Meet the Artist: Karen Slade
Interview with Tile Maker, Karen Slade
After a lot of research the first thing I do is make a pattern block by carving an image into wood. I use very small carving tools create the pattern in reverse and it also has to be about 10% larger than the finished tile to allow for shrinkage when the tile is fired.
I then make a blank tile in red earthenware clay, using a wooden frame. I stamp the tile with the wooden pattern block using a hammer. After that I fill the stamped impression with white clay slip, so that it overfills the image.
I use a cow's horn with a little piece of a goose feather quill in the tip in order to trail the slip into the surface of the tile, and this is based on a 17th century method that was used for slip trailing pottery.
In about four or five days depending on the weather, when the body of the clay tile is stiff like chocolate, then I can take a flat blade and scrape away all of the excess white clay that's flooded the surface, until I reveal the place where the two colours of clay meet. Finally, the tile is dried very thoroughly up to about two to three weeks until it's ready to be fired in the kiln. I fire the tiles once to bisque and then glaze and fire them again.
My process is a mix of archaeology and history research, art, design, maths, wood carving, glaze chemistry and some physics because I have to know the contraction rate of my clay.
When I was sent the photograph of a tile fragment during a live archaeology dig at Hallaton, I knew that it was a Leicestershire site. My first resource was to look within “The medieval floor tiles of Leicestershire”, written by Norma Whitcombe in 1950, but this fragment hadn't been recorded in Leicestershire before so it wasn't in there. I know that Leicestershire tiles were very often made in tile works in Coventry and Nuneaton, matched to fragments found in digs of tile kilns there, so I checked in Philip Chatwin’s article written in 1936, ‘The medieval tiles of Warwickshire’ and this was where I found it. Having found it there I then did a visual check in Elizabeth Eames' 1980 catalogue of the British Museum collection of medieval tiles and that was where I found another example of it, both found originally at Maxstoke Priory, Coventry.
I have started in a small way to contribute to articles. Last year I was asked to contribute to a joint article for the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, about Norma Witcombe and the work that she did in the late 1940s to document and catalogue the medieval tiles of Leicestershire and I very much enjoyed contributing to that.
I also wrote an article last year for the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome Newsletter about the medieval tile depicting a pilgrim that was found in Canterbury Cathedral cloister in 2014, which I recreated for the Cathedral as a handling collection, as the original tile had to be left in situ.
I do struggle very much with ‘imposter syndrome’ because I'm an independent researcher, rather than having trained as a history or archaeology graduate, but I am regularly asked the question “have you ever written any of this up?” when I’m demonstrating tile making.
I get insights when responding to questions when demonstrating and sometimes it's the public that tell me information related to their own specialism, which I would otherwise never learn.
One of the best insights I was given into one of my tiles came from a medical doctor who I met and she was able to tell me why the figure on the Canterbury pilgrim tile was stooped over, since they had a medical condition known as Kyphosis. I would never have learnt that if I haven't been in the field dressed in medieval clothes demonstrating.
I’m fascinated by what the surviving physical archaeological evidence from medieval tiles can tell us about the political activities of the time. How what survives confirms that history is written by the victor.
I'm learning how to become a building conservator through working with my husband Charlie. I have studied a short course on the history and philosophy of building conservation through the CIOB, and that was very helpful.
I also took a few short courses on things like fibrous plaster work with trainers from the Lime Forum, and I've done quite a few health and safety courses which you need for working at height and using tools as part of being a building conservator.
My husband Charlie Slade learnt his skills over the last 25 years starting with other building conservation companies and learning on the tools. We continually develop our skills from job to job, adapting techniques that we've used before and stretch them slightly according to what we find when we're opening up a project. We learn from colleagues, other building conservators, stone masons and timber framers that we work with and we have a large series of reference material that we draw on.
I have a workshop which I rent, it is expensive, it's one of our largest business costs but I need it because I have three electric kilns which I use to fire large scale projects. I have two ‘three phase’ kilns and a small test kiln. I need several kilns to be able to work on the large-scale projects that I do.
I use a machine to recycle clay called a Pug Mill which is like a big mincer, it has a big metal screw thread and that allows me to more easily recycle my clay for my tiles. The clay that I use is quite stiff compared with Potters who are throwing clay, so I can't stick the offcuts back together again very reliably or quickly, without risking my tiles cracking later. Recycling this clay to a reliable consistency is quite a task so having a pug mill allows me to recycle that much more quickly than doing it by just using my hands.
I also have a roller bench which is like a mangle, it's a large roller than travels over the bench and allows me to compress slabs of clay. When I'm working with thin tiles for walls this helps speed the process up and is much easier on my hands than using a rolling pin and thin batons of wood to get an even thickness.
I think my processes are quite close to that of the original tile makers, especially as when I demonstrate I have to be able to complete the process quite quickly, otherwise people would get bored watching! It’s easy as a modern maker to get too fussy and try to make everything perfectly, but if you look closely at the originals, it’s very comforting to see just how imperfect they were – they aren’t flat, even or square.
One question that still is outstanding is there's a series of tiles known as line impressed which have a very detailed image impressed into the surface and there is a question over whether a normal wooden pattern block was used and carved very finely for this or whether these patterns were made with metal stamps.
I'm currently writing a proposal for a project to make tiles in a modern building development in Gloucester over the site of a former priory where they've discovered original medieval tiles and I've been invited into the project to work on two small paved areas within the outdoor paving. I'm currently drafting a proposal to incorporate some of the original medieval tile patterns that were found at this site and I'd like to try and get some community involvement as a part of this, in order that the finished pavements make reference to the local history for the people that are going to be living and working there.
I'm also working with images of the tiles found at Hallaton during the community archaeology dig, to create some replicas as a handling collection for the local museum and so this will come full circle from the original enquiry that I had about the fragment, asking me to identify the pattern.
This interview was produced as part of the 2023 Festival of Archaeology's Archaeology and Creativity Theme Day sponsored by Thames & Hudson.
Thames & Hudson are one of the world’s leading publishers of illustrated books. They publish high-quality titles across all areas of visual creativity. Their mission is to create a ‘museum without walls’ and to make accessible to a large reading public the world of art and the research of top scholars.