I keep a large collection of Art Nouveau tiles in the loft of my parents' house (in spite of multiple hints that they would be much better off in my own loft!). I collected them when prices were still low. In spite of my affection for the tiles and their considerable decorative value I have never made a push to learn about them. I saw this in a Shire catalogue and decided to plug some of the gaps in my feeble knowledge.
The first thing that one notices about this book is the quality. The photographs are in full colour, there are lots of them and they are lovely. The paper is glossy.
The contents are as follows:
- Arts and Crafts Inspirations
- Decoration Techniques
- Manufacturers and Designers
- Styles and Subject Matter
- Architectural Applications
- Further Reading
The tiles discussed are exclusively British.
The introduction launches the reader into the artistic, design and architectural context within which Art Nouveau developed and explains how this differed in England, Scotland and mainland Europe. This is partly due to the variety of existing traditions and partly because the social theory underlying them was so polarized. The founding homes of Art Nouveau were probably Brussels and Paris, originating with architects like Victor Horta and Hector Guimard. British designers were more ambivalent towards the new style. Opinions were so diverse that one sculptor said of Art Nouveau that it was "absolute nonsense" whereas Liberty's helped to promote it. But whilst the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements prospered Art Nouveau never achieved the prominence in England which it attained overseas.
The second chapter discusses the role of the Arts and Crafts movement in the development of tile design in the second half of the nineteenth century, describing their "anti-industrial world of medievalism" and giving a great insight into approaches to design and craft. Emphasis was placed on local materials using local labour and hand-making items. The expenses associated with this philosophy meant that there was a limited market for their products. It is fascinating to see how an anti-industrial attitude could not compete in an increasingly industrialized and market-driven world.
In the third chapter commercial tile production and decorative techniques are explored. As the author says, understanding the basics of different techniques used does provide a fuller appreciation of individual achievements.
The chapter focusing on manufacturers and designers explains how Art Nouveau tiles found their way into the mainstream parts of the ceramic manufacturers' outputs. Both noted and less well known manufacturers are listed. All had their own in-house artists and each of the better known manufacturers had a specific USP - the services of a particular designer, a theme specialization or a particular style or technique. The more established companies were able to attract well known designers to create designs for them. Designers employed include Alphonse Mucha, Voysey, Walter Crane and Lewis F Day, all of whom designed tiles for Pilkington's.
The chapter on Styles and Subjects begins with a description of the inspiration provided by the natural world and the design process which reduced the natural structures to stylized versions. Often the stylized form is thoroughly recognizable but some are heavily geometric or very abstract. Single 6-inch tiles could bear individual designs and could be divided into components so that a single tile could have four or five elements. Alternatively, a single design could travel over many tiles. Most Art Nouveau tiles were produces between 1900 and 1914 but some were still produced after the First World War.
In Architectural Applications Van Lemmen points out that Art Nouveau as an integrated architectural vision or ethos never occurred in England, and that in Scotland the closest to European achievements was Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Only a few British architects were sympathetic to the style and incorporate some of its ideas. William J. Neatby was the most prominent and some of his works are discussed. Examples are given of both spectacular and prosaic uses of tiles in buildings. The author makes the point that these tiles were increasingly popular due to the fact that they were durable, hygienic, easy to clean and that improvements in industrial techniques made them easy to produce. They were used in commercial and civic buildings as well as households. Both "off the peg" and customized tiles were offered by manufacturers for architects. Many ordinary homes had tiled fireplaces and porches at the turn of the century.
The chapter discussing the collecting of tiles provides advice about what to look for when asking the basic questions - who was the manufacturer? What does the design represent? When was it made? Etc. The author points out that the back can be even more helpful than the front and explains what to look for. Some of the tiles produced for the mass market are frustratingly anonymous but others contain useful information. Although most were made before 1914 there are modern reproductions which can confuse potential collectors. This chapter also provides advice about restoring, cleaning, displaying, storing and cataloguing collections.
The Further Reading section provides a short list of 11 publications and three websites. This is followed by an Index.
Overall this is a very attractive and very informative little book with some terrific photographs. Presumably due to the size and number of the photographs the text is necessarily somewhat brief over the 64 pages. I loved the photographs but I would have liked to see more text in the chapters - a difficult balance to strike. But this is a minor complaint. The author's knowledge and enthusiasm are obvious and the writing is articulate and clear. As with most of the Shire books that I have read this is a very useful starting point. I enjoyed it greatly and it has made up my mind to dig out my tiles and finish my project!