A Very British Museum: Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge
What do pubs, butcher’s shops, hospitals, underground stations and toilets have in common? As Martyn Oliver discovers, it’s tiles.Tiles have been used both for decoration and for their durability since at least Roman times. Hard-wearing, easy to clean and thus hygienic, they’re found not only in the home and in areas of high public traffic, but also where there is a special need for cleanliness – in food shops (butcher’s and fishmonger’s, for instance), kitchens and especially hospitals. The Jackfield Tile Museum, situated by the river Severn at Ironbridge in Shropshire, contains examples of all these applications.
Famous as a centre of ironworking, the Ironbridge Gorge is rich in water and good pottery clay; and the river – and later the Severn Valley Railway – provided transport links south to Bristol and north to Liverpool and Manchester. By the middle of the 18th century earthenware and glazed pottery were being made commercially in the Gorge, and a hundred years later Jackfield and nearby Broseley had become internationally known for the high quality of their tiles and bricks. In 1877 Broseley tileworks made tiles for the floor of London’s Royal Academy, and in 1892 supplied tiles for the residence of Spain’s King Alfonso XII.
One of the principal tile manufacturing firms in the Gorge was Craven Dunnill, which flourished until the middle of the 20th century. When the firm closed, its Jackfield works and offices eventually became the home of the Tile Museum, established in 1983. In 2000, Craven Dunnill returned to manufacture in the factory adjacent to the Museum, and now produces specialist and low-volume decorative tiles, often to commission. Today the factory and the Museum work hand-in-hand.
The Museum’s purpose is to tell the history of tile-making in the region, and to display the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust’s collection of tiles. The collection continues to grow, partly from donations, but largely through the efforts of Michael Vanns, the Museum’s curator, who combs the country for petty-cash acquisitions. ‘Because tiles were mostly mass-produced,’ he says, ‘you can often come across a beautiful specimen for not much money, in a boot sale or at an antiques fair.’
Jackfield is very much a labour of love for art-historian Michael, who has been with the Trust for 30 years and curator of the Museum since (?). Several of the exhibits were not only conceived and designed by him, he also physically fixed many of the tiles in place. ‘I’m very much a hands-on curator – I like to be involved. Some of the Museum’s installations have been salvaged from premises scheduled for demolition, and the tiles came to our conservator in cardboard boxes. Once any restoration work was done, the conservator mounted them onto wooden panels and, together with my assistant, I fixed them on to the wall.’
We walk into the coolness of a butcher’s shop. ‘The hand-painted mural tiles came from Ripon,’ says Vanns, ‘and the frieze of pigs’ heads and swags from Rochdale.’ Next he shows me part of London’s Covent Garden underground station, recreated in a corridor between two of the Museum’s galleries. ‘The original tiles were made here in the Gorge, just over a century ago,’ he says. There’s a strong link between Ironbridge tiles and Britain’s railway stations. Craven Dunnill supplied maps made of tiles to the North Eastern Railway, for example, for their mainline station concourses.The Museum’s centrepiece, at the top of the building’s original staircase, is the Trade Showroom – ‘the tilemaker’s “catalogue”,’ says Vanns. Lit by gaslight, its central display and the huge wooden cabinet against the wall glow with colour from the samples on show. And next to the Trade Showroom is the Style Gallery, set in what was Craven Dunnill’s design studio. Examples of utility and decorative tiles up to the present day, including work by Victorian artists such as Walter Crane and William de Morgan, are displayed here alongside the alphabet street-name tiles of anonymous municipal designers.
In its industrial heyday Ironbridge was the world centre of tile production. Today this importance is distilled and concentrated in Jackfield’s eccentric but beautiful Tile Museum – a very British museum.
For more details about Jackfield Tile Museum and the Trust’s other museums: www.ironbridge.org.uk; or telephone 01952 435900.