Collecting Art Nouveau Tiles by Sandie Fowler & Wendy Harvey

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Collecting Art Nouveau Tiles

by Sandie Fowler & Wendy Harvey

Tiles are familiar to all and were commonly used in bathrooms, kitchens and on floors but what is it about some tiles which cause collectors to wax eloquent, decorators to drool, and ordinarily composed people to gush? Decorative antique tiles have become the “new” decorating accent for those who wish a unique home installation or interesting collectible. Small in size yet with huge design impact antique tiles are again popular with anyone who truly appreciates well designed artistry, history, and elegance.

Brief History of Tiles

Tiles were made since BC. Exquisitely painted, detailed tiles covered the walls of temples, mosques, palaces and the home of the extremely wealthy. Roman villas were filled with intricate tile mosaics covering both floors and walls. Beginning toward the end of the tenth century in France, the tile industry expanded throughout Europe, where the beginnings of Gothic architecture drove demand. Cathedral floors, chapter houses and royal residences were laid with patterned encaustic floor tiles. Italy became a center for tin glazed floor tiles and beginning in the sixteenth century traveling potters introduced their techniques to Spain, France, and Flanders. With the spreading of floor tile making to Holland and Portugal tiles began to be used on walls as well as on floors. The use of tin glazed tiles on floors was soon abandoned as tin glazed floor tiles quickly deteriorated from use. However, tin glazed wall tiles lasted remarkably well. Both the popularity and practicality of tiles encouraged pottery companies throughout towns in Holland to specialize only in tile making to meet the growing demand and they soon offered extraordinarily diverse motifs. Still, all tiles had to be entirely hand rolled, glazed and decorated which meant that tile making was very labor intensive and relatively expensive.
Starting in the mid 18th century, however, several new inventions combined with economic factors and a changing world began to propel tiles into the forefront of both the marketplace and the artistic consciousness. Two gentlemen, Sadler and Green developed a process to produce transfer printed tiles. This enabled tiles which prior to this time were all hand painted to now be made in greater numbers and at a lesser cost per tile. Almost concurrently, Herbert Minton (long established pottery producer) refined a patent he’d purchased which would enable him to produce tiles by machine. Another event that occurred was a fire at Westminster Palace. This provided a great economic opportunity for Herbert Minton. Now Minton had both the technology to mass produce encaustic floor tiles and a market. Additionally, many of the gothic Cathedrals originally constructed in the 12th-14th centuries needed repair including acres of new encaustic floor tiles.
Tiles and the Industrial Revolution
The industrial revolution brought many changes in society, economy and decorative styles. Increased jobs in factories brought workers into the cities and gave them a wage. These workers became part of an expanding purchasing class and demand for goods rose. Tiles became fashionably popular thanks to use by the royal family, the new decorating style “gothic revival” and the all too human need to “keep up with the Joneses.” Burning coal for energy to fuel the Industrial Revolution machines created filthy skies and so materials which were easier to clean became important. There also was the growing awareness of health issues and the fact that privies were moving from outside to inside buildings, again driving a need to find new building materials to meet the changing world. Tiles were rightly regarded as easily washable and more hygienic and they were championed as such by prominent reformers of the day. The hunt was also on for fireproof building materials as crowded wooden cities throughout the world could and would be wiped out by catastrophic fires.
All of the above conspired to create a worldwide demand for tiles. Because they were available, fashionable, stylish, practical and affordable to almost all, tiles became one of the most pervasive decorative elements during this time period. Adorning both the inside and outside of buildings, tiles appeared in municipal buildings, restaurants, butcher shops, pubs, hospitals and the royal dairy. The middle and upper classes also incorporated tiles around their fireplaces, into their washstands and bathrooms, foyer walls and floors, stoops, plant stands and furniture.
The tile industry continued as increased economic demand spurred established potteries to begin and expand tile production and encouraged the establishment of new tile companies. Not all the economic opportunity was waiting just in England. The “sun was never setting” on the English Empire and building in all of the colonies was fast and furious. International expositions played a role in expanding the marketplace worldwide. As English and European firms began showing their wares competition drove owners to strive for more artistry and expanding uses. American tile production began initially assisted by European tile makers who were brought in for their technical expertise. The earliest American tile companies made products very similar to their European counterparts but American initiative soon took hold and American designed tiles and glazes quickly bore little resemblance to the English.
Societal Changes Drive

a New Design Aesthetic

Society was changing due to increased mechanization and with the change came a growing sense of unfamiliarity and unease. In response to these changes a group of individual artists led by William Morris started the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Medieval work ethics and hand made craftsman artistry was revered. Past decorative vocabularies were reintroduced and became hugely popular as home and building styles

and decorations.

