Encaustic ceramic tile making
Manufacture of encaustic tiles from unglazed plastic ceramic (this doesn’t include cement, dust pressed or surface decorated ‘encaustic effect’ tiles).
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Shropshire, Kent, Sussex
|Origin in the UK
|First used in the 13th and 14th Centuries However, they were at their height of popularity in the 19th Century as part of the Gothic revival.
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
4 skilled makers at Craven Dunnill Jackfield Ltd. who can carry out all processes
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|1-5 artisan makers
|Current no. of trainees
|1 apprentice at Craven Dunnill Jackfield Ltd.
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
The earliest encaustic tiles in Britain date to the mid 13th century and were a progression from earlier “mosaic” floor tiles, and were mainly confined to monastic and royal buildings. The technique is likely to have come from France where there was a thriving encaustic tile industry from about 1200 AD.
By the 1450s the industry was beginning to decline and with the dissolution of the monasteries, the art became completely defunct. Changes in taste also speeded the decline and the technique was to remain virtually unused until the Gothic Revival of the 1830s and ‘40s. In 1835 Samuel Wright filed a patent for the manufacture of inlaid tiles for which he sold the rights to Chamberlain of Worcester and Minton and Co. Chamberlain went straight ahead with production and by 1836/7 were producing encaustic tiles for churches and stately homes. Herbert Minton held back and decided to perfect the technique before selling his first commercial floor to the Temple Church in London in 1842. He also made gifts of a number of major floors to large landowners and wealthy churches which brought him much success in this product.
During the Victorian era, many other makers started making encaustic tiles and in 1868 a further patent was filed for the manufacture of encaustic tiles by the dust-pressing technique which continued as late as the 1930s and a few were even made post World War II. By the early 1950s, the technique had again died out and was only redeveloped as the need to replace many of the early Gothic Revival floors occurred during the 1960s and ‘70s. This was spearheaded by H & R Johnson who after much experimentation supplied replacement tiles to The Palace of Westminster and the Capitol Building, USA.
A few smaller studio makers started to re-create medieval and Victorian tiles in the 1970s and ‘80s including Chris Cox and Diana Hall. Chris Cox went on to head the encaustic tile department at Craven Dunnill Jackfield, who are now the leading manufacturers of these tiles in the world.
(Chris Blanchett, 30/04/2023)
The encaustic tiles made at Craven Dunnill Jackfield Ltd. are pressed from plastic clay onto a hand-carved plaster mould which sits inside a mould box. The pressing is either by hand or under a power press. Once pressed the mould and tile are ejected from the box and left for 5-10 minutes for the plaster to begin to dry the clay. The mould and clay tile are turned over onto a board and the mould lifted away. The tile is then filled with a liquid slip(s) of contrasting colour either in one go to create a two-colour tile, or in stages to create a polychromatic tile. The whole tile is then dried for approximately one week after which the surplus clay is milled and hand scraped from the surface to reveal the inlaid pattern(s). The tile is then fired in a gas kiln before final cutting to size is carried out on a wet-cut diamond saw.
Reproduction medieval encaustic tiles production techniques
Original medieval encaustic tiles were manufactured by impressing a carved wooden stamp into the surface of an unfired red clay tile and filling the depressions with white slip (pipe) clay, allowing the tile to dry to the leather hard stage and then scraping back the surface to a reasonably flat, level finish. Lead oxide (often with impurities, accidental or deliberate) was then sprinkled over the surface and the tile single-fired in a wood burning kiln to c1000˚C.
Wear and tear on the wooden stamps, and impurities and inclusions in the clay and the glaze gave a very variable finish to the fired tile and it is these characteristics that modern reproduction methods attempt to emulate. This is achieved by adding various crushed, fired clay or other impurities to the clay body and metal oxides added to the glaze, particularly copper and iron, which give green or brown translucent colouration. The technique is very hands-on, much as the original manufacture would have been although gas or electric firing is now the general rule.
- Plaster mould carving – this is done by hand and is also considered a critically endangered craft see Industrial Pottery
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Training and recruitment issues – there are currently no apprenticeships in ceramics although there is a Level 3 Craft Assistant (Ceramics) Apprenticeship currently under development (see Training Providers below).
- Training and recruitment issues – There is often a gap between expectation and reality in tile making. This form of tile making is a very ‘hands on’ skill that uses almost no technological input. However, most new potential entrants come with design degrees and want to be able to use their IT and design skills. This makes it challenging to recruit the right people for the job.
- Market issues – Whilst there is a continuing demand for encaustic tiles, there are often issues around funding and procurement for heritage and restoration projects.
- Supply of raw materials– Some clay ingredients, such as lead and barium are getting difficult to source. This can be due to safety concerns and/or a lack of demand from the ceramics industry to make them commercially viable.
- Supply of tools and equipment – specialist equipment is getting difficult to source as they are no longer manufactured and much of the used/vintage machinery is shipped to overseas companies.
- Legislative issues – there are some Health & Safety restrictions around materials handling.
- Brexit – this has led to difficulties in sourcing materials and markets, and has led to rising costs.
- Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST)
- Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
- Prince’s Foundation
Craftspeople currently known
- Diana Hall (retired) – makes medieval reproduction inlaid tiles
- Karen Slade, Company of Artisans
- Aldershaw Tiles
- Priory Tiles
- Chris Cox, Craven Dunnill Jackfield Ltd
There are currently no apprenticeships in ceramics or tile making although there is a Level 3 Craft Assistant (Ceramics) Apprenticeship currently under development.
On the job training
On the job training and apprenticeships take place at Craven Dunnill Jackfield Ltd, Shropshire.
Degrees and postgraduate study
There are a number of degrees that include an element of ceramics. These are often design based degrees in Ceramics & Glass. These include:
- University of Creative Arts Farnham https://www.uca.ac.uk/study/courses/ba-ceramics-glass/
- Phrifysgol Metropolitan Caerdydd (Cardiff Metropolitan University) https://www.cardiffmet.ac.uk/artanddesign/courses/Pages/baceramics.aspx
Some universities offer an MA in Ceramics or Ceramics & Glass. These include:
- Staffordshire University https://www.staffs.ac.uk/course/ceramics-ma
- Royal College of Art https://www.rca.ac.uk/study/programme-finder/ceramics-glass-ma/
- Chris Blanchett, ’20th Century Decorative British Tiles’ (Schiffer Publishing 2006)