Origins of Encaustic Tiles
by Larry Faucher
Many of today’s tile-making techniques have their origins in the Near East and Asia, but encaustic, or in-layed tiles, originated in Western Europe. Influenced by the Roman tradition of covering floors with mosaics, Europeans cut impressions into stone and filled the recesses with clay to mimic mosaic designs. Later they used encaustic tiles as a colorful, cheaper and more efficient way to cover floors using locally available materials.
The golden age of encaustic tiles occurred during the 12th and 13th centuries, with a color palette of red, dark brown, yellow/white, green or black, all covered in a lead glaze. Early techniques involved shaping bits of clay by hand and pushing them into a cement mortar or clay body. Later wood blocks were used to make impressions in the clay body, which were then filled with piped-clay.
Early designs were frequently repetitive geometrics that reflected Eastern influences, including carpets and Moorish architecture. Later designs reflected local heraldry. These motifs were raised to a high art in England in monasteries, churches and castles. By the 14th century, the use of in-layed tile floors began to fade, but because of their durability, lasted for many centuries.
In the early 19th century many of the Middle-Age churches still had original, though patched and worn, encaustic tiles. In 1828 Herbert Minton, son of the founder to the great Minton firm, became interested in the production of encaustic tile and began experimenting extensively.
In 1835 he issued his first catalog of pseudo-medieval tile designs, and in 1840 he bought the patent rights to Richard Prosser’s screw press to make tiles. With this more efficient technique, and with the help of friend AWN Pugin, Minton helped usher in the Gothic revival. A great example of Minton tiles, commissioned in 1842, can been seen on the floor of the Chapter House at Westminster in London.
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