John Moyr Smith’s Tiles
It was only after several of my interviewees asked me if I had been standing next to a bonfire recently, that I realised the smoky old fire in my house causes my clothes to reek like those of a hobo who sleeps next to the campfire each night. Even though everyone has been tactful, assuring me how enraptured they are by the whiff of wood smoke that accompanies me each time I walk in the door – to ameliorate this situation, I have decided to fit a stove in my fireplace before next Winter. Although kind friends now regularly leave pallets outside my house, collecting broken pallets from the streets of Spitalfields each week, dragging them home in the cold and chopping them up has become a burdensome chore. A stove will solve my smoke problem, give me more heat from less wood, spare me the coating of ashes that settles upon every surface in my living room – and now I can tile the fireplace.
My budget precludes delft tiles, and casting around for an alternative that suits my pocket I came across the work of John Moyr Smith, an artist and designer born in Glasgow in 1839, who worked in the Arts & Crafts tradition and designed graphic illustrated tiles for Minton in the eighteen seventies. I like their brownish hues which suit my quiet taste, but what attracts me most are their intricate scenes, like panels from a comic strip, telling stories from Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible, the Morte D’Arthur, the Arabian Nights and Aesop’s Fables. Although rare ones in pristine condition change hands for hundreds of pounds, there are enough around to buy more common examples in used condition for under ten pounds. So now I have set out to collect enough to fill my fireplace and here you can see the first eleven I have found, out of the sixty or so I will need in total.
The notion of a fireplace lined with stories to contemplate on cold Winter nights is one that appeals greatly, and although I originally imagined it would be exclusively Shakespeare – as a kind of shrine to the bard – I could not resist widening my collection to include scenes from the life of Jesus and Fairy Tales too. In place of the phantoms that are conjured gazing into the flames of my open grate, I shall have a gallery of dramatic fictions in the fireplace surrounding my stove, and just as all the stories I have ever read are interwoven in my mind, I cherish the notion of Hamlet and Jesus and Bluebeard side by side among the tiles. Reading the life of St Brendan, who paddled to America in a coracle, I came upon the story of an island he discovered which was revealed as whale when he lit a fire, and years later, reading the Arabian Nights, I came across the same adventure ascribed to Sinbad the Sailor, a correlation which confirms that all my tiles can be harmonious neighbours, their diverse cultural origins notwithstanding – because all the stories in the world must interconnect eventually.
I think John Moyr Smith could have had a very successful career as a comic book artist if he had lived a hundred years later, judging on his ability to visualise fictional characters convincingly and incarnate the dramatic moment in graphic form. On each of these tiles, almost like living tableaux or posed snapshots, there is a vibrant energy to his figures which suggests a use of models or, at very least, a fluent grasp of anatomy – because the postures and the resulting tension between the characters, always evokes the specific drama with dynamic precision.
Jesus’ powerful arm, extended to turn water into wine, possesses a force worthy of a superhero, while the shocked expressions of the witnesses are enough to confirm his miracle. A similar effect is employed in stilling the tempest, when the fishermen’s expressions of terror reveal the violence of the storm while Jesus stands impassive. Observe how, in the illustration to Othello, Desdemona and Othello’s gestures reflect and complement each other, placing her father who is dubious of their marriage in self-conscious isolation. In another example, notice Blubeard’s fist curled behind his back as a expression of his violent inner turmoil when confronting his young wife and the bloody keys that expose his darkest secret. My current favourite amongst the tiles I have so far is the scene from As You Like It – for the tenderness of expression as Celia leans over Rosalind languishing in distress at the loss of Orlando. It delights me to see how, in each case, John Moyr Smith found an effective image to reveal the sympathetic human truth expressed in a fictional moment.
As you will now understand, tiling this modest fireplace has become an epic undertaking in my imagination, and so - every few months during this year - I shall be showing you the new additions to my growing collection of Moyr Smith tiles as it accumulates. Then, next Christmas, you will see my ceramic gallery of storytelling complete, once it is installed to give me inspiration by reminding me of some favourite stories, when sitting with my cat beside the stove and whiling away the long dark nights of Winter in Spitalfields – in the days when my overcoat will no longer smell of wood smoke.
Jesus turns water into wine.
Bluebeard threatens to behead his wife when he discovers the bloodied keys.
Much Ado About Nothing – Dogberry confronts the villain Conrade in prison.
Hamlet – Laertes & Ophelia.
Othello – Brabantio is sceptical of his daughter Desdemona’s marriage to Othello.
Romeo & Juliet – Juliet & Nurse.
Henry IV Part I – Young Hal and Falstaff at the Boar’s Head in Cheapside.
The Merchant of Venice – Portia sees Bassanio turning pale upon reading Antonio’s letter.
Jesus stills the tempest.
As You Like It – Rosalind collapses upon being told of her beloved Orlando’s supposed death.
You may like to read about Simon Pettet’s Tiles at Dennis Severs’ House.