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John Moyr Smith’s Tiles

January 24, 2011
by the gentle author

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.

13 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    January 24, 2011

    Oh these are so lovely! Good luck to you gentle author as, story by story, you build this wonderful fireplace. May the narratives, as well as the fire, inspire and warm you.

  2. Jill permalink
    January 24, 2011

    These are works of art. What treasures.

  3. January 24, 2011

    dear gentle author
    please keep yourself warm so that you can continue to tell us stories like this one

  4. GoodTree permalink
    January 24, 2011

    What a brilliant idea. Good luck and I look forward to seeing your new additions over the next months.

  5. Joan permalink
    January 24, 2011

    Maybe you’ll get time to make a pilgrimage to the Jackfield Tile Museum in Ironbridge, Shropshire – a place we regularly visit because of family living nearby. Its one of those nice little specialist museums and I see from its website that it has an early John Moyr Smith peacock on display:

    http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/jackfield_tile_museum/exhibits/

  6. January 24, 2011

    Beautiful tiles look forward to seeing the collection added to . . . .. . . . . will Mr Pussy approve the transition from open fire to stove ?

  7. January 24, 2011

    Cannot wait to see the finished literary masterpiece!

  8. Barbara permalink
    January 24, 2011

    Good luck with your quest! You have done well so far. Look forward to seeing the finished result here next winter – if not before. Thank you again for the daily post. Barbara

  9. Pauline permalink
    November 9, 2011

    I know how you feel – I have the tile from Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet (and I’m here in Canada. Funny you should live in Spitalfields – the Hugenot side of my family were silk weavers who lived in Spitalfields after they were all banished from France (via Belgium!). Small world – six degrees of separation. Good luck in your search, sound like a lovely project.

  10. Blond Alain permalink
    November 22, 2012

    Bonjour à tous,

    Nous avons été cambriolé dans notre maison et hélas plusieurs series de de carreaux ont été prise et je devrais retrouver toute la collection

    Qui peut me donner des idées ou voir si un artisan sait reproduire toute ces collections

