Over the past 50 years, property consultant John Scott assembled one of the UK’s finest private collections of British decorative arts. Focused on the years 1830-1930, he bought silver, ceramics, fine oak carving, stained glass, delicate blown glass, cabinetry, textiles and metalwork. More than anything, however, he collected tiles.
“I liked their cheapness,” says Scott, who turned his attention to tiles in 1974, when he lost a fortune. “Beautiful gothic designs by revered names such as AWN Pugin or John Pollard Seddon would go for 25p. Tiles are easy to carry, easy to display. If I got four together, I would put them in a frame.” Today, however, single Victorian tiles can fetch hundreds and even thousands of pounds. In October, for example, Bonhams sold a set of 12 c1880 faience bird-subject tiles by Doulton Lambeth for £2,500, while a mahogany framed panel from the same period, called Days of the Week and designed by Ellen E Haughton for Minton, fetched £1,875 on an estimate of £600-£800.
Scott recently gave 1,300 tiles and 310 tile panels to the Jackfield Tile Museum in Ironbridge, at the heart of Shropshire’s Victorian ceramic industry. The museum is part of the Craven Dunnill Jackfield production facility, founded in 1872 – just one of the many hundreds of small tile-producing factories that sprang up all over Britain in the 19th century, feeding a craze for colour and shine. For the Victorians, tiles represented affordable splendour. Whether hand-painted, stencilled or printed with photographic transfers, whether decorated with geometric patterns, medieval heraldry, flora or fauna, no British building was complete without these adornments, often by top designers. As tastes changed in the 20th century, Victorian tiles were often taken up and destroyed. Those around today owe their survival to luck or the good judgment of canny builders.
For collectors, both the designer and the maker are important. Mark Oliver, 20th-century decorative-arts specialist at Bonhams, pinpoints certain Minton tiles by named artists, as well as tiles from Doulton Lambeth, Maw & Co, Craven Dunnill, Wedgwood and Pilkington. Pugin designed his famous encaustic tiles – used in the Houses of Parliament – for Minton, and Voysey designed tiles for Pilkington. “Christopher Dresser designed for Minton and William Godwin [of Lugwardine], which in my view were the best companies,” adds Scott.
But the name that commands the most attention – and the highest prices – is William De Morgan, “the kingpin of English tile makers” who was a lifelong friend of William Morris and a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. His tiles, with their fantastical flowers, birds and other creatures, and their deep, lustrous glazes, are instantly recognisable, and single examples can fetch anywhere from £200 to £2,500, says Oliver. And sometimes more: in 2012 Salisbury auction house Woolley & Wallis sold an unusual blue and white De Morgan tile, featuring a kingfisher catching a fish, to a UK collector for the record price of £6,300, and in 2014 two large De Morgan Sands End Pottery Chameleon tiles, painted in shades of green and blue, went for £7,320.
“These days I only buy De Morgan – those at the top of the tree,” says Michael Whiteway of Haslam & Whiteway, a specialist decorative-arts dealer based in Kensington. “Only De Morgan could get those Islamic colours.” He sells single tiles as works of art (£150-£1,800), but also already incorporated into objets (a tray depicting flowers is on sale for £850), or as side panels for fireplaces, such as the bold, floral “BBB” tiles named after the Barnard, Bishop and Barnard foundry.
“These pieces represent, on a very small scale, the excellence of Victorian design and enterprise,” says Martin Levy, director of H Blairman & Sons, which currently has six De Morgan Flying Leaf tiles from the Jon Catleugh collection, at £400 each.
“My favourite tile is a De Morgan Dodo design in triple lustre,” says collector Chris Robinson, who mainly buys contemporary art by the likes of Banksy and Damien Hirst, but also has four suits of armour and 250 De Morgan tiles. “The most I have spent for a single tile is £2,300. I display them on the wall, on stands and have inserted some into cast-iron mirrors.”
Indeed, interest has turned from collecting tiles to using them once more, and a new appetite for colour in interiors is lending Victorian tiles, with their unmatchable lead glazes, a contemporary value. Dealer Jake Ellis, who runs the immensely informative website Tile Heaven and has clients all over the world, says that embossed art nouveau tiles are currently the most in demand. Some customers will buy 20 to 30 “to make a feature above the Aga”; his set of 12 c1880 Japanese-inspired aesthetic movement tiles (£2,250) featuring birds and butterflies painted in gold and platinum is perfectly on trend.
“I often use De Morgan tiles to make up a fireplace surround,” says London-based interior designer Veere Grenney, who has used them in both a Lutyens-designed house and a Georgian house with a Tudor wing. If he has 24, he might make a square surrounded by contemporary tiles in a complementary colour. “Your attention is then drawn to their quality. The only difficulty is finding enough.”