14 April 2013

Spode and Tiles and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

It never ceases to amaze me where a web search can take you. I was looking at the website of the Museum of Modern Art, New York to see what was going on this year and was immediately confronted by an image of a striking interior chosen to represent an exhibition about architect Henri Labrouste. I immediately recognised it as the interior of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Now, you may ask why a Spode historian should recognise the interior of a public building in Paris? The answer is that the elegant ceiling tiles for the cupolas were commissioned from the Spode factory whilst it was under the Copeland ownership.

The late Robert Copeland did much research on this mid-19th century commission for the Bibliothèque Nationale. It seems that the Spode factory was the only pottery manufacturer in the world to feel able to quote for the job - not even the French companies daring to tackle such a momentous project. I was very excited whilst curator at the Spode museum to rediscover the 'lost' plan for the project, dated 1863, with the design drawn out by hand and the annotations and instructions in French.

Whilst many may marvel at the books, furniture and overall architecture of the famous Parisian building how many give a second glance to the ceiling tiles? But this is momentous achievement in of ceramic skills showing the technical brilliance of the Spode factory. It is a mathematical feat as well as a potting one to get the 24 different shapes of tile to fit as per the plan.

Some of the tiles would have had to go through a bottle oven firing at least three times and any warping, cracking and shrinking would have been disastrous. Some tiles had an embossed design and were glazed with a crimson glaze but Robert Copeland records 'the plain tiles do appear to be not glazed, and from my observation, they appear to be made of the parian body'. I believe, like me, he was never able to handle a tile from this project; certainly there are none in the Spode museum. Unlike me, though, he visited the library and was able to form his considered opinion then. I have this image of hundreds of students head down researching their books in this beautiful space and the lone Robert Copeland walking around intently looking upwards!

On 21 October 1868 the Illustrated London News reported: 'The roof consists of 9 cupolas supported by 16 slender columns, 30 ft in height; light obtaining admission through a circular skylight placed at the summit of each cupola'.

There is some confusion about the quantity of tiles used. One source, quoting in the tens of thousands, seems to have got the maths wrong and the true amount calculated by Robert Copeland is nearly 5,000 delivered over a period of about 12 months.
Black & white image of more of the ceiling tiles
Many visitors to grand buildings who may spot floor, wall or ceiling tiles often immediately attribute them to Minton. But the Spode factory made tiles of all types, including encaustic tiles, in the Spode period (up to 1833); in the Copeland & Garrett period (1833-1847) when some tile patents were taken out; and of course in the later 19th century boom of tile making during the Copeland period (after 1847). For a summary of Spode ownership click here.

Large ceramic slabs, as well as tiles, became a speciality of the factory in the 19th century so it is no surprise that the respected Spode firm was approached and accepted the challenge for the Bibliothèque Nationale, making the tiles so successfully for such an important and prestigious project.

Wonderful photographs by Davide Galli of the interior of the library can be found here>.

On tiles generally, there are examples in the Spode museum collection as well as relevant papers in the Spode archive including pattern books and original drawings for various designs.

am very fond of the tiles still in situ at the factory used to decorate stillages when a clay cellar was converted to a wine cellar in the late 19th century! Random left over tiles of all sorts were used. You may wonder why the factory needed a wine cellar but they entertained customers from royalty downwards who would come to the factory to choose their wares and on official visits. There is even a wine list in the archive somewhere...

Tiles photographed in 2004, in the old wine cellar, formerly a clay cellar
Here is my photo of a section of these tiles on the stillages, which is not bad considering I virtually fell down collapsing steps into the unlit, muddy-floored cellar, camera aloft - but I really did have to see those tiles I had heard about. Sadly many were later severely damaged by reckless building work prior to 2008. Another image appears on my Spode ABC under T.

You can find a mention of slabs and tiles on other blogs on this site - click/tap here and also here.

NB You can click/tap here for a link to MOMA's exhibition page.The exhibition ended in June 2013 so this link may eventually break.