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The history of Victorian geometric and encaustic tiled floors.

The history of Victorian geometric and encaustic tiled floors.

Geometric and encaustic tiled floors started to appear in around 1860 and became widespread, probably peaking by the late 1800s. Initially they were installed in prestigious buildings, but as with any fashion this popularity cascaded and many are found in ordinary terraced houses. As well as adding prestige and colour to a Victorian hall, they were also remarkably practical. 

 

Although Victorian builders probably did not give too much thought to the floors lifespan most domestic interior tiled floors have survived over 100 years wear and tear. With a little care, they will probably be good for another 100 years. There can be few other floor finishes that offer such durability, whilst looking so good.

Although these floors fell out of fashion during the 1960s and 70s, when many of them were covered over, they are now being rediscovered by their present owners and restored to former glory. Although many need a significant amount of work carried out, around nine out of 10 are generally repairable. If the substrate has shifted significantly they may be beyond economic repair even though from a practical point of view they are restorable.

Tiles were often made from locally sourced clay and usually have square edges, which is key to the flat surface that these floors have. There were innumerate manufacturers and it is not uncommon to find a mix of different manufacturers' tiles within one floor. There are around ten common colours, but there could be many variations in shade, particularly in reds and buffs. Plain coloured tiles tend to be more durable than encaustic tiles as they are generally harder dust pressed tiles. Some plain colours wear relatively more quickly, and it is quite common to find a floor showing very little wear, except for the buff tiles, which may all be dished. The buff coloured tiles seem to stain more readily and can show cloudiness after cleaning. Blue and green tiles were used more sparingly, as they were – and still are – expensive to produce, requiring a white clay and much more expensive dye.

Glazed tiles are rare, as most floor tiles were unglazed. In ecclesiastical floors, however, the odd glazed tile was sometimes used, most often a green one. Glazed tiles can also be found in geometric tiles used for fireplace hearths. We have worked on floors where the plain tiles were normal unglazed tiles and the encaustic tiles glazed but this is uncommon.

Geometric designs can use a very large number of small tiles with up to 600 tiles per square metre, so the hall floor in a fine Victorian terraced house could easily have around 4,000 tiles in it. The number of tiles gives an indication of the cost of the floors in terms of materials and also in the labour to lay the floor.

ENCAUSTIC TILES

 

Many of the manufacturers of plain geometric tiles also made encaustic (patterned) tiles, using a medieval technique re-invented by Herbert Minton, which involved inlaying layers of different coloured clays to create a design. His company was particularly successful and 'Minton' is one of the name most commonly found on the back of original encaustic tiles, although there were several different companies which incorporated the Minton family name. Encaustic tiles were most commonly two-colour that is to say the body of one colour (red for example), impressed with a pattern filled with a different colour (such as buff). However, there are plenty around with three and four colours, and you can find them with five or six colours.

Encaustic tiles were used relatively sparingly in geometric design as they were always much more expensive than plain geometrics tiles. Such tiles can show some excessive wear after a hundred years or so, as the secondary colours were added in the form of liquid clay slips, and so were often softer than the main body of the tile. Different inlay colours wear at different rates, so it is possible to find one particular colour completely worn away.

ORIGINAL TILE LAYING

For the day most floors were laid to a good standard, although on careful inspection, mistakes can usually be found. Sometimes it is possible to find numerous mistakes which are still not that obvious unless you look hard. Grout lines are usually so fine that many people think these tiles were butted together. That was rarely the case; most floors were laid with a fine grout line to allow small dimensional differences.

Tiles were always laid in a wet lime mortar screed with various layers, often the initial layer was mixed with general waste from the construction of the building. The final layer was still not cured (or still green) as the tiles were laid. They would have been laid quite quickly and flattened with wooden planks or boards - this method would allow for the different thicknesses of the tiles. This difference in tile thicknesses can be seen quite clearly in sections of tiles that have been removed leaving imprints in the screed below. 

Taking up and relaying all of the original tiles is generally not economic. Tiles will be broken during the process unless it is done very carefully; in which case, a new reproduction replacement is likely due to cost. We have noticed that as a general rule if there is significant damage to these floors they are often discarded due to the floor being beyond economic restoration – the floor is possible to restore but domestic customers often do not have the budget required.

The restorer is faced with more problematic work than the orginal tile laying company as we will not be able to lay tiles as quickly. We have to remove a tile, recess the area and insert a new one (which is a close match). Repairing doorways is an issue as we will have to create more support than was ever present in the orginal floor. Often there is more work required than is at first noticed no matter how many times you go through the survey process!

For any enquiries, information and a no obligation chat please phone Renew on 01484 686270 or alternatively email an enquiry.