Decorative tiles: Specialist tiles for heritage and contemporary interiors

By Adrian Blundell, Production Director, Craven Dunnill Jackfield

From its base in the historic Ironbridge Gorge, Craven Dunnill Jackfield is the leading manufacturer of traditionally-styled, decorative tiles in the UK.

Part of the Craven Dunnill group of companies founded in 1872, with a deserved reputation for quality and authenticity, the company boasts the flexible manufacturing techniques and highly skilled staff to enable the production of any style or volume of ceramic production, ranging from single 3D tiles to murals using thousands of square metres of specialist ceramics.

The factory combines modern with traditional production techniques to enable the manufacture of bespoke wall, floor, decorative art and faience ceramics in any style, volume or size.

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Craven Dunnill Jackfield take great pride in the faithful manufacture of period style tiles. Where possible, it uses original machinery, glaze recipes and hand decorating techniques to ensure the total authenticity of its restoration tiles.

Dry pressed tiles are manufactured using a Victorian powder press that compacts powdered clay into a metal mould; this allows the company to consistently repeat a relief tile design.

Dry pressing tiles is ideal for reproducing large quantities of the same design. Victorian wall tiles is another area of expertise. Inspired by the spread of the British Empire, Victorian designers were influenced by classical and medieval architecture, while others drew on nature. The one element that unified all of these styles was the use of rich deep colours with a luxurious feel. Craven Dunnill Jackfield’s range of embossed, tubelined and screen printed decors captures the heyday of this industry.

The company also manufactures Art Nouveau and Art Deco wall tiles, as well as offering clients expertise in ceramic manufacturing processes such as hand dipping, tube lining, slip casting and screen printing.

One recent project that has placed Craven Dunnill Jackfield’s decorative tiles centre stage is The Blues Kitchen Shoreditch.  This venue now boasts a vast, four square, Victorian-inspired, ceramic tiled fronted bar.  Craven Dunnill Jackfield was responsible for the project, from design to hand-manufacturing the tiles and then factory-mounting the tiles onto panels for rapid installation on site.

The Blues Kitchen faience tiled bar front is opulent and rich in style, with a central motif that features a mythical lion’s head, embellished with swags and fruit.  The deeply textured relief tiles are made using hand carved plaster moulds and decorated using metal oxide glazes, which craze upon firing to create an authentic aged effect.

In order to meet the planned opening schedule, the Craven Dunnill Jackfield team explored options to reduce the time required to install the tiles and overcome issues associated with fixing heavy, ceramic tiles to a vertical surface.  The solution was to supply to the contract pre-tiled modules that were assembled on site and grouted in situ for a purely professional finish.

“The Blues Kitchen is an excellent example of the comprehensive and unique in-house expertise we can provide at Jackfield,” states Adrian Blundell, who heads up Production.  “We were able to provide a joined-up service for a technically challenging project, including product prototyping, layout design and specialist manufacture to a specific concept or brief.”

One of Craven Dunnill Jackfield’s most complex ever contracts involved making and supplying over 15,000 hand-made tiles in 46 different designs and varieties of colour for the renovation of the spectacular Victorian Reading Room at Leeds Central Library.

The Leeds Municipal Buildings (now Leeds Central Library) were completed in 1884 and are an outstanding demonstration of Victorian tile- making techniques and designs from the leading manufacturers of the day.

For 50 years much of it was covered over with plasterboard and concrete and was only re-discovered in 2001 when re-wiring was undertaken.

It is what was originally the Reading Room which proved amazing in its tiled magnificence.  The original room measures 80 by 40 feet and is divided by arches into a nave and aisles which are supported by granite pillars.

It features wide expanses of glazed field tiles with intricate relief patterns in a myriad of shades of turquoise and blue, interspersed with contrasting burgundy and aubergine coloured tiled bands; higher up large format, highly decorative tiles in rich copper green decorate the ceiling and intricate floral mosaics in gold and rose hues surround the stone busts of authors.

Craven Dunnill Jackfield worked closely with specialists Heritage Tile Conservationists on the project.  Together, they re-created the Reading Room, restoring tiles which could be saved and making and installing replicas where the originals had disappeared or were too damaged to re-use.  In all, over 15,000 hand-made tiles were made.

Another project to benefit from the company’s expertise was The Newcastle Theatre Royal, which underwent a £4.75 million renovation project.  This saw the theatre auditorium and public areas restored to the original 1901 Frank Matcham interior, complete with rich burgundy and embossed decorative wall tiles and a geometric and encaustic tiled floor, all made by Craven Dunnill Jackfield.

