Most if not all of the Delft-tiled fireplaces at Winterthur are probably not original to the house. The Museum's Registration Department holds copies of Henry Francis du Pont's daybooks, journals where he meticulously recorded each and every antique and piece of art that he purchased. By comparing entries in his daybook to receipts from antique dealers, I can hypothesize that du Pont bought all of the tiles in his collection sometime between 1920 and 1940. These dates also correspond to when many of the rooms in the house with tiled fireplaces were installed.
Tiles are traditionally attached to fireplaces using a combination of a mortar (a thin sort of cement) and lime plaster. However, when the Winterthur tiled fireplaces were installed from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, builders bypassed the mortar, instead using gypsum plaster and a creative variety of "modern" materials.
The rather culturally insensitive Chinoiserie tiles from the 1750s in the Bertrand Room were installed using Portland cement in the 1930s. According to tile expert, Lesley Durbin of The Jackfield Conservation Studio, Portland cement is an inappropriate material to install Delft tiles. By their composition, tin-glazed earthenwares like Delft tiles are susceptible to the efflorescence of soluble salts. Soluble salts are normally held in the ceramic body, but when exposed to high humidity, they crystalize on the surface, damaging tiles and causing glaze to spall off. Portland cement also is much harder than tin-glazed ceramics, making the prospect of ever removing tiles from this fireplace daunting.
The tiles in the Patuxent fireplace surround were probably attached with DUCO® cement is a fast-drying, cellulose nitrate-based commercial cement. When viewed under long wave ultraviolet light, the grout and mortar fluoresce a light greenish yellow, a classic indicator of cellulose nitrate. The adhesive tends to discolor overtime, giving the grout between these tiles a dark brown stained color.
The front of this innocuous-looking tile masks a mysterious secret. When flipped over....
...whatever this is is revealed. This tile is in storage at Winterthur-- not mounted in a fireplace--but this tile was too crazy to not include in this post. It was coated in a cellulose nitrate adhesive, then a black resin, and finally 16 adhesive tabs were attached over top--all of which retain their plastic barrier layers. Why and when this was applied remains a mystery...
Exploratory Excavation of Vauxhall Fireplace
Since building records are eluding me at present, the only way to definitively know how the fireplaces were constructed is to perform exploratory excavations. Vauxhall fireplace on the fourth floor of the museum was damaged in a flood in the 1980s. While it appears structurally stable, the plaster surrounds are powdery and delaminating (below, left). The tiles show evidence of soluble salt damage such as cracking and spalling (below, right). Chemical spot tests reveal that sulphates, common in gypsum plaster (hydrated calcium sulphate, CaSO4•H2O), are the probable culprit.
Part of my fellowship project may include dismantling the tiles in Vauxhall fireplace. This would allow me to treat the tiles in the conservation lab (much more ergonomic working conditions as you shall see). In order to conclusively determine how the tiles were mounted in the fireplace, my supervisor, Associate Objects Conservator and Assistant Affiliated Professor, Lauren Fair and I decided to remove one tile from the lower proper right corner of the fireplace.
During my internship year, I participated in a project at the British Museum removing Medieval floor tiles from a panel (above). Based on my experience, Lauren and I decided that using a hammer and chisel was the best course of action to remove tiles from the Vauxhall fireplace.
After a two-hour delay due to snow, we began the removal process! To protect ourselves from the plaster dust and chips, we wore dust masks, protective goggles, and nitrile gloves and vacuumed dust and debris as we went to minimize disruption to the rest of the objects in the room. To remove the tile, we decided to cut a channel behind the lower tile using a stone-carving hammer and chisel. This was accomplished by sitting or lying on the floor and crouching to strike the plaster at the proper height. Because the tiles are so tightly stacked, the only way to access the tile was from the proper left side. When we finally chipped most of the plaster away, we realized that the tile above had also become detached.
To Deinstall or not to Deinstall...
When the tiles were removed, we could clearly see that the fireplace had been constructed of brick covered in about an inch of plaster (above, center). The tiles were directly stuck into the plaster without a barrier to protect them from the movement of soluble salts. We still haven't decided whether or not we're going to remove all of the tiles to conserve them. A further consideration of the risks and rewards of deinstall needs to be undertaken. Stay tuned!
Thanks for checking back! Be sure to check Twitter for updates under #WeirdTileoftheDay and #WeirdTileWednesday. Tune in on March 15th as I delve into my struggle to find where the tiles came from!
