There are so few art nouveau buildings in this country but many homes around 1900 would have possessed beautiful examples of the art in the form of ceramic tiles. I used to collect them. They were used as inserts in fireplaces, as splash backs on washstands, panels in doorways and even as teapot stands. Tiles provided a relatively cheap and easy access to designers of the day such as William Morris, Walter Crane, Leon Solon and William de Morgan. The fourth tile below is a favourite, designed by Lewis F Day, a prominent member of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Similar tiles can be seen as decorative panels in porches around the Golden Triangle. Whitehall Road and Kingsley Road have good examples.
The Norwich foundry of Barnard Bishop and Barnards was internationally recognised for its Aesthetic Movement fireplaces for which Thomas Jeckyll had designed the japonaise motifs cast into the surface of their products. But by the time Jeckyll died in 1881 fashions had moved on and tiled inserts had become a major decorative element.
William de Morgan designed his most popular tile for Barnard Bishop and Barnards’ Norwich Ironworks. The fanned carnation is known as the BBB design in recognition of the fact that Barnards had given him his first large order for tiles to be placed in their cast-iron fireplaces .
Great Yarmouth’s wonderful Hippodrome (1903) displayed these Art Nouveau letter tiles .
Similar tiles can be found in Norwich’s Haymarket Chambers, built by George Skipper (1901-2); these are incorporated into the facade above the narrow entrance to the Lamb Inn, situated in the courtyard behind.
It is not known who made the tiles but a few years earlier Skipper commissioned Doulton’s WJ Neatby – of Harrod’s Food Hall fame – to produce these art nouveau tiles for The Royal Arcade (see previous article).
Neatby decorated the spandrels of the central crossing of the arcade with tiles depicting a young woman who, in preliminary drawings, was intended to be holding a sign of the zodiac. In Brooklyn, at about the same time as the arcade was built (1899), Zaida Ben-Yusuf produced what appears to be a self-portrait of a woman contemplating a pomegranate. The similarities are striking.
But recently, I saw this pressed leather panel decorating a cupboard in a junk shop. The figure is based on the 1896 Zodiac poster by Alphonse Mucha, surely the original inspiration for the models above?
The 2016 exhibition at Tate Britain, ‘Painting with Light’  examined the cross-referencing between early photographs and painting. In it, Ben-Yusuf’s photograph was compared with Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s painting of ‘Proserpine’, Empress of Hades(1874). Jupiter agreed to release Proserpine back to Earth provided she hadn’t tasted Hades’ fruit: but she had eaten a single seed. As the exhibition notes suggest, Rosetti may have been examining his feelings for his muse Jane, the wife of his friend William Morris, the model for his painting and his soon-to-be lover.
Patterns on tiles can be made in several ways. Raised outlines can be impressed on the blank during manufacture but tube-lining depends on the direct hand of the artist. For this, semi-liquid clay is squeezed through a nozzle onto a blank tile to form a raised outline and the areas between are then painted with coloured glazes before firing.
The Norwich Heritage Open Days 2016 gave access to two tiled fireplaces not normally seen by the public. The first is in Carrow Abbey. The C12th abbey was founded as a Benedictine nunnery and was considerably renovated (1899-1909) for mustard magnate J J Colman by Edward Boardman Jr, who had married into the Colman family.
This neo-Gothic fireplace has been decorated with beautiful, large, raised tiles in the Iznik style that had such an influential effect on William de Morgan during his ‘Persian’ phase. However, these tiles are not flat but embossed and there is nothing to indicate that de Morgan produced such moulded tiles.
A prolonged trawl through the internet produced a tile in the identical pattern and colourway . The labels says it is a Qajar Iznik-style tile, origin Iran, ca C19th. So, not by de Morgan but direct from his source of inspiration.
The second ‘Heritage Day’ fireplace is in Curat’s House (for online tour see ). The house at numbers 3-4 Haymarket – once Back’s pub and wine bar, now Fatface – is a well-preserved timber-framed medieval building secreted behind a later facade.
The late C15th-early C16th house was home to John Curat, mercer. Curat’s House was built on the site of an earlier house with a vaulted crypt that had been part of the Old Jewry – the Jewish quarter since the arrival of the Normans . The overhanging jetties of the timber building are now disguised at ground floor level by the C20th shopfront and the upper floors by Georgian brickwork.
The Delft tiles in the first floor fireplace are described as ‘original’ but tin-glazed blue and white tiles have been made ever since the C16th, first in The Netherlands then in England. Delftware can be difficult to date with accuracy, as the tile below demonstrates…
Another hidden gem: to the side of the covered courtyard in the ancient Maid’s Head Hotel in Tombland is a small, panelled Jacobean bar. It was supposed to have been the innkeeper’s snug and contains this lovely Dutch-tiled fireplace.
In contrast to ceramic tiles, where the decoration is painted as a surface glaze, encaustic tiles were made by pressing a pattern into wet clay then filling the impression with different-coloured liquid clays, or by compressing clay dusts under high pressure. Encaustic tiles had been around since the medieval period but their popularity peaked in the second half of the C19th, during the Gothic Revival. A fine example can be seen at the chapel of the former Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, designed by Thomas Henry Wyatt and Edward Boardman in 1879-84.
Two identical marble tile mosaics, one in the Guildhall (left) and the other in the Norwich Technical Institute (later the School of Art, now Norwich University of the Arts, right), are thought to have been made around 1900 by craftsmen from the Italian community living in Ber Street. The two City Arms are identical but the backgrounds are different. The 28 bees could reasonably represent the busy students of the Technical Institute but what was meant by the 22 shrimp-like motifs in the Guildhall (anyone?).
About a decade later (1912), the School of Art at Great Yarmouth was designed by JW ‘Concrete’ Cockrill. Just before the restoration of this proto-modernist building in 2010 this fine tiled facade had been obliterated with white paint . In contrast to the Art Nouveau curlicues on the Yarmouth Hippodrome , built by his son RS Cockrill in 1903, these tiles form an austerely geometric pattern reminiscent of the Viennese Secession.
Thanks to: Hannah Henderson (Museum of Norwich at The Bridewell), Andy Maule (for the Carrow Abbey photo) and Michelle Ivimey and Steve Ryan (of RMG Ltd, for access to the old N&N chapel).
The Norwich Society helps people enjoy and appreciate the history and character of Norwich. Visit: www.thenorwichsociety.org.uk