Modern Europe began to take shape in the 16th century, and the centuries that followed were a time of great social, cultural, and political change — provoking, and in turn influenced by, movements such as the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the first and second Industrial Revolutions.
Meanwhile, ceramic tile was undergoing its own changes and developments. The period following the emergence of modern Europe saw the rise of Delft tile and Victorian tile, and the influence of both is still evident today.
The History of Delft Tile
Two primary factors led to the birth of Delft tile: the art of tin-glazed tile (in use since its creation in the medieval period) and the influence of Chinese pottery.
Holland.com explains that tin-glazed tile, or “majolica,” which involved painting earthenware with tin glaze and bright colors, was a popular trend in the mid-16th century in Spain and Italy. Around the same time, Italian craftsmen migrated to the trade hub of Antwerp, Belgium and brought the tin-glazed technique with them. Tilemakers in Antwerp created majolica until 1585, when they had to flee to the Netherlands because of the Spanish Inquisition. They reorganized in the city of Delft, which would later give Delftware its name.
According to the book “1000 Tiles,” the Dutch East India Company was importing the immensely popular blue and white Chinese porcelain in large quantities at this time, inspiring the tilemakers in Delft to imitate the style. Demand for Delftware increased in 1648, when the end of the Eighty Years’ War left Scandinavia and Germany financially drained and unable to afford Chinese exports. Delft tiles “became works of art in their own right” in the 1640s and ‘50s, and Delft “became the center of production for high-quality tin glazed earthenware” throughout the remainder of the 17th century.
British manufacturers started mass-producing Delft-style tiles using a new technique called “transfer printing,” and Delftware production in Delft became almost completely nonexistent by the end of the 18th century. Only one of the original Delftware potters is still in operation and using traditional methods today — Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles, or Royal Delft.
How Delft Tile Was Made
In an article published on the Historic Huguenot Street Collections, Chloe Baker explains that Delft tile making was an intensive artistic process involving skills that (before the industrialization of tile) were passed down from master to apprentice.
To create the tin-glazed tiles, tile-makers rolled clay into slabs, shaped the tiles, fired them, and finally applied the tin glaze.
According to art historian Kees Kaldenbach, tilemakers decorated multiple tiles with the same design by using a stencil (“pons” or “spons” in Dutch). The stencil process began with a drawing on paper or cardboard that was perforated along the main design. The stencil was placed on the tile, dabbed with charcoal powder over the perforations, and when the paper was removed, workers could paint along the charcoal tracings. The charcoal would evaporate during the high-temperature firing, leaving only the painted design.
Note that, although Delftware manufacturers called their tile “porcelain” after the Chinese porcelain it imitated, it was not actually porcelain. Using a less expensive process that applied a tin glaze on the tile after firing allowed Delftware manufacturers to achieve the look of porcelain without the higher cost.
Delft Tile Designs
Delft tiles originally imitated the designs of Chinese porcelain but soon started to integrate Dutch imagery and scenes. Designs included everything from things you might have seen in an ordinary Dutch village — such as tulips, windmills, houses, boats, animals, fishermen, and farmers — to biblical stories, mythological gods, and lewd scenes. Almost anything could be painted on Delftware, giving Delft tiles an originality not found in other tile traditions.
Delft Tile Applications
House & Garden explains that Delft tiles were popular among royalty and the wealthy and could be found in some of the great 18th-century homes in Europe. Bathrooms, kitchens, swimming pools, and entire rooms were often covered in Delft tiles. The Château de Rambouillet in Île-de-France and the Schloss Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, in particular, feature impressive Delft tile installations.
As Dutch merchants became wealthier, Delft tiles could also be found in middle-class homes. Part of the appeal was that Delft tiles were both decorative and functional — people used them to reflect heat around fireplaces, to keep the damp out of cellars, and to keep kitchens and dairies clean. Delft tiles were not intended for flooring, though, as terracotta tiles were more durable for wear and less expensive.
Middle-class homeowners may have purchased more simply decorated Delft tiles or tile “seconds,” which made them more affordable, and often used the tiles more sparingly and/or paired them with plain white tiles.
History of Victorian Tile
The Victorian era (1837-1901) was a time of great industrialization and social change, which contributed to ceramic tile’s rise in popularity.
The Victorian Emporium explains that the Industrial Revolution opened the door for the mass production of tile, bringing tile to churches, public buildings, shops, and the homes of both the upper and middle classes. Victorian potters had access to a large and cheap labor force, and tile’s affordability and ease of installation increased with mass-production, further contributing to the increased supply and demand of tile.
One tile manufacturer in particular had a significant impact on Victorian tile’s popularity: Herbert Minton of Minton Hollins & Co. Referred to as “the father of the modern tile industry,” Herbert Minton revived encaustic tile and developed industrial techniques for tile manufacturing.
“Tile output during the last half of the [19th] century was extensive and both the quality and quantity produced remains unrivaled to this day.”
–Transferware Collectors Club Bulletin 19
At the same time, Victorian society was developing an increased awareness of disease (and appreciation for hygiene) as a result of the recent cholera epidemics (1831-1832 and 1848-1849). Wendy Harvey of the Transferware Collectors Club explains that this increased awareness led to the creation of public sewers to replace open cesspools and, by the middle of the 19th century, the inclusion of bathrooms and indoor toilets in upper class homes. At the end of the century, most homes had indoor plumbing.
Reformers who believed that diseases spread through odors in the air campaigned for nonporous building materials, and architects and doctors advocated for the use of ceramic tile in the new bathrooms (as well as kitchens, sculleries, and food shops) because it was “practical, beautiful, and washable.”
