Friday, December 18, 2015
A few weeks ago the Resident Wise Woman and I visited the Jackfield Tile Museum in Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire. Housed in the former Craven Dunnill factory (visitors can see tiles being made in the adjacent buildings), this place is a visual feast, packed with tiles from the most interesting designers of the 19th and 20th centuries, from William de Morgan to John Piper, and the products of all the major British manufacturers, from Doulton to Carter's. Single tiles, panels of tiles, entire tiled room sets: the museum is a joy.
My picture shows one example from the Jackfield museum. Its cheerful and Christmasey image is on a tile produced by Maw and Co, one of the most prominent tile manufacturers in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. Maws started in Worcester in 1850, before moving in 1862 to the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, where there was plenty of good clay suitable for tile-making. They produced millions of architectural tiles and were especially famous in their early days for their encaustic tiles, which were widely used in churches, public buildings, and houses. They also made colourful pictorial tiles like this one, which were sometimes used, in the late-19th century, to decorate furniture.
This tile is one of several along the back of a washstand. Its combination of red-breasted robin and red-berried holly is very appealing: one can't be surprised that robins and holly have become symbolic of the Christmas season. They did so in the last decades of the Victorian period, the era when the Christmas card developed (it was officially invented in 1843 and was commercially widely available from the 1870s onwards); Christmas cards greatly helped popularize all the images now associated with Christmas. Their arrival and rise in popularity coincides pretty closely with the heyday of the decorative tile in England.
Some readers might find things to take exception to in this picture. The holly is a variety with variegated leaves, not the traditional deep green stuff that we find growing wild in England – but variegated holly is common enough in gardens. The robin* is rather sleeker of build than what we think of as typical – but the last couple of robins I saw in the garden did in fact look less plump than those on many a high-street card. I think of this robin, then, as an image from the garden, and offer it, with my seasonal greetings, to all my readers.
- - -
*And, of course, it's a European robin (Erithacus rubecula), which is very different from the North American robin (Turdus migratorius). Even now I can remeber my puzzlement as a small child when, watching the film Mary Poppins, the bird that popped up during the song 'A spoonful of sugar' ('A robin feathering her nest') looked nothing like the European robins that I'd seen in our English garden.