of good wine and a pleasant dinner at Red House:

One evening, a lot of us were together, and we got talking about the way in which artists did all kinds of things in olden times, designed every kind of decoration and most kinds of furniture, and someone suggested -- as a joke more than anything else -- that we should each put down five pounds and form a company. ~Dante Gabriel Rossetti

and so Morris, Marshall, Faulner and Co. was born.

Arts & Crafts Characteristics: Arts & Crafts Tiles, furnishings, fabrics, and wallpapers produced with a strong Morris and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood influence share these characteristics: They favor designs from the natural world over geometric designs, mythic and medieval themes, and the sense of a human being on the other side of the thing made. Designs for one media were often repeated and adapted in another, textiles for tile, tile for stained glass, and so forth. In The Revival of Handicraft, he decries the use of machinery in art, but Morris himself did use machines -- a loom is a machine after all, as is a kiln -- the key was the personal attention to quality and the infusion of spirit that comes from individually working with a piece the way medieval artisan would.

William Morris, Membland Tiles in indigo, cream, and black

Membland Hall tile panel detail (shown in indigo, cream, and black)

Victorian Art and Story Tiles

Designs for hand-painted tile, both free-hand and from a template, by William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edward Burne-Jones, and later Glasgow School artists were an Arts & Crafts staple. For Victorians, stories carried moral lessons. Stories in all forms were popular, not just the installments in periodicals that were eagerly awaited and read by the male head of the household after dinner. Burne-Jones fairy tale tiles for 'The Hill' as well as story tiles and scenes and characters from popular literature such as Alice in Wonderland, and Brer Rabbit. As tile became more popular, well-known stories from the Bible, Shakespeare, and mythology appeared on printed tiles.

From top left: Bottom left: Unknown saint tile, one of at least nine, painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti before 1863;  Edward Burne-Jones Cinderella fairy tale tiles for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co.; CFA Voysey Alice in Wonderland tiles for Minton; Glasgow School tile painted by Hannah Moore Walton in the style of Edward Burne-Jones.

From top left: Bottom left: Unknown saint tile, one of at least nine, painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti before 1863; Edward Burne-Jones Cinderella fairy tale tiles for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co.; CFA Voysey Alice in Wonderland tiles for Minton; Glasgow School tile painted by Hannah Moore Walton in the style of Edward Burne-Jones.

Pre-Raphaelite Ceramics

William De Morgan began working at Morris & Co. in the manufacture of stained glass. He soon moved to the tileworks, where his interests and gifts lay, taking with him the skills he learned in the first medium. In a few years, De Morgan set out to start his own tileworks, and Morris & Co. ceased in-house production of tile. De Morgan's name has become almost synonymous with Pre-raphaelite ceramics, not only tiles, but also plates, bowls, and vases. De Morgan's later work, known as his Fulham period, became increasing influenced by Islamic tiles, most notably Iznak tiles, and many of his later tiles are done in De Morgan called his "Persian" color palette. De Morgan's tiles were more stylized, but still showed a strong Morris influence with flowers, foliage, and animals -- images from the natural world.

William Blue Peony scroll designed for the P&O liner 'Arabia'

William Blue Peony scroll designed for the P&O liner 'Arabia'

Beyond Delftware

The British love of Blue and White tile predates Arts & Crafts tile in particular and Victorian tile generally. Blue and white tile, particularly cobalt blue, whether from Dutch delftware manufacturers, the near or far east, had been popular in Britain for more than a hundred years. Printed, hand painted, and transfer tiles were popular. While not true Arts & Crafts, deftware tiles are often found in Arts and Crafts homes. The Ravestijin factory incorporated Arts & crafts designs into the tiles it made for the British market. Morris, Marshall, and Faulkner sold Philip Webb's Delft-style red house birds from 1869 and 1870. William De Morgan series of ships and galleons, many of which were executed in blue and white, as well as green and red lustre.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's blue and white china collection

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's blue and white china collection

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The Victorian Era

Crystal ball

The Victorian Era is usually divided into three subperiods:

Early Victorian 1830s -- 1848: The industrial revolution reaches its peak. Voting reform for men. People talk of "two Englands", wealthy and poor. Prostitution became an attractive alternative to deplorable working conditions in factories. Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle makes the world smaller and more exotic. Ruskin's Modern Painters and Nature of the Gothic inspire young artists. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is formed. Gothic Revival is popular. Art Holds the Mirror Up to Nature.

Mid-Victorian 1849-1870 -- the Empire years. Prosperity and optimism, Victoria becomes Empress of India and China. The Victorian world extends to Canada and Australia. The long-awaited opening of the Suez Canal. Arts & Crafts, and second-wave Pre-Raphaelites. Art for Truth's Sake.

Late Victorian 1870-1901: Extension of affluence, a time of political accounting (Irish home rule, inequality of wealth, extended voting rights, Socialism). The 1890s were the high point in industry and imperial control, and both were challenged. Victorian propriety and morality give way to a Fin de Siecle weariness of unrealized optimism and hope. Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw (playwright, friend of William Morris, and lover of Morris's daughter, May) are openly critical of Victorian pretentiousness. Art for Art's Sake.

The Victorian Frame of Mind, Highlights

Victorian Values and Preoccupations

Victorian tea

Victoria's values and interests imprinted themselves on the Victorian consciousness. While not unique to the Victorian era, the subject matter of Victorian art and literature concerned themselves with these topics and reactions to them:

  • The priorieties of correct social behavior.

  • Moralistic and dicatic. Art should instruct. Characters and tales from the Bible and classical mythology were often represented.

  • Hierarchical, including religious, social and spiritual hierarchies. Victoria was anti-women's rights.

  • The immanence of the spiritual world, seacute;ances, contacting the dead, as well as the presence of fairies.

The Victorian World: Trends, Events, and Reactions

Why are there so many Dodo tiles? Idyllic country scenes?

  • Economic disparity -- the rich got richers and the poor got poorer. Rise of the middle class. Morris and socialism and working conditions.

  • The shift of the cultural center of the Europe from Paris to London. British Empire 2.0. Victoria is named Empress of India and China.

  • The World Grows Smaller: The Voyage of the Beagle, The completion of the Suez Canal.

  • A melancholic longing for nature. The iconization of the Dodo. Popularity of botanical and zoological drawings.

  • Industrialization, population shift, and reactions to it.

  • An idealization of Medieval and pre-Renaissance culture. Early 19th century: Tennyson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Gothic Revival. Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood v1.0. Later: Morris and Arts & Crafts.

  • Art as a religous and transcendent experience. Rise of the inner life.

  • Morris, and Pre-Raphaelites 2.0. and the Arts & Crafts movement. Art is transcendant and should be accessible to everyone, just not mass produced.

  • Optimism for the future, and the ensuing disillusionment.

De Morgan peacock and carnations border tiles