John Moyr Smith’s Tiles 3
Now I have gathered thirty-seven of the forty-five tiles I shall need to line my fireplace for next Winter, it is time again to show you my latest acquisitions. A current favourite is this curious broken nursery rhyme tile that possesses an unlikely saucy humour, as the Knave reaches out to grab not the Queen’s tarts but that part of her anatomy which almost rhymes with “tarts.” It is closer in spirit to the work of seaside postcard artist Donald McGill than to the innocuous children’s illustrations of Kate Greenaway which you might expect in a Victorian nursery.
Six months ago, I was asked if I had been standing next to a bonfire recently and I realised that all my clothes reeked of wood smoke – on account of the drafty old chimney in my house where I burn wooden pallets from the market in Wintertime. At that moment, I vowed to have an iron stove installed by next Winter and to tile my fireplace in preparation. And these circumstances became the pretext for assembling a serendipitous collection of the work of the prolific nineteenth century Scottish ceramic artist John Moyr Smith, and since my budget is very limited and my house is very old, it suits me very well to buy broken and damaged tiles that other collectors do not want.
John Moyr Smith created many series of tiles illustrating familiar narratives and some quite unfamiliar too – produced cheaply by Minton – and it appeals to me to mix them all up to create a fireplace which is an eclectic compendium of stories, that I may contemplate by the light of the flames each Winter. In fact, the cracks and the chips only add to the appeal for me, providing another level of storytelling – that of the histories of the tiles themselves.
Two of the tiles that I bought for less than five pounds each – since no-one else wanted them because they were stained and cracked - came from the shipwreck of the Simla that left the London docks bound for Sydney and sank after a collision off the Needles in January 1884. These tiles sat at the bottom of the English Channel for over a century until rescued quite recently, which endows them with extra charisma in my eyes – what an extraordinary journey they have come upon to rest in my fireplace, circling back to Spitalfields, just a mile from the London Docks where they set out. In fact, since the Minton factory is in the North of England, it is possible that they passed through already, travelling down Commercial St to get to the docks in 1884.
The most stained tile from the wreck has an image of Hagar & Ishmael in the desert, a biblical story that was entirely new to me. Hagar was an ex-slave who became Abraham’s second wife, before he sent her off into the desert with her son Ishmael and a jar of water. When the jar ran out, they called to God for help who sent them a supply of water and told them they would found a new race of people, the Egyptians. This tile is an image of abandonment that was itself abandoned.
I have come to appreciate the designs of John Moyr Smith for his sense of drama, created by the subtle tension he can place between two figures in a composition, and it fascinates me that he always portrays the instant when events turn, often the moment of jeopardy. And I have deliberately sought out some that mean a lot to me, such as when Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, or Romeo climbs up to embrace Juliet – alongside tiles portraying favourite characters such as Boudicea and Simple Simon.
In another age, Moyr Smith would have been a natural designer of film posters with his ability to encapsulate an entire drama in a single image. His lively vision of the world, as a place thick with stories and rife with drama, is one that I find especially appealing. As I walk through the streets, I cannot avoid interpreting all the interactions of people that I see. This is one of the reasons why the city fascinates me so – it constantly engages my attention and imagination with myriad characters and stories that I can never entirely know.
And so it is with with these tiles, they compose a universe of stories as a constant reminder – should I ever get weary and forget, slumped before my stove – of the rich potential of this life that surrounds me.
Simple Simon met a Pieman. I like the attenuated style with which Simple Simon is rendered – reminiscent of Dr Seuss.
The biblical story of Hagar & Ishmael in the desert – this tile sat at the bottom of the English Channel from 1884 until recently.
Romeo & Juliet, Act One. Abraham & Sampson “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” Another tile from the Simla that sank in 1884.
Abraham offering up his son Isaac – the moment before the angel appears to stop Abraham and he sees the ram trapped in the thorn bush.
Antony & Cleopatra. Act Five, Scene Two. Cleopatra & the Clown “Hast thou that pretty worm of Nilus there that kills and pains not?”
Romeo & Juliet. Act Two, Scene Two – the balcony scene.
Boadicea leads the Ancient Britons against the Roman Invaders.
Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost upon the battlements at Elsinore.
Taken from James Thomson’s poem “The Season”s (1724), this tile shows the moment before the matchless pair of lovers Celadon & Amelia were struck dead by lightning while seeking shelter from a Summer storm in Wales. ” ‘Tis safety to be near thee sure, and thus to clasp perfection!’ From his void embrace, Mysterious Heaven! that moment to the ground, a blackened corse, was struck the beauteous maid.”
Macbeth. Act Five, Scene Seven. Macbeth confronts Young Siward who was “not of woman born,” fulfilling the witches’ prophecy.
The Dyer, from the artisans series.
The Taming of the Shrew. Act Four, Scene Three. Petrucio & Katherine “Well, come, my Kate, we will unto your father’s.”
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