Ever wondered what makes a tile 'special'? If you've joined me on some of my Tile Tidy sessions, you’ve probably heard me mention 'common' and 'special' in relation to tiles. Like children, all tiles are beautiful of course! However, I am a tad selective about the vintage tiles to be included my upcoming book. This is because I’m planning to showcase a selection of tiles that you won’t easily find at shophouses at the usual tourist spots.
Peranakan tiles, as they are commonly called in Singapore, have a reputation for being brightly coloured. The truth is that decorative tiles in Singapore come in a multitude of designs and colours depending on their origin, style and date of manufacture.
Archival records show tiles being sold in Singapore as far back as the 1890s. Early imports probably included tiles from countries including England, German, France, Holland and Belgium. Japanese tile manufacturers made their first majolica tile in around 1908, and entered late into the international tile trade.
Britain was one of the first countries to successfully mass-produce machine-made tiles. In 1748, Liverpool based printer John Sadler invented the technique of transfer printing. His achievements were revolutionary to the field of ceramic decoration due to the significant saving of time and labour, not to mention the increased accuracy of designs. Pot painters employed to paint tiles by hand were probably very displeased by his 'disruption'!
By 1784, Josiah Spode has successfully managed to develop blue-and-white underglaze transfer-printed pottery that became popular as a cheaper alternative to blue-and-white delftware and Chinese porcelain. However, relatively few tiles were made in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
In 1840, Richard Prosser developed early technology for dust-pressed tiles, which enabled the mass production of tiles at a consistent quality. In 1848, new technology enabled different colours to be printed at the same time. By the 1870s, ready-made glaze and colours were available for any tile producer to purchase, which further simplified the manufacturing process.
At Lao Sua Cemetery, I've been uncovering tiled tombs dating back as far as 1910. It's amazing to see the variety of tiles that exist in the depths of this forested area so close to town. By researching English tiles in books, it's very enjoyable to draw comparisons with tiles I'm seeing in the field.
It’s lovely to know that local residents in Singapore felt such a strong affection for these English tiles. From their shophouses to their tombs, people obviously admired the calm and graceful characteristics of these ceramic beauties. Singapore is blessed to have this valuable tangible heritage available for all to see and enjoy.
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All photographs by Finbarr Fallon