Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Green men…and other colours
As autumn approaches and the country houses and other attractions that many of my readers like to visit get ready to close their doors for the winter and cover the furniture in dust sheets, what else is there to get us out and about, and stimulate the optic nerve? Plenty of museums stay open all winter, and one of my favourites is the Jackfield Tile Museum, a rich collection of architectural ceramics near Ironbridge (it’s one of the cluster of Ironbridge Museums).* This is not just a Mecca for the tile aficionado. There’s plenty to interest anyone who’s interested in how British design has developed in the 19th and 20th centuries – Gothic revival, art nouveau, modernist, mid-century modern – all the expected movements are here, exemplified in colourful ceramics, many of them so lovingly decorated that they repay a really good look. Not only that, the museum does a good job of explaining how tiles are made and decorated, with video sequences showing encaustic tile making, tube lining, and so on, and, better still, the working Craven Dunill factory is next door, and open to visitors at certain times.
I’ve posted before a couple of my favourite exhibits from Jackfield, some panels from W H Smith shopfronts of the interwar period. Now here’s another winner: a group of silk-screen printed tiles designed by John Piper and made by the Fulham Pottery in 1983. They depict the four seasons but, as the museum’s caption puts it, ‘There is some debate as to which tile depicts which season.’ §
People who like Piper will know that the artist had a fascination with the image of what he called the foliate head – a figure derived from the green man, though Piper’s versions are sometimes female, with foliage emerging from the mouth. This of course is an ancient idea: you can find green men in medieval churches everywhere and the figure of Jack in the Green, who turns up with some Morris sides, their dances marking the turning of the seasons, is clearly a member of the same family. Piper liked such ancient traditions,† applying to them his 20th-century technique which here comprises a combination of bold splashes of colour and flowing, painterly lines. I like this interplay between patches of colour and lines, and I like too the way Piper draws the different mouths of the four heads. I keep thinking of Matisse when I look at these tiles – both the cut-outs, so effectively shown at Tate Modern not long ago, and also the earlier fauvist paintings with their mix of strong colour and bold lines. But whereas Matisse worked on a big scale, Piper has managed to use this sort of boldness on tiles just a few inches across. His designs work well at this size. They’re a little more homely than the French master’s work, true. But looking at the mouth of the final tile, bottom right, Piper has not quite tamed the wild beast.
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*Details and opening times of the museum can be found here.
§I have my own ideas about this, but I’ll let readers decide for themselves how they want to interpret the images.
†’Foliate heads’ also appear on Piper designs for wallpaper and lampshades, and the artist also produced foliate head prints.