John Moyr Smith’s Tiles 4
At the very beginning of this year, I began to collect John Moyr Smith’s tiles from the eighteen eighties. Captivated by the elegant lyricism of his designs and working with a meagre budget, it has taken nine months to acquire the forty-five tiles I require to line my fireplace, in advance of installing an iron stove to keep me warm during the coming Winter. Where possible, I have bought chipped, cracked, broken or stained tiles – some even rescued from the bottom of the ocean – and, as a result, I now have a spectacular collection. In mint condition, some of these tiles would change hands for hundreds of pounds, yet many of my specimens only cost a few pounds each.
The selection published here illustrates the eclectic range of subjects which inspired John Moyr Smith, all portrayed with wit and vitality. It is a curious mix of the epic and the everyday that reflects my own sense of the volatile nature of existence. There is a barber, a painter, a potter and a tanner from Moyr Smith’s series of artisans, offering a vernacular counterpoint to his apocalyptic Biblical visions of Christ walking on the water, the the wise men arriving from the East, Jacob’s dream at Bethel, the fall of Sodom & Gomorrah and the slaying of Abel – with Tennyson’s Vivien seducing Merlin and Shakespeare’s Lear grieving for the loss of Cordelia, just to skew the phantasmagoric mirage in other strange directions.
Now that I have forty-five of these dramatic vignettes in ceramic form – each one a story, each one a world – I am going to have an interesting time working out the placement of them, like an outrageous coterie of bohemians in a crowded boarding house. But first, preparations are necessary before the tiles can be installed . When my house underwent renovation in the ninety seventies, the hearth was removed and a disproportionate modern fire surround fitted. Jim Howett has already been to take a look at the hole in the wall where I tore out the large fire surround, and he plans to reinstate the hearth for me with a plain marble hearthstone and a modest wooden surround of the scale and proportion which suit the period of the house. Our intention is that, once it is complete, the new fireplace will look as if it was always there.
Once the fireplace is finished, the interior can be lined with five rows of five of my Moyr Smith tiles at the back and five rows of two on either side. Finally, once the cracked and broken specimens are secured safely in place, the iron stove can be fitted. Jim & I hope to complete this before the end of the year, so that you can see the finished result before Christmas. Then I can settle down to write my stories on dark Winter nights, warmed by the glimmering stove in my fireplace lined with a glorious miscellany of stories.
Christ walking on the sea.
King Lear, V, III. A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all! Lear laments the death of Cordelia.
Jacob’s dream at Bethel.
The Wise Men from the East.
Sodom & Gomorrah destroyed by fire.
The death of Abel.
Vivien from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” Having seduced Merlin, the duplicitous Vivien imprisons him in a hollow tree with a charm.
Sensing we are now in Autumn, Mr Pussy waits for the hearth to come to life, with tiles and a new stove.
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