A Guide To Olde English Tiles

What are olde English tiles? (a.k.a. tessellated tiles

Definition: “A tessellation is the tiling of a plane (floor, wall, other) using one or more geometric shapes with no gaps or overlaps, generally with a repeating pattern.” 

There are many different technical forms of tessellations, but in the context of heritage architecture in Australia the most common are: regular, semi-regular and wallpaper: regular - with regular polygonal tiles all of the same shape (hexagon, square, equilateral triangle), semiregular - with regular tiles of more than one shape and with every corner identically arranged. The patterns formed by periodic tiling can be categorized into 17 ‘wallpaper’ groups. The most famous examples of wallpaper types of tessellations are to be seen in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. These are a form of tessellation known as ‘zellij’ or ‘zellige’ - ornate geometric patterns composed of brightly coloured glazed terracotta found throughout southern Spain and Morocco. Tessellated floors using a variety of shapes and colours can be formed from porcelain, stone, glass, glazed terracotta or timber. Parquetry is also a form of tessellated flooring. 

Historically, tessellations were used in Ancient Rome and in Islamic art, such as the decorative tiling of the Alhambra, and the Alcazar Palace in Seville, but their use can be traced as far back as the Sumerians, about 4000B.C. 

In Medieval England, the use of mosaic and tessellated floors occurred from the mid 12th to the mid 14th century. By the 13th century most abbeys, monasteries and palaces had tiled floors. The areas covered by these tiles were often extremely large - 2,700 m2 at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, 2,300 m2 at Byland. 

By the 16th century, encaustic & tessellated floors had fallen out of favour, partly due to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, and partly due to new styles & techniques coming from Europe. In the late 18th century English architects began looking to the country’s past for inspiration, and came across examples of olde Medieval tiles. Publications featuring these tiles stimulated a demand for reproduction tiles for new and restored churches. The Gothic Revival was born, and with it ‘olde English tiles’. 

With the technical developments in porcelain tile manufacture, most importantly the invention of the dust-pressed method patented by Richard Prosser in 1840 and adapted to the manufacture of tiles by Herbert Minton, the replication of medieval encaustic tiles was possible. The Minton/Prosser ‘dust-pressed method’ became the standard method for tile manufacture, both wall and floor, for the rest of the century. 

As a result of the patronage of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband & consort, this form of tiling became increasingly popular. In 1844 he specified them for the floors of Osborne House, the Royal family's residence on the Isle of Wight. This royal seal of approval guaranteed the spread of tessellated tiles & encaustics as a fashionable decorative feature, and while closely associated with Victorian Gothic architecture - hence the term 'Olde English' tiles - they were just as commonly used on the paths, verandahs and interiors of Italianate, Boom Style, Federation buildings and beyond. Though Gothic in origin, tessellated - ‘olde English’ tiled floors, were also a significant element of these architectural styles. 

The type we are most familiar with here in Australia is the geometric patterned floors in different shapes and colours of vitrified porcelain forming a panel which is continuously repeated, so that, whether your floor is 2m2 or 200m2, the same basic geometric pattern is employed. These panels frequently, but not always, exhibit a cruciform structure to the pattern, e.g. the Bristol, Chester, Devon & Paddington designs.

Who coined the name?

“Olde English tiles” is one of several terms used to refer to tessellated tiles. In England, tessellated floors are often termed ‘geometric’ floors. As mentioned above, the late 18th century witnessed a growing fascination with Gothic architecture, art and culture, which was an expression of a nation seeking a sense of identity. From this stemmed the Gothic Revival movement, championed by restoration architect AWN Pugin & art historian John Ruskin. Both men recognized the fundamental importance of the ancient tessellated and encaustic floors to achieving the authentic restoration of the country’s unique architecture. 

Where can I use olde English tiles?

During the 19th and early 20th century tessellated tiles were used wherever the budget would allow, and wherever hard wearing, decorative tiles were needed, and sometimes where they weren’t.

In Australia, the period from the 1870s through to the early 1930s was one where few houses, whether large or small, were constructed without one or two tessellated floors, but it was the period leading up to the commencement of WWI that saw them reach their peak of popularity.