For more information see:
Durbin, Lesley. 18th Century Delft Tiles: English and Dutch Tin Glazed Tiles Circa 1650-1790. http://www.jackfieldconservation.co.uk/18th-century-delft-tiles/
Photos by author unless otherwise stated.
In cold climates, like in Northern Europe and North America, fire was often the primary source of warmth. Control of fire and the ability to bring it inside one's dwelling was paramount to survival.
However, having fire indoors was also incredibly dangerous. Though the City of London banned wooden chimneys in 1419, buildings continued to be constructed of wood until after the Great Fire in 1666.
Winterthur Museum contains 59 fireplaces, some of which are merely facades. Of those, 11 have Delft tile surrounds of British or Dutch origin. To maintain consistency with the pieces in the collection, this post will focus primarily on the history of British and Dutch fireplaces in Europe and colonial North America.
Though they were born out of utilitarian necessity, fireplaces came to symbolize comfort, often showing off the wealth and taste of homeowners.
Roman Britain: Central Heating
Writing around 7 B.C., Greek-born Roman philosopher Strabo writes in his Geography of Britain: it is "the home of men who are complete savages and lead a miserable existence because of the cold" (II.5.8). Indeed the gray climate of Britain must have been a shock to Roman soldiers from the southern reaches of the empire. After conquering parts of the island by 47 A.D. after nearly a century of attempt, Roman architects and engineers built hypocausts. A type of underfloor heating, a hypocaust from old Londinium's Billingsgate Bath House can be found under a modern office building (below). The basic principle consists of an elevated floor under which hot air is blown from a furnace. As this was labor-intensive to maintain, large villas and bath houses most commonly employed hypocausts.
The "dark ages"
When the Romans left Britain around 410 A.D., seemingly modern conveniences like central heating went with them, not to be seen again until the 1850s. In the new cultural movement, germanic tribes like the Anglo-Saxons built structures with large, great halls heated by a central hearth, à la Beowulf or scenes from the TV show Vikings (a guilty pleasure). The smoke was moderately successfully drawn through an open hole in ceiling. Presumably these spaces were dark and smoky and one can only imagine the problems that rain or snow would cause. These central hearths were used for cooking as well as warmth.
Origins of Proper Ventilation
In the middle ages, around 1200, Norman fireplaces, with proto- and actual chimneys represented a significant improvement on open air central hearths. The "Norman fireplace" from the Tower of London is a rare surviving example of this type.
This Norman fireplace probably had a hood, made of wood and cloth over it to direct smoke up the flue and outside. The fireplace at the Tower of London is carved directly into the thick stone wall. This design is similar to a "jambless" (without jambs, or sides) fireplace which was commonly used by the Dutch both in Europe and in the early American colonies. These more often employed chimneys, as the walls of colonial houses generally were not 10 feet deep.
A Variety of Uses: inglenook
The "inglenook" fireplace was the next innovation. An archetypal specimen can be seen in daily use at Hampton Court Palace. Built in the early 1500s, this stone and brick fireplace is the epitome of a utilitarian Tudor fireplace. The fireplace is recessed into the wall, creating a chamber in which to cook. A chimney vastly improved working conditions and smoke was no longer as much of an issue. In an added bonus, spices, salt, and other foods that were susceptible to mold and moisture could be kept in the inglenook fireplace to keep them dry. This was especially useful in the humid climate of England.
in the rest of the Home
Though their main purpose still was to provide heat, fireplaces in public areas of the home were generally more decorative. Tiled fireplaces did not come into prominence until the 1650s, but they remained popular in North America through the early 1800s. Early fireplaces incorporated Dutch tiles with hand-painted scenes, flowers, and sea monsters. When English transfer-print tiles blazed onto the scene in the 1750s, the cheaper tiles were all the rage in the new world. Tiled fireplaces, rather than those with ostentatious marble, gave the middle class a cost-effective way to display their wealth and taste.
Changing fashions in the late Georgian era compelled homeowners to replace their tiled fireplaces with marble surrounds and long wooden mantles to display collectibles. Though tiles remain in fireplaces in some historic homes, the vast majority of them were either covered with a different material like marble, or removed.
Tiles made a brief comeback in the Victorian and Art Nouveau periods, but many of these surrounds were removed in the following decades. A notable exception is this neo-Gothic fireplace in Cardiff Castle (below), which is impressive, if anything.
The invention of radiators by Franz San Galli in 1855 made fireplaces mainly decorative in middle and upper class homes by the turn of the century. Even though they are no longer needed to provide heat, many modern houses still have fireplaces (even if they are electric).
