In the 1860s the designer and leading light of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, designed a block-printed repeat image entitled 'fruit'. The company that he founded, Morris & Co., continued to print and produce wallpaper right through until the 1920s and it was a design based on Morris' original print that came to my attention a few weeks ago:
The 'Bird and Pomegranate' wallpaper, first produced in 1926, now graces that living room walls of a friend's daughter, living in Muswell Hill, London. I was asked to produce a house-warming gift, a ceramic object that would both complement and enhance the Morris wallpaper, without competing with it. This is what I came up with: a lidded vase, made from stoneware St Thomas oxidising clay, decorated with sgraffito carvings in a copper oxide tinted slip.
Not to be discouraged, I took on another tile splashback commission last year: a couple of my dear friends had bravely taken on major kitchen extension and renovation during lockdown- not an easy task by any stretch, but good weather and determination helped them through. By the summer of 2020 their beautiful kitchen was complete, with a space left above their cooker hob for one of my tile panels, carved with my lockdown-inspired wildflower designs. Had I known, back in July, that there was plenty more covid-related nasty coming our way in the form of further lockdowns, I might have chosen a simpler, easier route to completing my task. But, me being me, I chose difficult: I wanted to use hard-wearing stoneware clay to make the tiles, and a mysterious but rather lovely glaze effect to achieve the eventual grey tones requested by my friends. As well as the main sgraffito-carved surface, I also had to produce a border with a ‘bronze’ glaze effect. The bronze glaze was a new one to me: I used a Stephen Murfitt recipe involving huge quantities of Manganese dioxide and tested and tested. The glaze was hard to control and I ruined a fair few kiln shelves with drips and stains…(sorry, Ceri!- my lovely studio technician and fellow ceramicist who patiently got out the grinder not just once…)
I made plaster moulds for pressing out the clay tiles, all 12 percent larger than the final required size to allow for shrinkage of the clay both in drying and double firing. These were allowed to dry a little before painting with a black stained slip (liquid clay). Eventually, when leather-hard, the tiles would be ready for hand-engraving, the scraping away of the coloured slip to create relief and reveal the bare clay beneath. This all took a while as I dried the tiles very slowly, keeping them covered in plastic sheeting and weighted beneath heavy boards. The first bisque firing was a success, and I then set about glazing the tiles with my own custom-mixed satin-white high firing glaze. All was going very smoothly until, just in the nick of time, I discovered that my digital scales- used to measure precise quantities of glaze ingredients into the final mix- were not working properly!!! Horror!! This then involved further testing, to make sure that the glaze would still work as it should.
I still had a bit of hair left at this point… The final result was 90% beautiful: I was very happy with the effect, but unfortunately 3 of the tiles were WARPED!! Such a heartbreak- there was no alternative but to carefully re-make those 3 tiles. I matched them up to the finished design and managed to scale up my decoration so that, on shrinkage, they would fit in perfectly. And it did. Phew!!! It was a good 10 months after we initially discussed options that I was finally able to return to Henfield to install the tiles. Happy to say that both client and maker were delighted with the results. More lessons learned. Next time I take on tiles I hope that I will complete them faster and with less mishaps- but I probably won’t!