We have recently acquired for the museum collection a set of six ceramic tiles showing scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Designed by John Moyr Smith, the tiles were produced by Minton’s Ceramics towards the end of the 19th century and reflect the influence of Art Nouveau.
Minton’s was founded in 1793 by Thomas Minton in Stoke-on-Trent, the centre of ceramic production in the UK. Originally established as a producer of domestic tableware, including some of the earliest willow pattern crockery, Minton’s later branched out into tiles and decorative finishes for buildings; in the mid-19th century their reputation was so well established that the company was commissioned to produce the tiled flooring of the United States Capitol. Thomas Minton’s son Herbert, on taking over the company after his father’s death in 1808, developed new production methods and established working relationships with artists and designers, which helped to support innovation and creativity in the company.
John Moyr Smith was born in Glasgow in 1839, but worked predominantly in England. From the 1870s onwards he produced multiple tile designs for Minton’s, the majority of them showing scenes from literature, including Arthurian legend, Aesop’s Fables, Chaucer and, of course, Shakespeare. Minton’s output at this time was strongly Art Nouveau in style and Smith’s tiles are no different. In their dynamic, flowing, ‘whiplash’ lines, flat visual planes, asymmetry and use of classical profiles, the tiles are highly characteristic of this particular artistic movement which was so influential in Europe at the turn of the century. Many of Smith’s original designs for tiles are still held in the Minton Archive, part of Stoke-on-Trent City Archives.
Shakespeare (and literature generally) was a popular subject for adherents to Art Nouveau. John Austen’s darkly beautiful illustrations for Hamlet in 1922, although later than the movement’s active period, are clearly influenced by the work of Aubrey Beardsley, himself one of British Art Nouveau’s leading lights.
These six tiles are just a sample of the Shakespearean designs created by John Moyr Smith; they may well have proved popular as they were produced in a variety of sizes and colour combinations. My favourite of the set here is the scene from Twelfth Night where Sir Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Feste carouse late into the night; Smith captures well the absurdity and comedy of the situation, managing to convey facial expressions with a few simple lines. All six tiles are a wonderful addition both to our holdings of Shakespearean illustration and the museum collection in general.