Kya deLongchamps is floored by the beauty of original encaustic tiling.
Encaustic floor tiles are one of the most fascinating and truly practical survivals in a Victorian or Edwardian building.
You might be lucky enough to peek through a crackof fractured linoleum and find decorative, clay tiling — forgotten but intact in a hall, passageway, kitchen or bathroom.
Study the flooring in any mid- to late19th-century Irish church, or the corridors of well-preserved public buildings. Even your local pub might feature battered, colourful patterned encaustics under a glow of old linseed oil polish — it’s the sort ofdetail we blithely take for granted.
Encaustics might appear as a panel, afull floor or even be serving as a decorative garden pathway — these tiles were versatile, ornamental footing indoors and out.
If you’re lucky enough to already have encaustic, do everything you can to save these little tough little beauties.
Even in imperfect condition, they are an important element of the building’s architectural history. Smashing them out, rather than at least attempting a renovation or sympathetically replacement, is in the same league as blinding an old house by ripping out salvageable sash windows.
So just what are they? Genuine olden caustics are fired clay tiles known since medieval times and were named in the mid-1800s for their superficial resemblance to enamel work.
They generally carry two colours and the natural red clay colour is often used as the ground colour.
A wooden mould was pressed into the soft unfired clay which was then filled in with liquid slip in a chosen colour.
This slip with its natural pigments was then baked into the tile and finished with a lead glaze for added protection.
As the tile wears down, the lead glaze and top profile might soften, but the design will generally remain intact down to 4mm, as it is present deeper down through the cross-section of the body than a standard glaze or printed decorative topcoat.
Encaustic tiling became popular with architects and designers during the era of Gothic Revival (1740s forward) — prized for their ancient, courtly pattern.
Their finish, motifs, colours and highly dynamic layouts would have been highly familiar from the flooring in castles and religious buildings dating from the 13th century. By the early 1800s there was a longing in the Victorian gentry for suggestions of a noble past, aromance rooted in an imagined Arthurian age.
Encaustic tiling with its connections to the splendid, religious and lordly —delivered these fantasies straight to the floor in a sumptuous flag.
If you want a real feel of the sort of wildly appropriated aesthetics detail from across the world obsessing designers in the mid-19th century find a copy of Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament (1856), one of the best historical design sourcebooks ever published.
England produced many magnificent encaustic tiles in the late 1800s, led by the ceramics firms of Chamberlain & Co of Worcester, William Godwin of Lugwardine and Herbert Minton of Stoke, who supplied the brilliant AW Pugin with tiles for the Palace of Westminster in 1842.
The new ‘dust-press’ made commercial manufacture more consistent, reducing the moisture content in the tile before it was finished in a steel mould for a crisp edge.
Brass moulds were placed on the wetbacking clay, which were then filled with slips of up to eight colours before the tile was glazed and given a final firing.
Period French and Belgian clay encaustic tiles were made with a final pressing of the top slips to the backing clay – so they appear to have slightly softer edges than English tiles.
Cement tiles ‘carreaux de ciments’, promoted in France at the turn of the century are often seen as a variant on encaustic tiles. They are sometimes referred to as ‘cement encaustic’ which upsets some tile specialists. Like any cement, these ‘encaustics’ are air-cured not fired. You can tell the difference by their weight and size, as they are considerably bigger and brighter than a typical encaustic.
With a crisp edge, they also chip more easily.
Still, largely hand-finished and in gorgeous patterns and colour, old and modern versions of classic cement tiles and porcelain variants are contenders for a period style with a high shine or more charming, dusty matt finish.
The Spanish and Portuguese make magnificent products today with fascinating Moorish influences to their decoration. Most large tile suppliers will have examples of ‘cement encaustics’ rather than clay ones. Try the Bohemianencaustic tiles in porcelain — Vodevil, channeling 1930s Paris, €61 per square metre at tiles.ie.
Clay quarry and proper clay encaustic tiles are not as widely available as porcelain and cement versions made with marble dust and clay colour stains, but you can find them new at a few suppliers including Fired Earth (19 George’s Street Lower, Dún Laoghaire) and other tile houses.
If you’re interested in salvaged antique encaustics look for quantities enough to stitch into a wider floor or to make a wall section. Tiles should be largely free of mortar and show as little damage as possible, but it’s worth taking even half tiles to do areas which might require a cut piece. Chips and softly buffed distressing to the top face are to be expected.
Tiny ‘nibbles’ are often the result of lifting the tiling off the old floor. Take particular care to not stain the top of an encaustic tile with a strong grout colour. Expect to pay for either a job-lot or by the tile for really nice examples.
Paying €200 per square metre would not be unusual for a strong geometric, trefoil or three-dimensional-effect tile in a good colour with plain squares in two-colour floors starting at around €100 per square metre.