Mercer and his Moravian Tiles
Henry Chapman Mercer had a fascination with castles since he was a boy. When he inherited a large amount of money he realised his dream castle and chose to build it in concrete so he could inlay thousands of his Moravian Tiles as internal decoration.
As an example, the altar of the local Salem Reformed Church is decorated with Mercer tiles. When asked for a donation when the church was built Mercer refused, but said he would donate tiles!:
I visited the castle; Fonthill, the Tile Works and the Mercer Museum.
I met Adam Zayas, the Head Ceramist, who kindly took the time to show me round the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works and talk to me about Mercer, his processes, his thinking and the legacy that remains.
AFS: Why are Mercer’s tiles special?
AZ: Mercer was an important figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement in America. He believed industrialisation was dehumanising art. He was against mechanisation of any kind and as such only used hand tools in his workshops. He told a New York Times reporter in 1928 that “You will hear no noise nor see any machinery in the pottery works. You will find fifteen individuals working quietly as individuals”. The tiles produced were very much of the arts and crafts movement; they were all handmade and depicting scenes of American life, wildlife, the countryside and the seasons. True to the arts and crafts thinking; despite the tiles being chosen for the grandest houses Mercer made sure that the tiles were accessible to all. We still carry a range of gift tiles so you can take home a $3 tile or commission a house for many thousands of dollars.
AFS: Were Mercer’s tiles popular and why is Mercer not more renowned?
AZ: Mercer tiles have been found in important houses and buildings across the country, including a series of over 400 at the Pennsylvania State Capitol building, I am still mapping the new locations where we find tiles. This facility is quite unique in that it is owned by Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation and as a result has little budget for marketing but it does mean that it is supported throughout more difficult times, like we are experiencing today.
AFS: How are the tiles made?
AZ: Mercer carved the outline of his design into clay, this was then cast in plaster. When the clay was pressed over the plaster mould it produced a line that could be followed to cut the design into segments, a lot like the glass in a stained glass window.
Rather than handpaint the pieces with glaze, Mercer dipped them, cleverly using the breaks in the pieces to allow for the change of colour. One piece can be made to appear like many by using a groove rather than a cut right through.
We know Mercer assembled the tiles into panels in the workshops and shipped them whole to each site, as there is such a consistency of quality of installation across the country. This method no doubt ensured quality and saved on costs of sending in-house installation teams.
His reliefs are either relatively flat or very deep in relief.
AFS: What was special about Mercer’s techniques and processes for making tiles?
AZ: Mercer was very innovative. He patented the under-glazes he invented. The underglaze would be applied and then wiped off the top surfaces (to give an appearance like a worn encaustic tile) and then a clear glaze applied over the top.
Mercer had a great capacity to adapt his processes to make the tiles scalable and therefore profitable. He managed to add variation to retain the ‘handmade look’ whilst ensuring the tiles could be repeated in number. He used the malleability of the clay material, smoke firings (saga) and the underglazes to add variation. He was a businessman and even though the tiles were in large repeated numbers these factors enabled him to add enough variation that they were still attractive as individual handmade tiles.
AFS: Was Mercer involved in the making of his tiles.
AZ: Mercer designed all the tiles himself, but he had a team of people to make them for him. We have letters from his manager Frank King Swain, who took over the business and ran it after Mercer died in 1930. Swain fell out with Mercer and ran away, after he accepted an order to produce tiles in the workshop that were not of Mercer’s design. In telling letters from this time, Swain states that Mercer’s factory is an impossible place to work as Clients want expect the pieces “as fast as an ice cream cone or a shoe shine”.
AFS: Do you use the same workshops spaces and tools as Mercer did?
AZ: Yes. Mercer built this factory to make his tiles and we use them in much the same way as he did. We have the tools he used which have given us a unique insight into how the tiles were produced. For example, the cutters:
We have remade these tools in order to preserve the originals. But this gives us a confidence that what we are producing is an accurate reissue of the original Mercer tiles.
This is the clay store, with even one of Mercer’s little quotations that he enjoyed using so often – ‘Keep me damp by the light of the lamp’:
AFS: The kilns…
AZ: Yes, there are 5 kilns here. They are unusual in that they are updraft and downdraft kilns. We have meticulous notes of Mercer’s (type written in duplicate!) So we know a lot about how the kiln fired. The firing began at night. Once loaded, kindling was lit and burned overnight, with the kiln open at the top. This would drive off most of the moisture. In the morning coal was used as a fuel and the top was filled in and the side dampers opened. Different grades of coal were worked through to get the kiln to temperature gradually closing the dampers. The kiln would soak (be held at top temperature) for 6 hours. This is a very long time for a soak because of how densely the kiln was packed.
Interestingly, we have the notes from the potter named Briddes who built the first kilns and provided the base glazes for most of our glazes. The original glaze notebook lists a receipe as ‘from Mr. Briddes, as used by Doulton’. I am fascinated and am working to trace Biddes who links the Moravian Tile Works with Doulton
AFS: Amazing, I’ll see what I can pull up when I get back.
AFS: The building itself is a fascinating structure, what maintenance issues do you have?
AZ: The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and all 3 buildings; Fonthill, the Mercer Museumand the Tile Works; are included in a National Historic Landmark District.
The concrete for the house and the works is hand mixed. It is in keeping with his arts and crafts mentality that no machines were used and this gives the internal spaces a very hand crafted and moulded appearance. Mercer had a team of 6 men and one horse, Lucy, working for 4 years building the house. Notably by the time he built the Museum Mercer did not hand mix the concrete! The hand mix means the concrete is very inconsistent and the grade of the mix means that moisture can track through the building easily, it gets very wet.
We are grant aided for works to the structure, thankfully. We completed a big restoration of the courtyard as you can see, the columns had badly eroded and the balcony had to be completely rebuilt (you can see the line above the arches of the columns):
You can imagine how hot the building would have been to work in, we know the workers used to work outside under the walkways and on the balcony which had canvas awnings to protect them.
AFS: Do you just remake Mercers designs or do you make new tiles too?
AZ: We reissue Mercer tiles (they are all marked with the date of production to distinguish them from early originals) for both restoration and to go into new sites. We have a large number of original moulds. We preserve these and do not use them, so we make one press using a white clay, so as not to stain them more than they are already, after making a plaster block we make a master cast using polyurethane.
We continue to reissue old Mercer designs occasionally. At the moment we are in the process of producing moulds for each of the townships of Bucks County.We hope they will be very porpuilar and expect to include them in their new justice centre that is being constructed.
We try and stock a lot of the common designs to keep our delivery time down.
We try and assist people who want to include Mercer tiles in their building to be faithful to his designs in how they use the tiles. We can be involved at all levels from full design, to compiling a design with chosen tiles right through to just providing the tiles. We have a range of gift tiles, so anyone can take home a delightful souvenir made from local Bucks County clay.
AFS: Do you offer any educational or training facilities?
AZ: We have interns each year. Students come to us and we try and help them get experienced at processes they are not familiarised with at college. For example; plasterwork, ceramists in the US are scared of plaster because they do not use it at college. So we get the interns making all of our moulds, they repeat the same process until they are familiar with it. Mould making is a very useful skill to have.
I also run workshops and have found that people want to design, make, glaze and fire a tile to take home in the same day. To try and respond I am designing a workshop to cast tiles in concrete. This will be new and is based on an original patent of Mercer’s.