The Victorian era was also witness to the importation of Dutch Delftware, as well as the Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts Movement, all of which influenced popular tile designs and methods of the time.
England’s status as the most powerful nation in Europe, world expansion, and the reduced travel times of steamships ensured that Victorian tile was not restricted to England alone. Harvey states that America was a “fertile marketplace for English tiles,” and Minton tiles can even be found in the United States capitol.
Victorian Tile Designs
Victorian tile is stylistically diverse, making it difficult to define a single design that encompasses the era. For example, a popular tile design in the Victorian era was the imitation of tin-glazed Dutch Delftware, led by Herbert Minton, but it went out of style throughout the 19th century as potters developed techniques that were superior to tin glazing.
The Gothic Revival inspired a return to medieval tile methods (encaustic tile) and designs, and Arts and Crafts tiles featured some medieval themes as well.
Fireclay tile explains that geometric designs were a classic choice for tile during the Victorian era. These geometric designs usually featured squares, rectangles, octagons, and diamonds. Some of the most popular patterns included checkered tile and harlequin tile. Although many Victorian tile applications were black and white, royal colors such as white, burgundy, and blue were also common.
According to William Morris Tile, stories carried moral lessons for Victorians and were popular in all forms. As a result, tiles decorated with well-known stories and scenes from the Bible, Shakespeare, and other popular literature and mythology began to appear as tile became more prominent.
Victorian Tile Techniques
Victorians used various tile techniques to depict the popular designs of the time.
Encyclopædia Britannica explains that transfer printing of tile involved using an engraved, inked copperplate to transfer a design onto a glazed tile. Because it allowed manufacturers to mass-produce decorative tiles efficiently and economically, transfer printing “contributed to the demise of the British [D]elftware industry.”
Transfer-printed tiles got their start about a century before the beginning of the Victorian era, but they later declined in popularity in the 1780s, only to be reintroduced into tile manufacturing in the mid-19th century. In fact, Minton Hollins & Co.’s first product was blue transfer-printed tile. Transfer printing allowed Minton and other tile manufacturers to produce a wide variety of designs and patterns, created by the in-house and freelance artists they employed. William Morris Tile explains that buildings ranging from palaces and churches to public buildings and simple houses featured decorative, mass-produced, transfer-printed tiles.
Encaustic Tile (Inlaid Tile)
The Gothic Revival, which began in the late 18th century and involved a return to the style of the medieval period, extended well into the Victorian era. With the Gothic Revival came a renewed interest in what the Victorians called “encaustic” tile. Victorians thought this tile looked like ancient Greek enameling, which was created using an encaustic technique, but the tile was actually inlaid tile. The term continues to be confused. To be consistent with Victorian references, note that our discussion of “encaustic” is in place of the accurate term, “inlaid.”
Encaustic tile gets its color not from glaze, but from different types of clay. While encaustic tiles had largely gone out of use in the sixteenth century, Minton Hollins & Co. developed a way to mass-produce them and bring them to the general public in the 1840s. These mass-produced tiles had complex geometric patterns, included up to six different colors, and could endure heavy traffic in public places.
According to ThePotteries.org, Herbert Minton’s encaustic tile efforts were so successful that they “set him at the forefront of a huge industry supplying the needs of institutions, churches, and domestic interiors all over the world.”
Arts & Crafts Tiles
The Arts and Crafts Movement (circa 1860-1920s) — which prioritized high-quality materials, utility in design, and handcrafting — also had a significant effect on Victorian tile. William Morris Tile explains that textile designer and Arts and Crafts founder William Morris “was generally unhappy with what he saw as the dehumanization and industrialization of Victorian society in general, and the quality of its goods in particular.” Morris’s ensuing creation of Arts and Crafts tiles was both a return to higher quality and a rejection of Victorian society’s mass production.
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
Hand-painted tile was a staple of Arts and Crafts design, as “the key was the personal attention to quality and the infusion of spirit that comes from individually working with a piece the way [a] medieval artisan would.” Arts and Crafts tile tended to feature medieval and mythic themes and favored natural designs over geometric ones.
Key Arts and Crafts tile designers included William De Morgan, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edward Burne-Jones in addition to William Morris.
Victorian Tile Applications
“To what use can tiles not be put? Cornices, door-frames and windows are set with them; hearths are outlined with them and staircases decorated . . . for the tile is always fresh and cool-looking in its bright design . . . ”
Victorian homeowners installed tile floors, hallways, porches, and paths from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, and decorated wall tiles starting in the late 1800s.
Tile first appeared in aristocratic and royal locations, but the middle classes soon followed suit with cost-saving contrivances: More expensive encaustic tiles could be combined with less expensive tiles and plain tiles. The more plain tiles would be used for the servants’ quarters and the kitchen so that the more expensive tiles could be used in the most visible areas of the home, such as the entrance hall or surrounding the fireplace.
Indeed, the reception room fireplace was the most common area to feature the more decorative and expensive tiles and artists would often be commissioned to create impressive tile designs. The fireplace was, after all, where Victorian families would gather in the evenings. The importance of the fireplace in a Victorian household is “difficult to overstate.”
With the rise of indoor toilets and plumbing throughout the second half of the 19th century, ceramic tile became a popular choice for bathrooms because of its water resistance and low-maintenance cleaning. Bathrooms were naturally a less visible area of the home, so middle-class homeowners commonly opted for plain, all white, or mostly all white tile designs — inadvertently creating a trend that’s still popular today.
Modern Victorian Tile Inspiration
The Victorian era ended with Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, but tile designs and developments known for this period have never gone out of style. Explore our Design Gallery for examples of modern Victorian tile and inspiration for your home.