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A Curatorial Intern’s Journal: Deciphering Clues from Ceramic Tiles

Recently, the Museum of Anthropology received a donation of British ceramic tiles, circa 1880–1900, from Judith Stoffman. As an intern, I often research MOA’s collections to find out more information on objects. Shortly before the Museum’s temporary closure due to COVID-19, I was presented with the collection of 42 tiles, and given the task of providing more information on them. Despite now working from home, I have been able to continue research into the collection by using books borrowed from the UBC Library before it was closed, talking with experts and, of course, the internet.

Maw & Co encaustic tile, front view. Britain, circa 1880-1900. Photo by Anya Maves.
Maw & Co encaustic tile, back view. Britain, circa 1880-1900. Photo by Anya Maves.

I started research into the collection by looking at physical differences between the tiles. Five of the tiles immediately stood out: they had similar designs that appeared to be inlaid, were much thicker than the rest and three had a peculiar pattern of holes in the back. After some reading, I learned about the techniques employed by British tile makers in the 19th century; specifically, that there was a revival of Gothic styling and encaustic technique. This meant that rather than painting on a pattern, different colours of clay were pressed into a mold to form the pattern design. The tiles’ thickness came from a technique of sandwiching a layer of cheaper clay in the middle to prevent warping and shrinking when it was fired in the kiln. Additionally, the holes pressed into the back were to help with drying, which could take up to three weeks (Durbin 2015, 47). This technique was largely replaced by dust pressing, which created tiles that were less volatile, dried faster and were not as prone to warping. Most of the tiles in the collection were made using this method, which can be distinguished by their decreased thickness.

Tile depicting Punica granatum (pomegranate), identified by researchers at UBC Botanical Garden.

Next, I looked at what the tiles were depicting and noted that many of them have flower designs. Identifying them was a job for flora specialists, so I contacted the staff at the UBC Botanical Garden for their expert opinion. Despite the artistic liberties that had been taken in portraying the flowers, our colleagues at the UBC Botanical Garden were able to classify almost all of them. With that information, I can now research the symbolism of what the tiles depicted within Victorian-era Britain.

Diamond-shaped registration stamp on the back side of a tile. Photo by Anya Maves.

The research can sometimes feel a bit like detective work. For instance, on the backside of some tiles is a diamond-shaped stamp. This turned out to be the registration mark of the British Patent Office, issued for the design on the front of tile. The stamps have letters or sometimes numbers, depending on when it was registered. Using a legend of registration marks I found in a book, I was able to decipher dates. On one tile, the ‘L’ on the right-hand side represents the year 1882 and the ‘G’ at the bottom of the diamond corresponds to February. This does not necessarily mean that the tile was produced in February of 1882, but it does provide a more precise time frame of the pattern on the front.

There is still research that I am in the process of doing, but once it is compiled, the information will be uploaded into MOA’s online catalogue, MOA CAT, so that it can be accessed alongside the tiles.

Notes: Durbin, Lesley. Architectural Tiles: Conservation and Restoration. London: Routledge, 2015.