Tile Production, Tile Terms and Styles
Mass produced tiles were (and still are) made in two ways using either wet or dry clay. Tiles pressed into a mold or shapes using wet or “plastic” clay are called faience tiles. Tiles made using dry clay are formed by enormous

pressure which forces the clay into shape. This process is called dust pressing.

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau tiles are identified by their stylized flowing curves and

rounded sweeping lines not their glazing or methods of decoration. The Art Nouveau style comes primarily from the designs of the British Arts and Crafts movement. As the movement traveled throughout Europe and to the USA each country put their own artistic stamp on the designs and glazing.

This is a tile making process whereby colored clays are inlayed into different colored clay bodies in order to form the design.
Hand Painting
A hand painted tile refers to the method of decoration. Each tile was entirely painted by an artist or decorator, usually onto dust pressed clay tiles. Hand painted tiles were the most expensive to produce.

Any solid glazed tile even if it contains more than one color opaque glaze is called a majolica tile. This should not be confused with majolica pottery and is an identifying term referring to the glaze only not the style or country of manufacture.

Tiles which are formed into impressed molds become relief when unmolded. Relief tiles are usually glazed in one color which flow off the higher points of the design and pool into the valleys to highlight design details.
Transfer Printed
Transfer printing describes the process of decoration. Using an engraved print tissue transfer a design is placed onto a pre-fired dust pressed clay body. The tile is re-fired and the design becomes permanent. More expensive tiles were then hand colored over the transfer designs and the tile fired once again.
Tin Glazed
An opaque white glaze is first painted onto the tile body to form the surface for the painted decorative design.
Design Motifs
Botanical subjects were popular motifs as were landscapes, portraits and everyday life. Literature provided ample subject matter as did morality tales and fables. Animals, mythical creatures, pets, famous people and advertising also appeared on tiles. Ships and “dutch” scenes were also very popular especially with American designers.
Antique Tiles Now
As previously noted, antique tile collecting and use is enjoying a new popularity for many of the same reasons that made these tiles initially popular. Antique tiles remain durable, practical and of course stunningly beautiful. Collectors and decorators alike can find many places to use tiles and the variety of designs, styles and prices make it possible for everyone to find tiles to their liking. So that being said, how does one go about finding, buying and displaying antique tiles?
Finding Antique Tiles
As with finding any antique, finding tiles can take several different paths. One path is to attend antique markets, sales and auctions. Another is to find a specialty tile dealer. Lastly, you can purchase from tile collectors. There are organizations devoted to antique tiles. You can identify sources of tiles through advertisements, on the internet and/or through conversations with other dealers and enthusiasts.
Buying Antique Tiles
The following suggestions prove true when buying any antiques as collectors already know, but for a new collector here are a few “rules” to get you started.
First, buy what you like. If you do so then you will happily enjoy it wherever, whenever and however you use it. Do not buy something because your friend has one, you saw one in a museum, magazine, on the Antiques Roadshow or at auction unless YOU love it.
Arm yourself with knowledge. Start at the library. Even if your library does not have any tile books, you can always request books from other libraries. Also use the internet. You can search on line for antique tiles, look for tile organizations and discover helpful sites devoted to antique tiles. The more you know the better able you are to find and recognize bargains and rarities.
Make friends with a tile dealer. Any experienced and reputable dealer should be very

willing to answer questions, give information and make suggestions about tiles. Additionally, savvy collectors know that dealers are their best resource when hunting for specific and/or rare pieces. A specialist dealer’s job is to know the market, present their product at a fair market value and guarantee their product or quickly go out of business. Finally, knowing a dealer you trust allows you to spend more time enjoying your tiles and less time hunting and researching them!

