A regular appointment turned in to more than a 'night on the tiles' for our very own pot-a-holic Will Farmer……
Born and bred in the environs of Birmingham, Sheila Hughes (1937-2006) first began collecting tiles in the early 1970s.
Driven by a desire to save her local architectural heritage at a time when so many old houses in the city were lost to redevelopment, she began by encouraging demolition men to save her cast iron fireplaces. Later, as her passion for the subject grew, she would catch the coach to London where she would visit specialist dealers for a day on the tiles.
When family members began to clear the contents of her Arts and Crafts in Kings Norton, Birmingham, they found, on the third floor, banana box upon banana box of largely Victorian and Edwardian tiles, some of the rarest lovingly preserved within an almost equally impressive collection of over 500 pairs of trousers and a similar number of woollen sweaters. It was at this point they knew they needed expert advice and called me in to help appraise the scale of the job in hand!
Alongside a collection of some 2000-3000 garden tools and a tail-lift van full of clothes, there were close to 3500 tiles arranged according to a somewhat mind boggling filing system. Rather than keeping sets together Sheila had sorted her tiles into subject matter: frogs in the frog box, farmyard animals in another and so on. A box themed 'flowers', for example, could throw up a William De Morgan alongside a run of pedestrian T&R Boote transfer prints.
Having been instructed to clear the property for the family, then came the much larger task of sorting the tiles out and reuniting like with like. Evenings, weekends and any spare time was dedicated to re-arranging the 3500 plus tiles back in to pairs, runs and sets! The sound of clicking ceramic filled the auction house however after a few weeks dedicated work, and a lot of help from my colleagues we’d done it! All the times were now correctly together with endless complete sets and some sensationally rare single examples.
Thinking outside of the box, I called Mike Blood in Nottingham who at the time ran the Nottingham Tile Fair. I thought that this would be by far the best way to meet with collectors and dealers alike and ask them their advice on the best way to handle such a stunning collection. We took a stand at a specialist tile fair to display some of the highlights and ask members of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society (TACS) how they would like to see such a large collection dispersed. Unlike Sheila Hughes they wanted to see tiles sold by factory and in as few multiples as possible.
The sale itself was a memorable if tiring day with the great and good of the tile world in attendance, including a number of buyers who had flown in specially from overseas to see this land mark collection go up for sale. Some 212 registered bidders and 140 successful buyers at the sale on January 12 it was often those collectors who came away with the 'trophy' lots. Predictably many of the major sums were paid for the 16 tiles by De Morgan.
Most highly rated were two 6in (15cm) early Fulham period 'beast' tiles painted in deep blue to a turquoise ground. A stylised peacock in walking pose took £1550 and a tortoise £1600 (estimates £600-800).
Sold at £620 (estimate £120-150) was a 8in (20cm) tile by Mintons sepia line printed and painted with a scene of a young fisher girl with a catch of lobster. It carried the signature of William Wise the prolific graphic designer who worked freelance for Minton China Works during the 1870s and 1880s. He specialised in these depictions of rural life - most of which are worth around £40-50 - but this larger tile with coloured decoration is evidently a rarity.
Six (of the 12) tiles from the Mintons China Works' Gastronomic series depicting Victorian characters preparing and digesting food were valued at around £100 a tile. Like the best Minton tiles they were also line printed and then hand enamelled, they sold at £1550.
Cataloguing this sale was one of the steepest learning curves of my career. While aided greatly by a copy of Chris Blanchett's 20th Century Decorative British Tiles and TACS members happy to share their knowledge, he was still learning much during and after the sale.
I had tried and failed before the sale to identify the designer of four Minton, Hollins & Co dust pressed tiles each hand enamelled in sepia and black over white glazed ground with scenes from Aesop's fables. They were estimated at £120- 150 but sold at £800.The reason? They were among a small number of designs done for Minton Hollins by Clement Heaton who is best known for his Arts and Crafts work in stained glass and enamelling.
Equally contested were both a pair of two tile panels by Maw & Co line transfer printed in blue with geishas in kimonos (estimated at £100-150 each). The Japanese ladies were the two sides of a fireplace triptych - the horizontal panel depicts a geisha lying on a bed - and two buyers had to have them. One panel raised £840.The other sold at £800. And a pair of early 20th century Pilkingtons tiles hand decorated with cottages to a lakeside setting in majolica style glaze colours (estimate £80-120), helped along by the presence of two determined collectors, this pair set in dark stained oak frames took £780.
Outstanding for their sheer quality were two 8in (20cm) Steel & Wood dust pressed tiles that had been hand painted with profile portraits of young ladies emblematic of summer and autumn. One bore the full signature for the freelance decorator Lucien Besche, the second signed in monogram. They took £1120 (estimate £600-800).
Most of the interest in this sale was from the UK but there was a strong American presence and bidders from Europe who often focused upon specific areas: Dutch for the small volume of delft tiles, Germans for Art Nouveau and French for Continental productions.
The result at the close of business was a 100% sold rate and a final sale total for the collection of over £85,000! All that from a collection of ceramic squares stacked up in banana boxes! It was one of the hardest but most rewarding jobs of my career and one that I shall remember for many years to come……that said I have always commented that when my day comes and should I meet with Shiela Hughes on the ‘other side’ I do intend to have a little chat about her rather unusual cataloguing system!
If you have a single, just a few or even a collection of tiles we'd love to hear from you. Over the years we have handled a huge number of private collections following the sale of the Sheila Hughes collection and have a world wide data base of collectors. Also if you're interested in learning more or would like to share your favourite tile with us please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted on 15 April 2020