Ceramic tiles have been a part of art history for thousands of years, whether this is in the form of a mosaic or individual pieces. Over time, tiles may become broken, cracked or loose, resulting in a disturbed visual appearance in need of professional care to avoid further loss.

William de Morgan tile restoration

This article will explore the materials used in the creation of these popular modern and antique artworks, as well as their history. We will also explore the recent restoration of a modern Danish mosaic (as been below) and William De Morgan tiles (as seen above) in our studio, including the professional treatments that can be performed to ensure the preservation of valuable ceramics.

Blue tile artwork restoration

Varieties of tile art

Tiles can be found in a multitude of styles, the first being as an individual piece of art. One tile can stand apart as a feature, often painted and coated in a tin-glaze, such as those found in the genre of maiolica or deftware. Individual tile pieces may also have connections to celebrated designers and therefore stand apart due to their history, including those created by modern ceramic artists and the tiles of William Morris collaborator William De Morgan. Single tiles may also be carved or have a printed feature rather than a hand painted finish. 

Tile mosaic exampleAbove: a selection of historic tiles and mosaics

Murals and mosaics are the second form of tile art, these dynamic decorations can be found on floors, walls and ceilings and can be dated to a multitude of eras. Whilst tile murals can form one large feature, mosaics often use much smaller tiles – known as tesserae – to create imagery, large blocks of colour or patterns. You may also come across micromosaic, using very small tesserae, especially in Byzantine icons. Further to this, there are different ways of referring to mosaics when it comes to their placement of tesserae. These include:

Opus regulatum: tesserae align into a grid, both vertically and horizontally

Opus vermiculatum: One or more lines of tile follow a particular pattern or shape

Opus musivum: the opus vermiculatum extends throughout the entire work

Opus tessellatum: tesserae are in vertical or horizontal rows, but not both

Mosaic detailAbove: a detail from a Byzantine floor mosaic, 5th century

Opus circumactum: tesserae present as overlapping semicircles or fans

Opus palladianum: there are no rows and the tesserae are not uniform in shape

Opus sectile: there is a main shape formed by a single tessera or tile

Tiles can be placed individually, known as the direct method, or in large quantities at a time, known as the indirect method. The direct method is most commonly used in artistic mosaics, whilst indirect method is used in large architectural designs that require thousands of tesserae.

Tesserae piecesAbove: a fragment from a 12th century mosaic of Jesus Christ and a selection of tesserae pieces from various eras

The history of tile art

Famously dating back to ancient Greece, the word mosaic comes from the Latin word mosaicus and the word Greek mouseios, translating as ‘belonging to the Muses’. The word tile comes from the French word tuile and the Latin word tegula, meaning ‘fired clay roof.’ Whilst these words have different roots, both products have been appreciated throughout history as artistic mediums, with tile art emerging from their utilitarian use and mosaics as a continuously coveted decorative feature. 

6th century tilesAbove: a selection of Sasanian tiles from Mesopotamia, 6th century

The earliest forms of tile art can be traced back to the middle east, where glazed bricks formed wall murals. Further examples can be found in ancient Islamic art, with intricate patterns forming the interiors of many sacred and historic buildings in Turkey and Iran. 

Mosaic floor panelAbove: a detail from a Roman mosaic floor panel, 2nd century

Examples of mosaic art date back to Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC, though the most notable come from ancient Greece and Rome. Surviving floor mosaics are found in many Hellenistic villas in two main forms of Greco-Roman design, including opus vermiculatum completed in workshops and later moved to a villa, these used very small tesserae (approx. 4mm) and opus tessellatum laid on site with larger pieces. Some Greco-Roman mosaic floors include a trompe-l’œil effect, that is the inclusion of items that appear to be three-dimensional, in wealthy villas they were often the appearance of items left over from a feast, known as an asaroton – Greek for ‘unswept floor’.

