Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Battlefield, Shropshire

More tiles, Maw tiles

In the great transformation in church buildings that took place during the 19th century, a key element was the revival of medieval architecture, especially Gothic architecture. Although Gothic buildings had been erected in every century since the end of the Middle Ages,* the Gothic churches of the mid- to late-Victorian periods were Gothic in more thoroughgoing and self-conscious ways. The style became part of the movement to make churches more visually attractive, more moving, more full of symbolic meaning, more redolent of what members of the high-church Oxford movement referred to as the ‘beauty of holiness’. Central to this was the encouragement of church art – carving, metalworking, mural painting, and ceramic tiles. Architects and designers studied the tiles in medieval churches like the ones in my previous post about Buildwas abbey, and copied them or designed similar ones.

Among the companies that made these tiles, combining different coloured clays ands glazes to often beautiful effect, were Minton, Godwin, Craven Dunhill and Maw. Maw and Company started in Worcester but moved to Benthall in Shropshire (not far from Ironbridge) in 1852 and were soon one of the biggest tile-makers.† Maw’s made many of the tiles laid when the church at Battlefield near Shrewsbury (originally built after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403), was restored – indeed virtually rebuilt – in 1861. It had originally been a grand collegiate church in the fields, very near to the site where the battle was fought during the Wars of the Roses. Now its 19th-century wooden roof timbers, carved stalls, stained glass, and tiled floors give it the atmosphere of a grand Victorian college chapel.

These tiled floors combine secular and religious symbolism – coats of arms of numerous English kings, motifs such as crosses, and heraldic symbols of the Corbet family, one of whose homes was in a nearby castle (now vanished) and who paid for the church’s restoration. The tiles in my photograph feature charming squirrels, not just a favourite of those who like English mammals but also one of the Corbets’ heraldic beasts. A squirrel forms the family crest – the beast at the top of the coat of arms, just above the shield. Here on the floor of the Corbet chapel in the church at Battlefield, squirrels sport in quartets, occupying roundels made up of four tiles. This use of four tiles to make a roundel was a medieval trick, and the little crosses in the corners of the tiles and the cross-like motifs that abound in this floor were also drawn from medieval sources.

If the imagery has a distinctly medieval feel to it, the crispness of the tiles, their deep colours, and the hard, complete surfaces make them unmistakably Victorian. So does another feature that we do not usually see in medieval work – the name of the tiles’ makers, ‘MAW’, in beautiful ornate lettering, the ends of the cross strokes of the ‘M’ and ‘W’ elegantly looped, the strokes terminating in not a bifurcated but a trifurcated shape, and the ends of the word filled out with curlicues. The company’s pride in their work is understable, I think. Our Victorian predecessors, painstaking and brilliant when they were given scope to shine, deserve to be remembered.

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* For convenience, I take the Middle Ages to end in 1500. Another date used is 1485, when the Wars of the Roses ended and the first Tudor king, Henry VII, began his reign.

† With Maw and Company at Benthall and Craven Dunhill in nearby Jackfield, the encaustic tile industry was strong in Shropshire. Craven Dunhill still make tiles in their works at Jackfield, where the factory and the adjacent tile museum can be visited. The museum is a cornucopia of tile history and visual delight.

1 comment:

Hels said...

Right on! The style became part of the movement to make churches more visually attractive, more moving and more full of symbolic meaning. Especially since the middle and late 19th century must have been a tough and rather ugly life for a majority of the nation to survive. It was essential, I would say, for stained glass and tiled floors to give all congregants a sense of peace and meaning.