Thanks for checking back! Be sure to check Twitter for updates under #WeirdTileoftheDay and #WeirdTileWednesday. Tune in next week as I discuss how tiles were once mounted in fireplaces (preview below).
For more information see:
Henry J. Kauffman, 1972. The American Fireplace: Chimneys, Mantelpieces, Fireplaces & Accessories. New York: Thomas Nelson Inc.
Trudy West, 1976. The Fireplace in the Home. North Pomfret, Vermont: David & Charles.
Photos by author unless otherwise stated.
The Simsbury Room (above) is a very small room located on the 8th floor in the main house, off of Spatterware Hall and near an amazing collection of children's toys (below).
Installed in 1940, the wooden interiors and fireplace tiles came from a house that once stood at 570 Hopmeadow Street in Simsbury, Connecticut (Springman & Lahue 2011, 41). The house was built around 1765 by a Thomas Berber. It was dismantled in 1925 after the death of its last owner. This is the first time I have been able to trace any set of tiles back to their original location!
The tiles in the Simsbury Room are red enamel transfer-printed tin-glaze earthenware tiles from Liverpool. They were manufactured by Sadler and Green from approximately 1777 to 1780. The images on the tiles were taken from prints found in various publications including Bell's Shakespeare and Bell's British Theatre. Both publications featured the most popular plays of the late 1700s alongside prints of iconic actors and actresses.
The actors and actresses pictured were not all contemporaries, even though they are all dressed in clothing typical of the late 18th century. All of the actors and actresses performed in London, especially in the theatre districts of Covent Garden and Haymarket from the 1670s-1770s.
The set in the Simsbury Room does not include the entire set of actors and actress tiles. More examples in both red and black transfer print can be found in museums around the world (below). There are however very few examples of actor/actress tiles installed in fireplaces in historic houses.
The men and women pictured on the tiles represent the most famous actors and actresses of the late 17th to late 18th centuries. While all of their stories are fascinating, I will briefly discuss four of the most famous in their day--whose stories may or may not have stood the test of time.
Elizabeth Barry (1658-1713) was one of the most famous actresses of the Restoration theatre renaissance in London. Theatre had been banned by Cromwell's puritanical Republic (1640-1660), but was restored by the "Merrie Monarch," Charles II in 1660 when he was restored to the throne.
Another change in theatrical conventions, women rather than teenage boys played female roles on-stage. In this tile, Barry plays the character of Sir Henry Wildair, a so-called "pants" or "breeches" role in which a woman played a young male character. This practice is especially common in operas with mezzo-sopranos often portraying teenage boys for comic effect.
Barry was the lover of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester--one of Charles II's closest friends. Their story is the focus of a current production of The Libertine at the Royal Haymarket Theatre in London. Though contemporaries apparently regarded Barry as "the ugliest Woman" in real life, they promulgated she was "the finest Woman in the World upon the Stage." (A Comparison Between the Two Stages, 1702).
Macklin appears on two tiles in the Simsbury fireplace. On the left he is in the character of Sir Gilbert Wrangle from The Refusal by Colley Cibber. On the right he portrays his iconic role as Shylock, which made him a household name. King George II even apparently lost sleep over Macklin's especially dark and evil interpretation of the moneylender.
Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was an acting student of Charles Macklin's. In his 40s he lost a leg in a riding accident. Though he still continued to act, he primarily focused his efforts into being the producer and eventual owner of the Haymarket Theatre. He also wrote biting satire of his contemporaries, earning the moniker "The English Aristophenes," after the Athenian comic playwright.
In the tile above he plays the rather dubiously named "Fondlewife" from William Congreve's The Old Bachelor.
Finally, Mary Ann Yates (née Graham, 1728-1787) was considered the premiere British dramatic actress from shortly after her debut in the 1750s until she retired at 55. According to contemporaries, she was also a first class diva, often showing up late to rehearsals
On the tiles above, she is pictured as Lady Townley from Sir John Vanburgh's The Provok'd Husband and as Jane Shore, one of the many mistresses of Edward IV of England, in Nicholas Rowe's Jane Shore.
Thanks for checking back! Be sure to check Twitter for updates under #WeirdTileoftheDay and #WeirdTileWednesday. Tune in next week for a brief update on some of the treatments I've been working on (preview below). :)
For more information see:
Encyclopedia Britannica for biographical information about the actors listed above.
Springman, Mary Jane and Lahue, Alan, 2011. Images of America: Simsbury. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Winterthur Postgraduate Fellow in Objects Conservation