New to tiles?

Here's the place to start, with a short and simple guide which will soon have you out and about on the tiles! Click on the photographs to enlarge them, then use your browser's back button to return to this page.

Take a Virtual Town/City Tour to Newcastle upon Tyne, Poole in Dorset and Seville

or see examples of Britain's Ceramic Pubs, Porch Tiles and Modern Murals

Geometric tiled floor

So just what is a tile? Put simply, a tile is a shaped segment of clay which has been fired - or baked - which can then be used to pave floors or decorate walls. The most important early users of tiles in Britain were the medieval abbeys, whose pavements used either coloured geometric shaped tiles in mosaic patterns or.....

Reddy-brown tiles

.....square tiles with designs of a contrasting colour indented into the surface. They were often reddy-brown with the design in buff, and the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey has one of the most famous of these floors, its designs including images of kings.

Tin glazed tiles

Production of these decorated tiles became a major industry which survived until the middle of the 16th century, when colourful tin-glazed tiles began to be imported from Holland. They became very popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, and were known as delftware after one of the most important manufacturing centres.

Delft tiled fireplace

Eventually delftware tiles were produced in England, notably in Liverpool, in addition to being imported, and were used widely for decoration of walls and fireplaces, especially during the 18th century but also well into the 19th.

Gothic tiles

The 19th century gothic revival encouraged an interest in all things medieval, including inlaid tiles. Herbert Minton of Stoke-on-Trent was the most important of the early Victorian tile manufacturers; he perfected the production process and took many of his early designs  from medieval tiles, including some at Westminster Abbey.Minton often worked with the Gothic Revival architect A. W. N. Pugin, who designed tiles for Minton's and used the products in houses and churches which he designed. Minton tiles were used for many significant commissions, notably the Palace of Westminster.

Tile press

The crucial invention which allowed the mass-production of tiles was made in 1840, when Richard Prosser discovered that it was possible to compact dust clay using a press, and thence to make tiles, rather than using damp plastic clay. The tiles were less moist, giving a faster drying time, and warped less during firing.

Tiled wash-stand

The great Victorian tile boom began around 1850 and continued until the end of the century. Many tilemaking firms were involved, and tiles appeared in almost all types of building and even on furniture, for instance wash-stands and dressing tables.

Tile works

Minton's of Stoke evolved into several other firms including Minton Hollins, while another major concern, Maw & Co, moved to Jackfield, Shropshire in 1883; the Craven Dunnill works were already there. Doulton's worked from Lambeth in London, and Burmantofts was the trademark of a Leeds firm.

Glazed ceramic

These firms made not only tiles but glazed faience, a type of glazed ceramic slab which could be manufactured in shapes to suit varied buildings; it was often used on pubs and - in this case - shopping arcades. Burmantofts were particular specialists in this ware.

Terracotta building

And then there was terracotta, also made in large blocks for exterior use but unglazed, and coming in colours ranging from buff through salmon-pink to deep reddy-brown. Specialist terracotta makers included two Ruabon firms, Dennis and Edwards, as well as Hathern from Loughborough, although many of the larger tile manufacturers also produced both glazed faience and terracotta.

Tiles

There was a vast range of techniques available for decorating tiles, from hand-painting (with its many variations) through printing, which included transfer printing and even photographic methods as well as silk-screen, to relief decoration (including tube-lining) and more besides. The exact technique used can be difficult to identify.

Tile picture

Tiles were used both inside buildings and outside, as a hard- wearing surface and as a decorative wall or floor covering. Buildings ranging from pubs to offices to hospitals to shops to theatres and practically anything else were decorated with tiles around the turn of the century. Tilemaking was an important industry, with many manufacturers having significant overseas trade.

Tiled pub

And tiles (or, indeed terracotta and glazed faience) could easily be personalised, given the logo of a company or the initials of a person; this made them most attractive to, for instance, brewers, who could brand all their own pubs using distinctive ceramic facades rather than simple signs. Shop chains, for instance butchers, fish shops, dairies and florists also used ceramic logos.

Art Nouveau tiles

From about 1895 to 1910, Art Nouveau tiles became popular, with most of the larger manufacturers making tiles or panels in the style. In a radical departure, designer W. J. Neatby of Doulton's produced several Art Nouveau ceramic facades and interiors in striking colours, including Harrod's and Bristol's Everard Building.

Tiled picture

Following the First World War, plain tiling became more fashionable than pictorial tiles, but some firms, such as Carter's of Poole, continued to specialise in decorative designs. Duncan's of Glasgow, established in 1865,  produced a huge number of tube-lined panels for local shops, almost all of which have now disappeared, although this 1920s Buttercup Dairy panel survives.

Fish tiles

A few smaller firms also managed to prosper between the wars, including Dunsmore of London, who produced unusual stencilled and sprayed tiles showing birds and fish. This example was used to enliven the exterior of a housing development in Camden.

Tiled building

After the Second World War, tilemaking resumed only slowly, and manufacturers attempted to cut costs by mechanising production. In the 1950s the design emphasis was on geometric patterns, but some figurative designs were still made. During the 1950s-1970s tiles were popular as a facing material for public buildings.

1980's tiles

By the 1980s tiles were undergoing a revival as small-scale craft tilemakers set up thriving businesses. Community projects, where local people designed and made tiles, became popular. Reviving an old tradition, tiles were increasingly used to decorate hospitals.

Millennium tiled panel

At the turn of the millennium, tiles - colourful, individual, stylish and fashionable - have become almost as popular as they were a century ago. They are again being used to decorate homes and proclaim company identities, with a vast range of designs available in many differing techniques. These are tiles for a new century, but still with the old virtues which originally made them popular.