Encaustic tiles are glazed and decorated earthenware tiles which were produced in huge quantities during the Gothic period between the 13th and 16th centuries and subsequently in 19th century Britain.
Encaustic tiles are earthenware decorative products produced by stamping a design in wet clay and then infilling it with liquid clays of different colour. After firing, the finished tile usually comprises two colours but can have incorporate up to six, depending on the design. Because the colour is not surface applied but actually forms part of the tile body, the colours remain as the tile is worn down through use. The effect is analogous to a wood inlay. Typically, the inlay in the tiles can be as shallow as 3mm.
The term encaustic is a Victorian term; they were called inlaid tiles during the medieval period. Traditionally, the tile body was made from a red clay mixed with sand. A design in relief would be carved on a wooden block and pressed into the still-moist clay. The resulting form would then be filled with a white clay (called slip) which turned yellow when fired in a low temperature kiln (425°C). Tile designs would sometimes be complete individually, otherwise they would be designed to be laid in groups of 4 or 16.
During both Gothic and Victorian periods, the main use for encaustic tiles was for church flooring where it formed an attractive and very durable surface. Some were also laid in private homes although these were generally copies of the tiles in churches.
Encaustic tiles are still manufactured today in a two-part moulding process that is similar to the traditional method. The only difference is that the inlaid colours are first poured into a mould which is then set into the body colour.
NB Short Guide, Scottish traditional shopfronts, published, on 18 April 2017 by Historic Environment Scotland, defines encaustic tiles as: ‘Victorian tiles which are inlaid with clay to produce a decorative pattern and found in shop entrance lobbies. Mass produced in the later 19th century by Minton & Co. and became a fashionable flooring for many Victorian buildings.’
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