Tiles have been covering walls and floors in the UK for thousands of years. We thought it would be interesting to look back at some of the highlights and see how the designs and languages can be used to inspire and inform your own ideas, be it a bathroom, a kitchen, a lounge or a walkway.
And once you’ve read up on the history, take a look at our visual tile style guide
that examines the best of the past and puts it in a modern context.
Antiquity: The High Point of Mosaic Laying
Finds from Roman Antiquity are unearthed from time to time that show not only the exquisite beauty of their mosaics, but also the longevity of the medium. Yes, they’ve been unexposed to light and wear for centuries, but the colours remain vibrant, the details intricate. It’s testament to an industry that was already established long before they invaded our outpost of Empire.
You can see excellent mosaics in situ at places like Brading on the Isle of Wight or Bignor in West Sussex, but they can be seen in museums up and down the land. Making a mosaic is a laborious process that can easily go very wrong and be difficult to fix, but if you have the idea and the skills, it can be incredibly rewarding and, who knows, could last a thousand years.
The Dark Ages Give Way to Glazed Expression
As the Medieval period brought new artistry and power to Britain, the opulence was reflected in the building materials used – including tiles. Naturally, the richest organisations were the church and the aristocracy, and it is in such surviving buildings that we can still find examples of wonderful hand-crafted tiles.
One of the most marvellous examples is Winchester Cathedral, whose gorgeous glazed floor tiles date back to the 13th century and can still viewed today. Other tiled floors survive in places such as Neath Abbey in South Wales, Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire and Muchelney Abbey in Somerset. We urge you to see them all for yourself.
The Real Dutch Masters
Pottery aficionados will be familiar with the Dutch city of Delft, where the famous white and blue Delftware style was pioneered in the 16th century. Inspired by Chinese and Japanese craft, Delftware became coveted all over Europe and beyond. Although mainly associated with crockery and ornaments, a healthy Delftware tile industry sprang up, and was much imitated worldwide. Common themes were windmills, maritime scenes and people in traditional Dutch dress, which make the origins of the style unmistakable.
Victoriana and Onwards
During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, tilework took on industrial scale and ambition, and to today’s eyes, it would appear no flat surface was left untiled. The material certainly had practical advantages, namely its strength, durability and ease of cleaning, but in the right hands an area of tilework would become a thing of beauty.
Think about those lovely civic halls whose marvellously tiled floors would stage many a grand event and host dignitaries from far and wide, particularly in the North, where industrialisation sucked wealth and power away from the capital for the first time since the Medieval period. Or the gaudily inviting pubs, decked from gutter to pavement in delightfully vibrant tiles, often coloured to match the brewery’s branding. Wherever you are in the UK, you’re probably never more than a few miles from one that’s still standing, now a local treasure. And when the London Underground started being built, there was only one material to clad the stations with – the white tiles became emblematic of underground travel all over the world.
The tiled look made it into the domestic setting during the 1800s, too. Kitchens, washrooms, hallways, front paths, parlours and sitting rooms would usually be tiled, and the chequerboard pattern that’s synonymous with the Victorian pathway remains popular today, from the humblest terraced house to grand halls.
Are You Not Inspired?
Whatever your project, you’ll find inspiration from the way craftspeople throughout history have used fired clay to create the most wonderful designs and materials that satisfied their own needs for beauty and durability.
Why not have a look out our visual guide
that accompanies this post if you’re still looking for that unique look for a special room? We can’t always match the style exactly, but if you’re simply looking for brilliant ideas, we hope our guide will help you to attain a look that you had never even dreamt of.