Olde English/tessellated tiles were installed in commercial, religious and civic buildings both grand and modest, both inside and out. From the corridors of power within Britain’s Houses of Parliament to Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand, tessellated tiles were used to line the walls as well as cover the floor. They were Prince Albert’s preferred product to decorate the floors of Osborne House, and ever since then tessellated tiles became, not only the most fashionable flooring material, but the most durable, practical and versatile ceramic floor tile option, employed on paths, verandahs, terraces, entrance halls, bathrooms, kitchens, laundries & sculleries, sunrooms, conservatories, even, though not often, the pediments & facades of private homes.

Are there any factors I should consider before choosing?

Yes, there are four main factors you should consider before selecting olde English tiles.

  1. Era

    Understanding what patterns and colours are appropriate to the era & style of your house is fundamental - it's like choosing the correct shoes with your suit or dress. So, if you have a modest Californian Bungalow in Sydney and you select a pattern and colours more suited to a Boom Style mansion in Melbourne, the look will be compromised, more costly than is necessary, and negatively impact the value of your property. Therefore it’s important to choose a pattern that is period and style appropriate.

  2. Colour

    Each era tends to have a certain defining style where certain colours and combinations of colours prevail. The early 1970s were dominated by shades of beige and browns; apricots & light greys characterized late ‘70s/early ‘80s decor. At the moment, the fashion is for neutrals - black/white/grey - for interiors and exteriors.

    When choosing colours for your renovation, it makes sense to coordinate all the various elements to achieve a harmonious and integrated whole, but it is important to be practical as well as fashionable when selecting colours.

    For example, dark coloured surfaces get hotter than pale coloured surfaces, and retain the heat longer - an important consideration when choosing, not only the paint colour for the walls of your house facade, but the colours of the verandah tiles too.

    Also, paint colours fade in the extremely harsh Australian sun, but the colours of your tessellated floor won’t. The colour pigments go all the way through the tile and are baked in at volcanic temperatures. They will never fade. So matching the colour of your tiles (permanent colours) to the colour of your door or walls (impermanent colours that will fade within a decade) means that in a few years the colours of your harmonious and integrated facade won’t match.

    What does this mean in practical terms? We’re not suggesting that you don’t try to coordinate the colours of your house, especially the facade, but ‘coordinating’ colours and ‘matching’ colours is not the same thing. Agonizing over ‘perfect’ colour matching will only lead to disappointment, whereas coordinating colours that work together allows you a degree of flexibility that accommodates changes over time, and results in a tessellated floor that is more likely to withstand the vagaries of fashion and personal taste to yield a floor that looks appealing for decades to come.

  3. Space

    One of the unique features of tessellated tiles is that they can be employed in virtually any space, no matter what the physical constraints. It may require that the pattern be simplified, that the scale of the componentry be down-sized (from a 150mm octagon to a 100mm octagon), or laid on the diagonal, or the central pattern be simplified and the border be widened, or even done away with. In short, there is always a tessellated pattern to suit your space, if you want to use one - it just requires a little imagination.

  4. Size and shape

    Even a cursory glance at the Tessellated collection on our website will reveal a dizzying number of choices, and we are featuring just a fraction of the number of patterns that were available to Victorian home builders.

    Apart from choosing a pattern that is stylistically appropriate, a successful tessellated floor should be responsive to the shape of the space being tiled. Choosing a design with a large pattern repeat for a winding or curved path will create problems of laying.

    The curve of the path will probably severely compromise the integrity of the design and diminish its impact, whereas a design with a small pattern repeat will be more flexible and, geometrically speaking, be a better fit.

How should olde English tiles be installed?

Olde English a.k.a. tessellated tiles, are a traditional product and need to be laid in a traditional way - using a 30mm screed of sand & cement, which can be applied over the top of a cement slab, cement sheeting, even a timber or tongue & groove floor - as long as certain preparatory measures are taken first. Tessellated floors should never be laid using a synthetic adhesive. The results are always seriously compromised. 

