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Delft Tiles In Fournier St

April 9, 2016
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 when I consulted her, colouring slightly when I showed 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 in Bethnal Green 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 or she 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 to imagine 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. David Wilson permalink
    April 9, 2016

    Hi Gentle Author

    I think that Sister Elizabeth may have made a mistake in describing one tile as “The soldiers bring purple robes to Jesus to rebuke him when he claims to be an emperor.” Jesus is always shown with a halo – though the different artists employ different forms: one a glowing aura around his head, the other a little hoop over his head. In this scene the man sitting on the right is halo-less, so surely has to be someone else. There is at least one tile from the Joseph stories, and so I’m pretty sure that this one actually showing Joseph’s brothers bringing his torn and bloodied coat to their father Jacob.

  2. April 9, 2016

    Its amazing these tiles from the old house in Fournier St have survived the passage of time and the wartime blitzkrieg. In fact they are picture books many showing biblical scenes, every picture tells a story. I can imagine the families sitting around the fireplace watching the shadows dancing across the tiles and discussing the many scenes. Well presented. John

  3. April 9, 2016

    How very wonderful.
    Noting again women in strong / central roles in many of these.
    St Sebastien wouldn’t look out of place here 🙂

  4. Linda Brownlee permalink
    April 9, 2016

    These are beautiful as examples of the skills and artistic ability of the time. however, for me they help to explain how important Denis Seevers beautiful house in Folgate Street is for those of us who need the whole picture! Love the tiles but love them better as part of that fantastical experience! Thank you, thank you for bringing a lost century alive in London. My recent trip lives with me still.

  5. April 9, 2016

    The tiles are very interesting, and I am sure many people will have wondered about the stories behind them. The ‘topless’ lady could also have been Jael, a woman who lured a man, Sisera, into her tent and then killed him as she knew that he was an enemy of her people. (Judges 4) But whoever she was, the tiles are historically interesting. Valerie

  6. April 9, 2016

    Apologies for the length of the quote but reading today’s entry I was immediately reminded of chapter 1 of ‘A Christmas Carol’: ‘.

    It was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. He was obliged to sit close to it, and brood over it, before he could extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel. The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures. There were Cains and Abels, Pharaoh’s daughters; Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts; and yet that face of Marley, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet’s rod, and swallowed up the whole. If each smooth tile had been a blank at first, with power to shape some picture on its surface from the disjointed fragments of his thoughts, there would have been a copy of old Marley’s head on every one.

    An image that had stayed with me ever since I first read the book.

    As ever, the links to previous posts lead to a richer appreciation of arts, crafts and the lives of artisans in the neighbourhood. Thank you for signposting me to Simon Pettet and his wonderful fireplace. I suspect the strict, dark haired gentleman, who bades all visitors hold their tongue on entering Dennis Severs’ shrine, will evict me next time I visit for chambering around in the fireplace.

  7. April 9, 2016

    Fascinating – as always – piece and of particular interest to those of us in the tile trade, well those of us who care anyway.
    I have worked on a house in Fournier St for an artist client – it was a most interesting and evocative building, and was a great pleasure to have played a part in it’s careful restoration.


  8. William Hill permalink
    April 9, 2016

    A fascinating survival. Have been round many Dutch Houses, but do not recall seeing biblical tiles. More from the Dutch Tile Museum

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    April 9, 2016

    Greetings from Boston

    Again, GA, what a fascinating post. And such interesting comments.

    Joan, loved that excerpt from Dickens – how apropos. I feel fortunate to be in such thoughtful company…

  10. Barbara Gordley permalink
    April 9, 2016

    Hello from New Orleans and thank you for such a fascinating and beautiful posting. I do think that the subject identified as St Jerome might rather be Daniel in the Lion’s Den as all of the other subjects are biblical and the original owner of the home most likely a Protestant.

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