After nearly thirty years of living in the same house in west London, we are due to renovate our battered kitchen. Our new kitchen-dining room will be simple, plain, white, functional and utilitarian in look, with little fuss but maximum space and light. It is a very long room, measuring about 10 metres in length and 5 metres in width, with tall ceilings and a giant kitchen dresser on one side filled with artisanal glasssware, antique pottery and a nod to 1950’s retro enamelware here and there as the only splashes of colour. A long refectory table with church benches is positioned on one side of the room, and on the other there will be a big old, wooden work table (rescued from a monastery in Scotland) with a very worn and loved old marble top and a washing up, kitchen sink area, with two old butlers sinks and draining boards. This whole section of the wall needs to be tiled, and there are three types of tile designs I have been pouring over in the last few weeks to decide what sort of look I want to create.
Ceramic, handpainted tiles have always been one of the easiest ways of introducing colour, pattern and interest to kitchen walls, as well as bringing a washable functionality that all cooks need. I intend to either commission or buy just a few really intricately patterned tiles (owing to cost as well as aesthetics) which will then be set alongside plain white or monochrome tiles, so as not to make the wall look too busy. I cannot afford lots of handpainted tiles, but by placing just a few strategically, I can create focal points amidst a sea of plain ivory ones.
These are my three favourite styles so far: Iznik, William de Morgan and Welbeck.
In 16th Century Turkey, during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, a thriving tile making industry flourished in the regions of Iznik and Kutahya. Craftsmen used used local white clay to make square, hexagonal, pointed star or even cross shaped tiles, which were decorated with black, blue, green and turquoise dyes, overglazed and then fired in wood burning kilns. The patterns they depicted show birds, flowers, geometric patterns, trees and mythical figures. The tiles were transported on horseback to the nearby port and then shipped to the capital, Istanbul, where the tiles were used to decorate the walls of palaces as well as on facades, domes, courtyards, libraries and panels.
The most important colour to be found on any Iznik tile is red. Red was a very difficult dye to work with on under glazing, as during firing, the colour would often mute to brown. The Turkish ceramicists were at the cutting edge of new technology, and to this day, the vibrancy of the red on their tiles is testimony to their skill.
In 1600 there were 300 tile making workshops in Iznik, but by 1648 only 9 remained. The Turkish empire was under threat, the colours and glazes had become muted, the royal courts could no longer afford patronage to pay for the best dyes and the craftsmen who continued the trades were dying out. As the quality of the wares declined, the industry lost its cutting edge. Today, Iznik tiles can be found at auctions and in antique markets, fetching hundreds of pounds per tile. Even just a few can brighten up a wall with great elegance and individuality.
William de Morgan Tiles
William de Morgan was born in 1839 in a family of French Huguenot descent. He trained at the Royal Academy and collaborated with William Morris for many years. He was one of Britain’s most accomplished ceramicists, during an era now referred to as the Arts and Crafts Movement.
He based his patterns on Mediaeval designs, Persian patterns, fantastical birds, fish and flowers. He was extremely influenced by the Iznik style of decoration, and worked mainly with dark blues, turquoises, manganese purples, greens, Indian reds and lemon yellows. In 1907 he ceased to work at his Fulham pottery as demand for his tiles declined, with new trends and fashions opening up in design. He died in 1917 of trench fever. His work can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the William Morris gallery.
This is my favourite modern tile decorating and manufacturing workshop, run by Brenda Bates, who has been working as a ceramicist for 25 years. She set up the Welbeck tile company (www.welbeck.com) in 1996, and she moved it recently from Nottinghamshire to Cornwall. I love these old fashioned patterns, in a metal engraved style, against a very pale, duck egg blue background. They would fit into any modern kitchen, whilst at the same time adding a dash of old fashioned elegance.