Portraits from the past

A River Forest Victorian starts its owner on a love affair with decorative art tile

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By SUSAN ROSS

When Scott Hargadon and family moved into a Victorian home in River Forest just over a year ago, he little suspected that a loose fireplace tile with "TRENT" embossed on the back would lead into industrial history, cross-country phone calls and midnight watches on eBay, as curiosity evolved into hobby.

When one thinks of Victorian homes, one sees the grand houses: the painted ladies with extensive woodwork, high ceilings and many rooms, each one heated (originally) by open fireplaces. Hargadon's house is that vision.

Built in 1890, the home retained its original woodwork, massive pocket doors, grand central staircase, back staircase for the servants, and many tiled fireplaces. There are four fireplaces downstairs, in the front parlor, back parlor, dining room and library, and four more upstairs in the family bedrooms.

Open fireplaces required carrying in tons of fuel (coal), collecting and carrying out mounds of ash, and constant cleaning of the hearth and surround. Remember the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs? The firebox, rarely seen except by the servants, had to be durable and withstand years of high temperatures. It was usually made of firebrick, sometimes with an iron backplate.

The surround, however, was part of the room's furnishings. The trick was to use a material both pleasing to the eye and very durable. Tile surrounds, a new option for the Victorian-era builder, offered innumerable choices of design and color, at affordable prices, for a product that was not only lovely but also functionally better than any of the other options. Cheaper than marble, easier to install than river rock, less porous than brick, these tile fireplace surrounds with their beautiful designs and rich glazes decorated these rooms as much as paper, paint and furniture.

The heyday of tile was between 1880 and World War I. In England, Minton was the first company to perfect the process, and the industry bloomed. Both beautiful and durable, these tiles started appearing wherever cleanliness was an issue. In New York City, says Hargadon, there are delis totally walled in blue and white tiles.

It seems, however, that fireplace surrounds allowed artisans to stretch the medium to its fullest. "It's delightful that something so utilitarian could be so beautiful" he notes.

Glazed tile is a wonderful marriage of mud and sand. Clay has been used since times almost pre-historic, molded and baked for use as storage containers. Glass has been worked since Roman times. Glaze, the sound of the word showing its connection to glass, starts life as a suspension containing the elements that make glass. It's painted onto a clay surface, and is then left to dry. When fired, this solution changes into a thin layer of glass fused onto the clay tile. Recipes for glazes were treasured secrets of the ceramists, carried from company to company when they changed jobs, and many now lost.

Beautiful fires

A tile fireplace surround is an upside down 'U' shape. As in Hargadon's house, a surround may be further dressed with a carved oak frame and mantel, and an overmantel with mirror.

Each fireplace is different. The library and the back parlor, both family rooms for the Victorians, are finished rather simply. Tiles,
11/2-inches high and 3-inches long, are arranged in a brick wall pattern (two tiles meeting in the middle of the tile in the previous row). The front parlor has small tiles, 3-by-3 inch in a rich brown glaze with a self-contained decorative molded pattern arranged in a grid.

The last and most elaborate of the public fireplaces is in the dining room, and it's magnificent. When one considers the multi-course dinners that were a central part of entertaining during this era, it becomes less surprising that this room received the most elaborate tile work. This surround is a scene of birds, a series of tiles interlocking to form a continuous picture, up one side, across the top and down the other side.

Hargadon comments that this surround, in a mottled green-brown color, is "extremely rare." It was a loose tile in the hearth of this fireplace that started his venture into collecting.

Taking up a collection

Collecting is a lovely obsession. In addition to the tiles around each fireplace, Hargadon has a collection of single tiles that he displays on the shelves in the library. Faces all. Colors differ, subjects differ, but all are faces, and all are looking to the sideâ€"full or three-quarter profile.

"I'm a collector of images," he explains. These tiles were the corner blocks of the surround, and so are posed looking at each other. Of the ones gathered, his favorites are Michelangelo and a lady with a ruff, which is by Isaac Broom.

"His tiles are works of art and virtually unsurpassed," says Hargadon.

While many companies used color to define patterns, the tiles that Hargadon favors are those with bas-relief. When finished, though all areas of the tile are glazed, the coating is thinner, so lighter, on the higher portions of the design, and thicker and darker on the lower areas, resulting in a shaded composition. Hargadon believes it would be difficult if not impossible, as well as prohibitively expensive, to produce tiles comparable to the ones he collects.

He has also netted some vertical panels with people, and again, for Hargadon, these are the prizes. He's framed and hung three different sets: one of musicians, one of "pastoral lovers," and one with a number of cherubs.

Everyone on a quest seeks a particular holy grail, and Hargadon is no exception. In fact, he has two, and both are pictured in the standard reference work on tile by Norman Karlson (see sidebar below). The first, made by American Encaustic Tile, is a pair of chaste nudes, emerging from scrollwork which morphs into sea fronds. Each figure is a tower of five interlocking tiles, originally the two side panels for a large fireplace.

The second is a reclining draped woman, almost Greek in her pose, holding out a hand upon which a bird perches, while others splash in a birdbath at her feet. A grid of 10 tiles, five wide by two high, makes this particular set rare, and as pictured in a green glaze, particularly
fetching.

While Hargadon collects portrait tiles, daughter Darcy has taken to looking over his shoulder during his eBay searches, and is amassing her own collection of small decorative tiles. Prices for these 3-inch tiles run roughly $10 to $30, where the portrait tiles, usually 6-by-6 inches, average $100 to $350.

Many nights, before retiring, Hargadon will use his computer to track items made almost a century ago. Five items on eBay have caught his attentionâ€"all portraitsâ€"and he's keeping watch.

"Sometimes I say I've got to stop," says Hargadon. But it doesn't seem like he'll be doing that anytime soon.

Should this story and these pictures whet your appetite for collecting, Scott Hargadon offers the following tips:

• Get the tile collecting bible, American Art Tile, 1876-1941, by Norman Karlson. It's the definitive work on the genre. Hargadon says this book taught him about the field, and is still his constant reference as he explores it.

• Decide what you're going to collect. "'Tile' is just too broad," says Hargadon. He limits his gatherings to three tile companiesâ€"Trent, American Encaustic and US Encaustic Tile.

Trent tiles are in the fireplace surrounds in his River Forest home, and are, he says, "on the whole the most beautiful, due to [their] depth of expression."

American Encaustic was the largest tile-making company and so it's possible to find many pieces that remain intact.

Hargadon collects US Encaustic Tile as a nod to his hometown of Indianapolis, Ind., where it was made. When he last visited there, he went to see where the factory had been, but nothing remained. Fortunately, tons of tiles still exist.


• Look at eBay and get a feel for the market. Be aware of the different prices for the different color glazes. Pink and green are more common.

• Check antique stores and architectural salvage companies, and be sure to ask if they have any tile. Very often it will be in a box under the counter or stuck on a side table. In Chicago, check the holdings of Chicago Architectural Artifacts. They currently pull much tile from South America, particularly Uruguay.

Hargadon tells the story of finding a full surround at an antique show, and keeping contact with the dealer through several months until a deal could be struck. The tile was unbelievable, "in good condition, and all together," he recalls.

• Save your pennies and start shopping. "Art is expensive and this is affordable," says Hargadon, and, he adds, "if you're studious, there are bargains to be found every day."

â€"Susan Ross

Reader Comments

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Erin Wherley from Table Grove   

Posted: June 27th, 2014 11:34 AM

It appears that tiles of the children and vines is missing a tile. There should be another tile with an arm of one and the leg and foot of another