Because of the great variety of sizes and shapes in a tessellated floor, some of which can be as small as 35x35mm squares, or 35x25mm triangles, the most proven way to ensure both a completely level surface and 100% adhesion is to use a sand-cement screed and then ‘beat’ the tiles home - something that can’t be done using standard adhesives.

Plastic spacers are another standard product that are used when laying a 300x300mm+ tile, but should not be used when laying a tessellated floor. Look at an original 19th century tessellated floor and you will notice that the components are laid very close together, with joints of approximately 1mm, not the 3-5mm required with modern tiles. 

Tessellated floors are also set out in a particular way - starting from the centre and moving out towards the perimeter. The conventional method is to start in one corner and move diagonally across the room. This method cannot be used for an olde English floor. Laying tessellated floors is a specialist skill, requiring tilers with craftsman-like ability to ensure a result that will be beautiful and last a lifetime.  

Quality

Customers may believe that because two tiles look the same they are the same, and will perform the same. When architects specify a tile for a project they do so based on its technical properties - impact resistance, scratch & slip resistance, porosity, etc. Aesthetic considerations count for something, but the architect wants to know that the tile is completely fit for purpose, not just pretty - and so should you. Ask for the manufacturer’s technical specifications …. and don’t hesitate to ask questions about the data. 

When choosing floor tiles it is necessary that you choose the best quality you can afford. With tessellated floors, the price per metre is largely determined by the complexity of the pattern, so it is possible to select a simple pattern to fit within your budget and know that you are still getting a quality product. 

Floor tiles need to be of the highest quality due to the daily wear and tear they’re subjected to - scratching, impact, spills and staining, etc. Choosing an inferior quality tile because it is cheaper is a false economy. When tiles fail to perform it’s an expensive exercise to fix the problem. Removing the floor tiles in a bathroom results in damage to the waterproof membrane - more problems, more expense. Ultimately the cheaper tiles have cost you more.  

The cost of laying poor quality tiles and laying better quality tiles is the same. The cost of adhesives, grout, etc will be the same. Considering that quality porcelain tiles, laid well, will last for decades, if you amortize the additional cost of quality tiles over the life of the tiles, the extra cost is negligible and may even be cheaper.  

Olde English Tiles’ tessellated range of vitrified porcelain is the highest quality product of its type manufactured in the world. The family-owned company has been producing vitrified porcelain tiles, mosaics and encaustics in France since 1894. Their product meets or exceeds all the European standards, with a porosity level of 0.1% - 0.5%, which means that they are almost impossible to stain.

The next step: Aftercare

  • Immediately after laying, your floor tiles will be coated with a dusty whitish film. This is the surplus cement film - the result of grouting. Cement residue is removed using special acid products and mechanical agitation. This operation is essential and should be carried out by the tiler. There are several quality cleaning products on the market.

  • In light of the technical data regarding Olde English’s range of tessellated tiles, specifically their density and lack of porosity, the French manufacturers advise that their porcelain does not need to be sealed. Applying an anti-stain water-proofing agent is optional. If you decide to seal our vitrified porcelain tiles it should be done approximately one week after the tiles have been acid washed. The sealer should only be applied to clean, dry tiles. There are several excellent sealers on the market that are suitable for our tessellated and mosaic tiles. N.B. top quality sealers may be more expensive to purchase but will last much longer. Some sealers only need to be applied once.

  • Routine maintenance is as simple as washing with any standard alkaline product. This will not only preserve the original pristine appearance of the tiles, but will keep the floors hygienically clean and reduce the development of mould forming on the grout. When washing your olde English tiles, remember to change the water often. If the rinse water becomes dirty you will not be removing the dirt just moving it around.

The final step: Selection

If you have a period home or apartment and are contemplating a renovation, be it a verandah, bathroom, kitchen, fireplace or pool area, why not visit our new showroom to see what we have to offer. Discover the unique beauty of olde English floors. If you have a project that requires a more contemporary pattern to meet your design brief, our highly experienced showroom staff can help you. If you are unable to get into our showroom we offer you the opportunity to arrange a free ‘period home renovation’ consultation.