Crossing over between maker and historian means that people bring me pots and ceramics to identify, share or comment on. I am always happy to look at sherds from gardens and holidays – and do so to contribute to local history workshops with the local primary school. Sometimes a broken piece arrives with a request to attempt a repair. These were a bit bigger than usual…
They were purchased on Ebay. BA arrived whole but KE and RS failed to make it through the transport system successfully. KE had evidently had previous adventures. They are roughly 40cm square and 10cm deep and made of a heavily grogged fireclay. The tiles are press-moulded with the 1cm high raised lettering cast separately and luted on. Internal ribs and holes in the sides help rigidity, handling and fixing. They covered with a honey-coloured lead glaze on the faces and a rich manganese purple-brown one on the letters.
RS was fairly straightforward to rebuild because all the breaks were new. The sides were more fragmentary than the face – a layer of plaster inside the back helped to secure everything.
KE had had a bad prang in the past whilst still part of the shop. The parts had been secured with cement including building replacements for missing bits of the letter K. The cement had clogged the breaks and they had not been successfully lined up leaving the tile uneven. A pad of cement had been added in the back (twice) with some steel reinforcement which made the thing very heavy. In breaking again the tile has shattered in places resulting in a margarine carton of small shards. Rebuilding it was quite a challenge and it was impossible to realign the pieces to get rid of the ridges and bumps caused by the previous repair. Some of the cement sections of the K had to be replaced as well. No amount of careful paintwork will make it look flat but it looks pretty good, I think.
Working on the tiles their quality becomes more apparent. The lettering itself is formally precise. The underbite on the E and the K and the way the R drops below the line are not accidents. They look more like proper typography. I couldn’t pin it down but the most similar typeface I could find was Baskerville. I began to look for parallels. In this part of the world ceramic shop-fronts are not too common so I wouldn’t expect to find anything similar easily. I understood that these tiles probably came from London or the South East. A trawl on the web was less useful than I imagined to would be – the Brick and Tile Society doesn’t seem very interested in ceramic pubs, butchers and bakers. There were a few broadly similar things dating to the late 19th and early 20th century but the lettering was rarely in high relief. It wasn’t part of the task and I was not planning a practical research project but one evening in February whilst begin driven between Tooting and Wimbledon I happened to notice the honey and purple tiles of a passing pub. The Nelson Arms in Colliers Wood is in fact well known to architectural tile fans once you know to ask for it. Built in 1910 the ground floor is entirely clad in manganese purple moulded tiles with two inset tile-paintings one of Lord Nelson and the other of HMS Victory. Above a band of yellow and purple lettering announces the name of the pub, the brewer Charrington’s and the beers. The upper floor is rendered with a large tile-painting of the Victory on the side elevation. The paintings on the ground floor are signed Carters Poole 1910 (presumably the first floor one is too, I could get up high enough to see).
Carter & Co Ltd of Poole were major figures in the architectural tile business from the late 19th century through into the post-war period. They supplied components and whole facades for buildings all over Britain. These tiles are different from the broken ones in the sense that they are curved and that the typeface is a more art nouveau one with a splendid &. Otherwise they are very similar indeed – I am pretty sure the BAKERS are Carter’s tiles. What is also interesting is that they were founder members of the Design and Industries Association and were sufficiently concerned about print quality and by implication typography to have the Curwen Press design and print marketing material for them. I am not planning to start chasing the typeface used on the Nelson but there is an interesting project for someone to look at Carter’s concern for the look of the urban landscape and engagement with design beyond the purely architectural or decorative.