A Fireplace in Fournier St
There is a fine house in Fournier St with an old fireplace lined with manganese Delft tiles of an attractive mulberry hue illustrating lurid Biblical scenes. Installed when the house was built in the seventeen fifties by Peter Lekeux – a wealthy silk weaver who supervised two hundred and fifty looms and commissioned designs from Anna Maria Garthwaite – these lively tiles have survived through the centuries to educate, delight and inspire the residents of Spitalfields.
Tiles were prized for their value and their decorative qualities, and in this instance as devotional illustrations too. Yet although Peter Lekeux was a protestant of Huguenot descent, a certain emotionalism is present in these fascinating tiles, venturing into regions of surrealism in the violent imaginative excess of their pictorial imagery. The scourging of Jesus, Judith with the decapitated head of Holofernes, the Devil appearing with cloven feet and bovine features, and Jonah vomited forth by the whale are just four examples of the strangeness of the imaginative universe that is incarnated in this fireplace. Arranged in apparent random order, the tiles divide between scenes from the life of Jesus and Old Testament saints, many set in a recognisable Northern European landscape and commonly populated by people in contemporary dress.
It is possible that the tiles may date from the seventeenth century and originate from continental Europe. Their manufacture developed in Delft when, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Chinese ceramics were imported from Portuguese ships captured by the Dutch, and because these were in demand local potters tried to copy them, starting a new industry in its own right. The earthenware tiles were covered with a tin glaze to create a white ground upon which the design was pricked out from a stencil, and then the artist simply had to join up the dots, producing the images quickly and to a relatively standard design.
“I’m not sure what this is supposed to illustrate!” exclaimed Sister Elizabeth at St Saviour’s Priory, colouring slightly when I showed her the tile of the topless woman dragging a bemused man towards a bed, “Maybe the woman taken in adultery?” Yet she was able to identify all the other stories for me, graciously assenting to my request when I called round to the priory seeking interpretation of the scenes in my photographs - after I had spent a morning in Fournier St crouching in the soot with my camera.
Upon closer examination, several hands are at work in these tiles – with the artist who drew Jesus confronting the Devil in the wilderness and Jonah thrown up by the whale, setting the dominant tone. This individual’s work is distinguished by the particular rubbery lips and fat round noses that recall the features of the Simpsons drawn by Matt Groenig, while the half-human figures are reminiscent of Brueghel’s drawings illustrating the nightmare world of apocalypse. More economic of line is the artist who drew Jesus clearing out the temple and Pilate washing his hands – these drawings have a spontaneous cartoon-like energy, although unfortunately he manages to make Jesus resemble an old lady with her hair in a bun.
There is an ambivalence which makes these tiles compelling. You wonder if they served as devout remembrances of the suffering of biblical figures, or whether a voyeuristic entertainment and perverse pleasure was derived from such bizarre illustrations. Or whether perhaps there are ambiguous shades of feeling in the human psyche that combine elements of each? A certain crossover between physical pain and spiritual ecstasy is a commonplace of religious art. It depends how you like your religion, and in these tiles it is magical and grotesque – yet here and now.
My head spins, imagining the phantasmagoria engendered in viewers’ imaginations over the centuries, as their eyes fell upon these startling scenes in the glimmering half-light, before dozing off beside this fireplace in a weary intoxicated haze, in the quiet first floor room at the back of the old house in Fournier St.
In the wilderness, the Devil challenges Jesus to turn stones into bread.
Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.
St Jerome with the lion in the wilderness.
Jesus drives the traders from the temple.
Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well.
Sampson and Delilah, cutting Sampson’s hair
The woman who touched Jesus’ robes secretly and was instantly cured of her haemorrhage.
Judith with the head of Holofernes
Pilate washes his hands after Jesus is bound and led away.
Jesus and the fishermen
Jonah sits under the broom tree outside Nineveh.
The soldiers bring purple robes to Jesus to rebuke him when he claims to be an emperor.
Jonah is cast up by the whale upon the shore of Nineveh.
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