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A Fireplace in Fournier St

May 27, 2011
by the gentle author

The scourging

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

Noah’s flood.

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.

You may also like to read about

Simon Pettet’s Tiles at Dennis Severs’ House

John Moyr Smith’s Tiles 1

John Moyr Smith’s Tiles 2

10 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    May 27, 2011

    my gosh, they’re inside the firebox??? no wonder they step so lively. thanks to sister e, and for another glimpse inside the lovely old houses.

  2. May 27, 2011

    Thank you so much for risking your life to photograph the tiles, and hopefully Sister Elizabeth recovers!

  3. Sarah permalink
    May 27, 2011

    LOL – if the Bible was a tabloid newspaper…so interesting to see these tiles, capturing the most dramatic moments of human jeopardy, salacious enough to be tucked inside the firebox, out of sight and besooted

  4. Ana permalink
    May 27, 2011

    Great job photographing and equally great written article to accompany the images.
    It seems a shame that the tiles are in the fireplace. Either way, pretty and yet another new thing I’ve seen through this blog.

  5. Fay Cattini permalink*
    May 27, 2011

    I wish I could see the tiles more closely! But I don’t think it’s the woman caught in adultery. I think it’s Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce Joseph. I don’t think it’s the soldiers bringing Jesus a purple robe. I think it’s Joseph’s brothers bringing his coat of many colours to their father after they had sold him into slavery. Not sure about Judith! I think it might be Salome with the head of John the Baptist.

  6. Joan permalink
    May 30, 2011

    Just back from the excellent ‘Dirt’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. Some beautiful Delft tiles in the section dealing with the cleanliness of Dutch housewives. Well worth a visit.

    Joan

  7. Paul permalink
    April 23, 2012

    I tend to agree with Fay Cattini regarding Jesus / Joseph. In the orig Hebrew, Joseph’s coat is called a ‘striped coat’, or ‘a coat of lines’ (‘Ketonet passim’), which this illustration seems to show. The King James’ version immortalized it as ‘a coat of many colours’, but it is quite possible that a translation into another language is closer to the original. Not sure what the Latin or LXX say…

  8. Leonie permalink
    June 11, 2012

    Very grateful to the Gentle Author for sharing these treasures. I find all this very interesting on several levels as Peter’s great grandsons John & Henry, as well John’s son John Henry and another descendant, John’s granddaughter, Juliet Bergman were all famous artists in their day in the 1800s. It makes me wonder if Peter might not have collaborated artistically to this collection. Peter’s brother Phillipe was a pastor among the Walloons and Huguenots of Canterbury and in Dover; Some sources list Peter himself as having pastored at Canterbury also. Their group were very devoted and God-fearing, thus I am apt to believe that his intentions here were sound and noble. I also tend to concur with Fay Catini’s interpretations on some of the depictions, and I thank you all for your contributions. Besides all that, it is just wonderful to view these biblical histories through the eyes and minds of those who lived 300-400 years ago and I am thankful they’ve survived.

    A descendant of Peter and Mary Le Keux

  9. Leonie permalink
    June 12, 2012

    I’d like to add that upon reflection, I wonder if the St. Jerome in the wilderness tile might not be a depiction of Daniel in the Lion’s Den? If we agree that the head scene portrays John the baptist, then it would be noted that all the central characters are from the scriptures and with the exception of Noah, were all Hebrews and descendants of Noah through the line of Shem. St. Jerome to my knowledge is not mentioned in the protestant version of the Bible, and although Peter Le Keux was protestant, I am sure he would have been more familiar with St. Jerome than I am but given the collective theme of the tiles shown so far, I feel inclined to think that it was intended to illustrate Daniel in the Lion’s Den.

  10. Lesley Brett permalink
    April 1, 2014

    What an interesting site, I have very much enjoyed reading about these wonderful tiles. I too am a direct descendant of an 1840′s resident of Church/Fournier St., but am having a difficulty in discerning exactly at which number he lived. 1841 census shows Church St. but the only numbered house is 13 (not his!) Have tried counting households along from no.13 but page is not clear enough to be certain. Any ideas anyone? Family was of George Christmas, silk weaver. I so want to visit Fournier St, and see these incredibly lovely houses, but it would be a form of torture to be confronted by them and not know which one it was!
    Kind regards,
    Lesley

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