Victorian and Edwardian decorative tiles

Your top Victorian and Edwardian tiles questions answered

What is the difference between encaustic and geometric tiles?

Encaustic (literally, ‘burnt-in’) decoration is achieved by stamping a design into the body of a plain clay tile before firing while it is still damp, and filling the stamped impression with liquid clay of a contrasting colour. The tile is then fired to fuse the two clays together. Encaustics may be wholly or partly glazed, but most Victorian encaustics were unglazed.

Encaustic tiles were relatively expensive, and were often combined with quarries (plain square tiles) and geometric tiles in order to cover large areas at less cost. Sometimes erroneously referred to as ‘mosaic’ tiles, geometrics are small, usually unglazed, tiles in straight-edged shapes such as triangles and lozenges, all based on subdivisions of a 6-inch (150 mm) square tile, that can be combined in a variety of patterns. Most geometrics are of natural clay colours, ranging from off-white through red and brown to blue-black.

What sort of tiles would the Victorians have used for the kitchen floor?

Kitchens, sculleries and service passages often had floors made up of cheap 6-inch (150 mm) or larger quarry tiles, in plain, unglazed red clay or red alternating with blue-black.

What sorts of tiles were used on kitchen walls?

One of the commonest forms of wall tiling was plain glazed earthenware in 6-inch (150 mm) square tiles. Slightly dearer 6 inch and 4 inch (165 mm and 115 mm) hexagons and small octagons were also used. These tiles were made in pale colours such as white, ivory, cream, buff, celadon, turquoise and olive.

I want to put a tiled dado in my porch. What design should I choose?

From about 1870, tiled dados began to appear in porches, giving visitors landscapes or floral panels to admire as they waited for admittance. Original tile panels can be found in architectural salvage yards. Alternatively, a dado can be made up using reproductions of Victorian tiles, such as those sold for fireplace panels. These can be paired and framed within a border of plain coloured tiles to make up the full width of the dado. Plain tiled dados can also work well in more modest houses. Look for ‘hand-dipped’ glazes, which have variations and depth of colour not achievable with spray-applied glaze. You will need some matching moulded tiles to make a dado rail.

Before you make a final decision, however, are you sure that a dado is appropriate for your porch? Look at neighbouring houses of similar age and date to confirm whether any decorative treatment was originally intended. Some porches had bare brick or plain plastered walls, and genuine Victorian architecture, however plain or modest, is preferable to fancy fake ‘Victoriana’.

What sort of tiling was used in Victorian bathrooms?

Bathroom tiling was hardly more decorative than that used in kitchens and other service areas. The bathroom was considered a functional room where extravagant decoration was inappropriate: a tiled dado with a moulded ceramic rail was sufficient.

How should I clean ceramic floor tiles?

Ordinary household surface cleaners, used according to the instructions on the label, will take care of day-to-day cleaning. To remove stubborn dirt, use a specially formulated product such as BAL Ceramic floor cleaner or HG Extra Cleaner. Scouring powder, metal scourers or wire brushes should never be used on tiles. Although cleaning products will help to shift a great deal of built-up dirt and old wax, be prepared to contribute a lot of elbow grease.

I have removed a fitted carpet to reveal the geometric tiled floor in my hall. What can I do to disguise the holes left by the carpet fixings?

Fill them with Polyfilla, coloured with acrylic paint (available from art supply shops) to a shade slightly darker than the surrounding tile.

There are a few loose tiles in my geometric tiled floor. What is the best method of repair?

If the tiles are all there and unbroken, you need to lift them out of the floor gently and clean out the hole into which they fitted. The cement left behind bears the imprint of the tile backs, and should be gently chipped away in order to give a good key and enough room for the new cement. Use a vacuum cleaner to remove all loose material from the repair hole. Lightly spray the hole with water, to prevent too much moisture being sucked out of the cement and weakening it. Then apply the new cement, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Replace the tiles in the same pattern.

If you need to replace missing geometrics, it is sometimes best to look for plain unglazed tiles of the right colours that can be cut to the shapes and sizes required. This is because many modern geometrics are made to slightly different sizes and have cushioned edges that do not align well with the Victorian originals. Many modern tiles are thinner than Victorian ones, so it may be necessary to build up the substrate below the patched-in tiles with cement, to bring them up to the right level.

What sort of finish should I give a tiled floor?

The traditional treatment for a tiled floor after cleaning was to apply warmed linseed oil followed by a coat of wax polish. This gave a stunning, lustrous finish to the floor, but is so labour-intensive to apply and maintain that it is inappropriate in most modern situations. Modern cold wax polishes, for example Johnson’s Traffic Wax, or HG Golvpolish are perfectly adequate. These products are available from hardware and DIY shops.

On no account should tiled floors be sealed or varnished with any kind of resin-based or polyurethane finish. Besides their unpleasant plasticky appearance, these may cause long-term problems by sealing in damp under the floor.

Are there any special techniques for installing tiles that would help me to achieve a more authentic Victorian effect?

There are small but significant differences between the way Victorian builders installed tiles and the fashions that prevail today: Victorian tilers always set tiles very closely together. Geometric pavements in particular rely for their effect on close-butted tiles.

Plain coloured tiles were often laid in staggered courses like brickwork, or diagonally, rather than in the square grid pattern favoured today.
New grouting can be coloured to match old by mixing it with universal stainer (an oil pigment sold in tubes and available from good paint suppliers). These stains become lighter in colour as they dry so do a test patch first to check the colour match before grouting a large area.

Don’t forget also to check our series of booklets on Care for Victorian Houses. Every aspect of Victorian house design and interior decoration is described in detail in The Victorian Society Book of the Victorian House.