Islamic tiles Above: 13th century Islamic star tiles

In mediaeval times, tiles were often used to create murals of religious scenes, an example of this on the wall of a church can be seen in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation (1434). Surviving tiles from this period may be from floors as well as walls, so will show signs of wear. Mediaeval letter tiles were produced as floor pieces for monasteries and churches and were a very early form of movable type printing. Byzantine art also inspired many mosaics of this era, especially in Christian art. 

15th century 16th century tilesAbove: a selection of tiles including 15th century British tiles (left) and 16th century renaissance designs (right)

From the renaissance period onwards, tin-glazed ceramics were popular in all forms, including tile art. Raphael designed the mosaic Creation of the World in the dome of the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popol in 1516 and further religious mosaic art can be found in St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Maiolica delft tilesAbove: a maiolica tile from 1617–27 and a Delftware tile from 1694

Maiolica and Delftware produced tiles with a wide variety of designs that became especially popular during the 17th century, either for an entire decorating scheme or as a single feature tile. Later periods saw a fashion for porcelain rooms, often covering the floor to ceiling with patterned tiles with surviving examples found in many palaces and stately homes from the 18th century.

1880s tilesAbove: a selection of late 19th century glazed tiles by Chelsea Keramic Art Works and J. & J. G. Low Art Tile Works, 1880s

A mixture of gothic revival fashion and the arts and crafts movement continued the popularity of tile art throughout the 19th century. Due to the industrial revolution, tiles could now be mass produced and were therefore more affordable, allowing them to be used in a wide range of domestic and public settings. The arts and crafts movement rebelled against the mass industrial market and instead focused on historically inspired designs, famous examples come from  William De Morgan who worked with William Morris. De Morgan’s tile designs took strong inspiration from mediaeval Islamic patterns.  

De Morgan tile restorationAbove: a William De Morgan tile before and after restoration in our studio

Painted tile restoration 

Our ceramics conservator recently restored two William De Morgan tiles in our London studio. The tiles were in need of stabilisation due to cracking and breakages, as well as sensitive retouching to bring them back to their original appearance. To ensure the historic and artistic integrity of the artwork is not disturbed, only the smallest amount of conservation pigment is applied during this process. 

Sujin restoring de Morgan tile ceramics

Modern tile mosaic restoration

This large Danish mosaic was a special piece that had suffered due to being kept outside for many years. Originally created by Royal Danish Porcelain in the early 1970s, this was a unique piece of late mid-century modern decoration with links to fashionable Scandinavian design. The use of blue is a modern continuation of a tradition of cobalt ceramics that had been produced by the manufacturer since the 18th century. Royal Copenhagen porcelain was originally inspired by the blue and white wares from China produced during the Ming and Qing dynasties, when it was purchased by a new owner in 1883, a stronger focus on art pottery compelled the production of unique artistic products, resulting in this mosaic almost one hundred years later. 

Danish tile art restoration

The tiles had become loose and damaged over time, falling away from the deteriorating base. Our experts worked to restore the tiles and reapply them to a new, strengthened board within a metal frame that would better protect them going forwards. It was also recommended that the tiles should be displayed inside going forwards, to protect them from the effects of changing temperatures and weather conditions. 

Blue tile artwork restoration

Over 450 tiles were numbered, using old photographs of the artwork to ensure they were in the correct order when re-adhered. All of the tiles were cleaned and stabilised, allowing them to go back on display with their original bright finish and helping to fix them in place without contaminants lessening the strength. After weeks of precise and intricate work, the mosaic was complete again and ready to be enjoyed once again by our client and their family. 

Tile close upAbove: a detail of the tiles following restoration in our studio

Can you restore missing tiles or tesserae?

Yes, missing or completely broken pieces on a tile artwork or mosaic can be expertly recreated by our skilled team. This includes colour-matching the existing pigments and finish to allow for a stable and visually complete result.

Bunny mosaic 19th centuryAbove: a 19th century floor mosaic of a rabbit and mushrooms

How can we help?

Whether you have a single tile or an artwork made up of many pieces, our team is able to assist in the safe and professional restoration or conservation of your artwork. For more information and for a quote, please speak to our helpful team today. 

Email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576

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