John Moyr Smith’s Tiles 2
Back in January, I showed you the first of the nineteenth century Minton tiles designed by John Moyr Smith that I am collecting to line my fireplace, prior to the installation of a stove, and now it is my delight to show you the next twelve which are the result of the last three months’ searching around. I will need forty-five by the Autumn to complete the fireplace so that I can light my stove to keep me warm next Winter – thus far I have around half as many as I require.
As well as being an accomplished designer and draughtsman, John Moyr Smith was an instinctive dramatist – each of his tiles illustrates a the dramatic climax of a story, whether from Shakespeare, the Bible, Fairy Tales, the Idylls of the King, Nursery Rhymes or English History – and unfailingly he found the psychological moment when the drama turned.
I am especially happy with this broken tile at the top, illustrating the heart-stopping moment described by Alfred Tennyson in the “Idylls of the King,” when the hero Pelleas discovers his beloved Ettare sleeping in Gawain’s arms. Pelleas lays his sword across their throats and sneaks away by moonlight, for them to wake and realise that he might have killed them if he chose. The high drama of it all with the morbidly jealous Pelleas leaving on tip-toe, while Gawain and Ettare doze in their post-coital swoon is captured with gratifying precision upon this cracked tile of a hundred and forty years old that I bought for £1.99.
No-one else wants broken tiles but me, because these overwrought designs are out of fashion and serious collectors desire undamaged specimens. But I am thankful to buy cracked tiles cheaper and know that I am providing a safe harbour for them in my fireplace – where they can be preserved safely and appreciated for their merits while their flaws are forgiven. Next Winter, these tiles will serve as a substitute for the flames of the open fire to inspire imaginative reverie at the hearth on dark nights.
Although I have no doubt Moyr Smith intended his tiles to be used in matching sets, I have chosen to mix them up – reflecting both their limited availability, and my own enjoyment in unlikely juxtapositions of different characters such Humpty Dumpty next to King Canute, or Jesus beside Bluebeard.
As my collection grows, I am beginning to appreciate the different imaginative modes of John Moyr Smith’s imagination. Most seductive is the mythic medievalism of Shakespeare and the Idylls of the King, in which everyone wears clingy clothing to outline their athletic limbs and torsos, assuming languorous postures that are never less than graceful, while extending their gestures to draw the eye into the drama unfolding. And the Celtic world is especially sexy with lots of sensuous pattern, louche drapery and exotic furniture in the shape of animals.
By contrast, the pair of Nursery Rhymes evoke a world closer to that of the late nineteenth century, in which Miss Muffet wears a corset and a little girl carries an aesthetic movement peacock fan, while their male companions – the boy, the creepy old man with the snuff box and Humpty Dumpty himself – are dressed in theatrical versions of eighteenth century garb. The presiding influence here is Kate Greenaway.
Yet all this variety of content and style is unified by the circular frames within each design and the limited colour scheme of browns, with touches of blue and soft grey, upon beige and biscuit tiles, creating a pleasant unity when they are arranged side by side. Every one of my tiles has already been around in other fireplaces for over a century. How many rooms and lives they have witnessed. How many babes have fallen asleep in their cots watching Nursery Rhyme figures dancing in the flickering firelight in the Nursery fireplace. How many old dears have drifted off in their fireside armchairs, glancing at the familiar Biblical scenes for the last time, before sleeping never to wake again, in the hope that their Christian souls are saved.
When I sit beside my stove next Winter I shall think not just of the characters in the miscellany of stories in my fireplace, but also of all those other unknown people before me who have wiled away long nights at the hearth, their dreams enlivened by the presence of these wonderful tiles by John Moyr Smith.
Humpty Dumpty from Moyr Smith’s Nursery Rhyme series - tile has broken edge.
Henry IV Part One. Young Hal & Falstaff at the Boar’s Head in Cheapside, from Moyr Smith’s Shakespeare series.
Twelfth Night – the drunken carousing of Andrew Aguecheek, Feste and Sir Toby Belch – this tile was the kind gift of Rodney Archer.
The Welsh hero Geraint rescues his beloved Enid from the attentions of Doorm, the robber chief – from Moyr Smith’s “Idyll’s of the King” series.
Deceived by a forged love letter, Malvolio comes dressed before Olivia in yellow cross garters, while her maid Maria – the perpetrator – watches in amusement
Little Miss Muffet with the spider and another predatory admirer - tile cracked in three and glued back together again.
Kind Canute steps up onto his thrown to avoid the waves while his sycophantic courtier retreats in horror – from Moyr Smith’s Early English History series.
The Tempest. Trinculino the drunken butler and Stefano the fool meet Caliban gathering wood on Prospero’s magic island.
Troubled Enid and mistrustful Geraint, a tense marriage - tile cracked in two and stuck together again.
Macbeth drops his cup upon seeing Banquo’s ghost at the feast, pointing the finger of guilt for King Duncan’s murder.
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