Buy the best you can afford. Antique tiles are a bit different from other types of ceramics in that they were installed and used. This often means that antique tiles are less than “perfect” when they appear on the market. Small chips, edge nibbles and scuffing do not therefore affect the market value of a tile. Large chunks, breaks and distracting damage such as a nose missing on a portrait tile, however, do affect value. One general rule of thumb is if the damage bothers you then don’t buy it.
Don’t ever buy any antique as an “investment.” It is always lovely when something you have purchased is now selling for more than you paid for it. However, you should never buy an antique thinking that it will escalate in price as the market is notoriously fickle. Also you should always remember that an item is only ever worth what you paid for it until you sell it for more. Remember that the price you see on an item is not always what it will sell for and or even necessarily what that market value really is.
Lastly, trust yourself. You and you alone are the ultimate judge of your taste and style. The very best collections are built by those who know what they like and buy it when they see it.
How to tell old from new
The resurgence in using tiles is not limited to antique tiles. Many contemporary tile producers and artists are again mass producing tiles often in styles similar if not identical to the original antique designs. In order to help a new collector tell the difference here are some things to look at. Most, if not all, antique tiles will show some signs of age. There will be remnants of mortar, fireplace smoke and/or wear on an old tile. Look at the back of a tile for signs of wear and/or any markings as to company and country of manufacture. Another way to help tell an old tile from a new one is the thickness. Although this is not always true, antique tiles are usually heavier and thicker than newly manufactured tiles. Lastly, look at the front of the tile. Again in addition to subtle wear the glazes and designs should help you to distinguish new from old. Old glazes, which used oxides and leads, are lustrous and have more depth than their newer counterparts. Design motifs may also help give you a hint as to age.
As always, when collecting don’t just assume that you know more than the person you are buying from. Whether the tile was originally made in the 1880’s or was just made to look like it was, remember that if a deal looks too good to be true it usually is.
Using Antique Tiles
Antique tiles are miniature works of art and history. So perhaps the most obvious use is to just display them. Tiles can be framed, hung with Velcro or a plate holder, leaned against a wall, put on an easel or even laid flat on a table. Furthermore, antique tiles can be placed for display in areas where other art cannot such as in full sun, potentially damp spaces and on radiators. Tiles also work well in smaller spaces such as beside or over doorways and on windowsills.
Antique tiles can, of course, be reinstalled and the kitchen is the most obvious but not the only room in which they can be used. Behind a sink, stove and/or in countertops are several suggestions as are above baseboard, in cupboard doors, or on soffits. Antique tiles can be incorporated into fireplaces and hearths, in tabletops, bathrooms and showers. Clever decorators have used antique tiles as chair rails, on stair risers, on doors, bedsteads and as floor accents.
Because finding large quantities of the same tile design in good condition in an antique tile is difficult, tile aficionados have discovered that mixing designs and patterns results in a truly custom installation. Antique tiles offer great and varied designs and large numbers are not necessarily needed in order to make huge design impact. Antique tiles work well with other materials; new field tiles, marble, glass tiles, granite, wood, and hammered copper to name a few.
Antique tiles can offer infinite possibilities for collectors and decorators. Many recognized pottery producers (i.e., Wedgwood, Copeland, Grueby) also made tiles which add more items for existing collectors of those company’s goods. Tiles with dogs, literary subjects, children’s themes, etc. also expand collecting options for those who collect items from any of those categories. Furthermore, antique tiles can be reused in the same ways in which they were in the past or combined into new, exciting and uniquely imaginative installations and decorative accents. Whatever you choose to do with an antique tile, finding, appreciating and using antique tiles will enrich your collecting. As a favorite collector of ours says, “Buy an antique tile it will change your life!!”

Organizations and Helpful Websites:

Tile Heritage Foundation

American Art Pottery Association

Tile and Architectural Ceramic Society
About the Authors
Sandie Fowler and Wendy Harvey are antique tile dealers and have been

specializing in tiles for the past fifteen years. They are the owners of Antique Articles and the co-authors of Art Nouveau Tiles c. 1890-1914 by Schiffer Publishing. They are currently at work documenting picture tiles for an upcoming book.


English 6” transfer printed hand colored tile. Geo. Wooliscroft & Sons ca.1890. Designed by R. Caldecott.

English tile 8” Transfer printed and hand colored J&W Wade Co. ca. 1890.
A collection of 6” English transfer and majolica tiles ca.1880 collected over several years is beautifully incorporated into the backsplash of this newly renovated designer kitchen.
English 6” transfer printed and hand colored botanical tile ca. 1880.

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