    N° Zone Série Titre Traduction Attribution Distribution
    1 Gauche fenêtre “Industry” “Mason” Le maçon John Moyr Smith 6/12
    2 Gauche fenêtre “Industry” “Barber” Le barbier John Moyr Smith 6/12
    3 Gauche fenêtre “Industry” “Dyer” Le teinturier John Moyr Smith 6/12
    4 Droite fenêtre “Industry” “Tailor” Le tailleur John Moyr Smith 6/12
    5 Droite fenêtre “Industry” “Weaver” Le tisserand John Moyr Smith 6/12
    6 Droite fenêtre “Industry” “Tanner” Le tanneur John Moyr Smith 6/12
    7 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Merchant of Venice” acte IV scène I “Le marchand de Venise” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    8 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Merchant of Venice” acte II scène II “Le marchand de Venise” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    9 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Anthony and Cleopatra” acte IV scène IV “Antoine et Cléopâtre” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    10 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Anthony and Cleopatra” acte V scène II “Antoine et Cléopâtre” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    11 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “The Tempest” acte I scène II “La tempête” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    12 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Romeo and Julietta” acte II scène II “Roméo et Juliette” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    13 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Hamlet” acte I scène I “Hamlet” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    14 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Timon of Athens” acte III scène VI “Timon d’Athènes” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    15 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “The Tempest” acte II scène II “La tempête” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    16 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” 1st part of “King Henry IV” acte II scène IV “Henri IV” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    17 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Othello” acte I scène III “Othello” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    18 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Winter’s tale” acte V scène III “Le conte d’hiver” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    19 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Taming of the Shrew” acte IV scène III “La mégère apprivoisée” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    20 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Macbeth” acte V scène VIII “Macbeth” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    21 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Troilus and Cressida” acte IV scène II “Troïlus et Cressida” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    22 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Cymbelina” acte II scène II “Cymbeline” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    23 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Much ado about Nothing” acte IV scène II “Beaucoup de bruit pour rien” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    24 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “The Twelfth Night” acte III scène IV “La nuit des rois” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    25 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” ” The Twelfth Night ” acte II scène III “La nuit des rois” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    26 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “King Lear” acte I scène I “Le roi Lear” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    27 Mur principal “From Shakespeare” “Othello” acte V scène III “Othello” John Moyr Smith 21/24
    28 Droite passage “Water Nymphs” “Water Nymph” (assise sur un rocher et tenant un coquillage) Nymphe marine … 5/12
    29 Droite passage “Water Nymphs” “Water Nymph” (avec un poisson à g. et un hippocampe à dr.) Nymphe marine … 5/12
    30 Droite passage “Water Nymphs” “Water Nymph” (de profil côté g. joue avec un poisson) Nymphe marine … 5/12
    31 Droite passage “Water Nymphs” “Water Nymph” (se regarde dans un miroir) Nymphe marine … 5/12
    32 Droite passage “Water Nymphs” “Water Nymph” (à cheval sur un poisson) Nymphe marine … 5/12
    33 Gauche passage “Spirit of Flowers” “Anemone” Anémone C.O. Murray 5/12
    34 Gauche passage “Spirit of Flowers” “Lily of the Valley” Muguet C.O. Murray 5/12
    35 Gauche passage “Spirit of Flowers” “Lily” Lys C.O. Murray 5/12
    36 Gauche passage “Spirit of Flowers” “Daisy” Marguerite C.O. Murray 5/12
    37 Gauche passage “Spirit of Flowers” “Wild Rose” Eglantine C.O. Murray 5/12
    38 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Six swans” “Les six (frères) cygnes” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    39 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Golden-Locks” “Boucles d’or” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    40 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Sleeping Beauty” “La Belle au bois dormant” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    41 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Blue Beard” “Barbe bleue” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    42 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Frog Prince” “La princesse et la grenouille” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    43 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Cinderella” “Cendrillon” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    44 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Snow Drop” “Blanche Neige” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    45 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Little Tailor” “Le petit tailleur” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    46 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Puss Boots” “Le chat botté” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    47 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Beauty and the Beast” “La belle et la Bête” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    48 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Jack and the beanstalk” “Jack et le haricot magique” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    49 Gauche cheminée “Fairy Tales” “Rumpelstilzchen” “Le nain Tracassin” John Moyr Smith 12/12
    50 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Fox and the Crow” “Du corbeau et du renard” C.O. Murray 12/12
    51 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Goat, the Calf and the Sheep in partnership with the Lion” … C.O. Murray 12/12
    52 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Hare an the Tortoise run a race” “Du lièvere et de la tortue” C.O. Murray 12/12
    53 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Fox dines with the Stork” “Du renard et de la cigogne” C.O. Murray 12/12
    54 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Tortoise who wished to learn to fly” “De la tortue qui voulait apprendre à voler” C.O. Murray 12/12
    55 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Wolf and the Lamb at the spring” “Du loup et de l’agneau” C.O. Murray 12/12
    56 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Dog and his shadow” “Du chien et de son image” C.O. Murray 12/12
    57 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Ape, the Cat and the roast chesnuts” “Du singe et du chat” C.O. Murray 12/12
    58 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Lion and the Rat” “Du lion et du rat” C.O. Murray 12/12
    59 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Wolf and the Crane” “Du loup et de la grue” C.O. Murray 12/12
    60 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “King Lock and King Stork” “Des grenouilles et de leur roi” C.O. Murray 12/12
    61 Droite cheminée “Aesop’s Fables” “The Fox and the Goat in the Well” “Du renard et de la chèvre” C.O. Murray 12/12

    MERCI DE VOTRE AIDE PRECIEUSE

    ALAIN

  11. February 10, 2013

    Dear gentle author,
    How cosy you must be with your new
    fire, love the tiles,and your cat looks very content!

  12. Sonia permalink
    February 10, 2013

    A lovely project, Gentle Author, and lovely tiles! Thank you for all the articles which are so evocative of Home for your ex-pat readers. Keep Mr. Pussy warm through the long days of winter!

  13. Samantha Crompton permalink
    October 12, 2014

    Hey! Just wanted to drop a line to let you know that at my shop, (located in Rhode Island) we just received around 20 Authentic Moyr Tiles (viviene, Excalibur, Evinere, Pelle As) You can contact me any time at 401.924.4034

    Or you can contact the shop at 401.619.5080

    I can send pictures if you would like.

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