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While Craven Dunnill Jackfield is perhaps best known for its bespoke tile-making service, the company also offers a standard range of embossed, plain and decorative dado tiles, which are all historically accurate in style and are still made using traditional techniques for a truly authentic look.

The embossed Leighton tile design in burgundy, cream and gold was selected as the decorative frieze element, interspersed with plain burgundy field tiles and edged with Dado and Dart tiles for the walls in the rear stalls and side walls in the main stalls. Beneath, plain burgundy tiles create a rich swathe of highly glossed colour down to the floor.  The effect is gloriously opulent and striking but also practical.

Having chosen tiles from Jackfield’s own range, the Theatre avoided the need for time-consuming design and manufacturing trials, and yet still achieved the authentic Matcham styling of the original 1901 building.

Craven Dunnill Jackfield’s specialist ceramic tile expertise is much in demand to manufacture authentically-made Victorian-style tiles for major refurbishment projects.  Typical is the replacement and restoration of hand-glazed, historic wall tiles for the Grade 2, former East Ham College.  This building was formerly home to the Old Technical College and part of the East Ham Civic Campus.  It is now the new Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre.

The project involved the origination of accurate models for 39 unique designs and the formulation of several metal oxide glazes, which were fired and applied seamlessly to match the original tiles of the 1903 building.

Many of the tiles in the outer porch, the main vestibule, stairs and ground floor corridors had been extensively damaged.  While it was possible to salvage some of the original tiles by cleaning, many others were missing or so badly damaged that they needed to be replaced.

Nearly 1,400 tiles were required across 39 unique designs, 813 of which had to be manufactured from scratch, as there were no existing moulds. These included decorative, embossed border tiles, two sizes of panel frame profiles, skirting borders, 6 by 4 inch and 6 by 3 inch tiles in plain and round edge, and external curved skirting profiles. Fitting new tiles within existing ornately decorated tiles was an intricate job and required the reproduction tiles to be accurate in both size and thickness.

Unable to take moulds from the original tiles, the team at Craven Dunnill Jackfield re-modelled all the tile profiles, faithfully copying the remaining originals. The replacement tiles were then manufactured in biscuit before being hand-dipped in specially formulated, metal oxide glazes: green and brown. The glaze recipe used was similar to that of the original tiles.

Rick Mather Architects lead the refurbishment project, in consultation with English Heritage. Jackfield manufactured the tiles and worked in close collaboration with specialist tiling and terrazzo contractor WB Simpson & Son. The newly manufactured wall tiles are such an exact match to the originals and so expertly installed that the difference in age of around 110 years is indiscernible to the untrained eye.

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The Blues Kitchen in Brixton offers a proven formula of late night live music, authentic BBQ food and an amazingly large selection of bourbons.  Located in what was once the old Electric Social premises, the cavernous ground floor space is dominated by a flamboyant faience-fronted, ceramic tiled bar, designed and hand-manufactured by Craven Dunnill Jackfield.

This contemporary installation of Victorian-styled ceramic tiles breathes new life into this traditional art form and highlights the practicality of ceramics in a bar environment.

The faience tiled bar (traditional tin-glazed pottery, prevalent in the Victorian era in the UK)  is 10 metres long and is set off against a back-drop of white and blue brick shaped ceramic tiles and amber dados.

The hand-made faience tiles at the front of the bar date back to the 1880s in style.  There are five different designs of tile which clad both the bar and five floor-to-ceiling pillars. Each of the central, large green, convex tiles measure 245 by 600mm. The deeply textured relief design features a repeating urn motif.  They are bordered by four styles of decorative blue and amber coloured dado tiles. The same designs are featured on the 2.5m tall pillars, which are capped with deep capital tiles.

The relief tiles were made using hand-carved plaster moulds and decorated with metal oxide glazes, which craze upon firing to create an authentic aged effect. For the large tiles, featuring the urns, each required 200g of glaze to achieve the desired depth of colour and took two people to dip the pieces into a large vat of glaze. These were then gently lifted and carefully stacked into the kilns and fired over night at 1,040oC.

These projects demonstrate that the combination of intimate knowledge of the tile making process, in all its complexity, allied to an extremely experienced and dedicated workforce, still has a vital role to play in today’s architecture and can lead to tiled surfaces that have an enduring beauty and appeal.

Craven Dunnill Jackfield Ltd
Jackfield Tile Museum
Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire TF8 7LJ
T: 01952 884 124
www.cravendunnill-jackfield.co.uk