2 February 2018


By Michael Archer / Timothy Wilson (As published in Keramos, Vol. 210, October 2010)

Towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII, Sir John Gage (1479–1556), who had a long and trusted career at the King’s court and held a succession of offices of state, built a substantial house at Firle, near Lewes, East Sussex. Firle Place was extensively rebuilt in the second quarter of the eighteenth century: the beautiful house which remains the home of the Gage family is essentially eighteenth-century in appearance, but incorporates parts of the Tudor house(1).

Figure 1 Border tile with a pedestal, workshop or painter’s mark, and date 1546

Now set into a fireplace at Firle are thirteen painted tiles, evidently the remains of one or more large-scale tile pictures; they are supplemented by nine more kept in store in the house. These twenty-two tiles, one of which (Fig. 1) is dated 1546, are survivals from an ambitious commission; they are described here for the first time in affectionate tribute to our friend, mentor, and colleague John Mallet, to whom both of us have too many debts for enumeration here.

Figure 2. The City of Antwerp from the west bank of the River Scheldt. By Hendrick van Minderhout (1632–1696). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Antwerp (Fig. 2) in the middle decades of the sixteenth century was one of the great cosmopolitan commercial cities of Europe. From the beginning of the sixteenth century the large Italian community in the city had included several potters practising tin glazed pottery, maiolica, more or less in the Italian manner (2). The most successful of these was Guido di Luca Savino, of Castel Durante, who came to Antwerp about 1508 and set up the most influential maiolica workshop in the city, adopting the surname Andries. He adapted his production to suit his markets: since there was no established tradition in northern Europe of eating at table off pottery plates, his workshop for some years mainly produced jars for pharmacies and paving tiles.

Figure 3. The Conversion of Saul. Maiolica tile picture, 96.5 x 193.5 cm. Antwerp, dated 1547, probably made in the Den Salm workshop under the direction of Franchois Frans. Vleeshuis Museum, Antwerp

Alongside paving tiles, a few spectacular multi-tile mural schemes were carried out in Antwerp in the mid-sixteenth century. Among these are a Conversion of Saul in the Vleeshuis Museum, Antwerp (Fig. 3), dated 1547 (3); and a long wainscoting with elaborate strapwork and scenes from the Book of Tobit at Vila Viçosa, Portugal, dated 1558 (4). Composite pictorial tile panels of this sort had rarely been made in Italy, though there are examples in Liguria (5); and the Italian emigrant Niculoso Pisano made spectacular examples in Seville (6). In France, the brilliant Rouen workshop of Masseot Abaquesne made ambitious tile compositions (7). In Portugal from the 1560s, under Flemish influence, tile pictures became virtually a national art form (8).

In 1520 Guido Andries acquired the property in the Cammenstraat of Antwerp known as Den Salm, “The Salmon” (9), which became the most important pottery in the city. After Guido’s death in 1541, his widow married Franchois Frans (another potter of Italian descent); they ran the Den Salm workshop successfully, until 1562/3. The detailed research of Claire Dumortier indicates that the Den Salm workshop in the 1540s, under the direction of Franchois Frans, was making pottery and tile panels of the highest quality; she attributes, on convincing grounds, both the Conversion of Saul tiles, which were found on the pottery site in 1876–1881, and the Vila Viçosa panels to the workshop, together with other examples of the best Antwerp narrative tiles from this period.

In a petition to Queen Elizabeth in 1570, Guido Andries’s son Jasper and his partner Jacob Jansen, who were in the process of establishing the tin glaze industry in England, reported that they have been making “Galley pavinge tiles and vessels for potycaries [apothecaries] and other very artificially… the same science was so acceptable unto King Henry the eight of moaste famous memory yor highness father that his Ma[je]stie offered to the same Jaspar’s father good wages and howsrowme to exercyse the same in this Realme w[hi]che then came to none effect” (10). This royal interest in Guido Andries is reflected in the quantity of Antwerp maiolica known to have been imported into London and southern England from the 1520s onwards. One manifestation of this is the so-called “Malling jugs”, which were almost certainly made in Antwerp, though numerous examples from about 1550 have London made silver mounts (11). Tiles made for members of Henry VIII’s court include the series in the chapel at the Vyne, Hampshire, apparently laid by William Lord Sandys in the 1520s and attributed by Dumortier to Andries (12). Other tiles from sites with courtly connections come from the Tower of London (13), Whitehall Palace (14), Cardinal Wolsey’s Manor of the More (Hertfordshire) (15), and Anne of Cleves’s house at Bletchingley (Surrey) (16). William Lord Sandys (c. 1470–1540), builder of The Vyne, was Sir John Gage’s friend and patron; they held office together as Treasurer and Comptroller respectively of Calais from 1524 to 1526 (17). The connection is surely no coincidence and Gage may have got the idea of commissioning tiles from Antwerp from Sandys. There is every reason to suppose that the tiles now at Firle Place were part of the decoration of that house carried out by Gage; and that they were installed in or around 1546, soon after the house was finished (18). Unlike the Vyne pavement, which includes square tiles set between ornamental hexagon tiles, but has no overall compositional unity, the Firle tiles combine to constitute a complex narrative with sophisticated borders which are themselves a compendium of Renaissance ornament. At some point, perhaps during the eighteenth-century rebuilding, the panels must have been dismantled, with some salvaged ones, then or subsequently, being installed in the fireplace.

Figure 4 Swirling waters with a half-submerged chariot
Figure 5 Narrative tile with horned Moses

It is evident that at least some of the tiles are from a panel telling the story of The Drowning of Pharaoh’s Army in the Red Sea, from chapter 14 of Exodus. Fig. 4 is surely the top of a sinking chariot (or just possibly the helmet of a drowned Egyptian soldier) and Fig. 5 is the upper part of an imperious figure of Moses, horned as often in medieval and Renaissance iconography (19).

Figure 6 Narrative tile with lower part of a standing figure
Figure 7 Narrative tile with tents and figures. On a tent the letters AHOGAR

It seems plausible to suppose, however, that what we have is the remains of more than one panel: the lower part of a standing figure (Fig. 6), which does not join up with the upper part of Moses, looks as if it too may represent Moses; if there were two figures of Moses, there were probably two different scenes from Exodus. The tiles (Figs 8, 9) of people carrying burdens would be unusual in a Drowning of Pharaoh’s Army, but would be consistent with being part of a scene of the Israelites safely crossing the Red Sea, which might have logically been paired with the Drowning; but they might also have been part of a Gathering of Manna (perhaps the most likely hypothesis) or some other scene of the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt. Tents are very prominent on the tiles, but rarely occur in the sixteenth century iconography of the Drowning of Pharaoh’s Army. On a tent on the tile in Fig. 7 are some mysterious letters, apparently AHOGAR (possibly preceded by a C): it is probably coincidence that AHOGAR is the Spanish word for “to drown”. The fact that the surviving tiles include varied borders with different ground colours also supports the hypothesis that we have remains of more than one panel.

Figure 8 Narrative tile with burdened walking figures
Figure 9 Narrative tile with burdened walking figures

Elaborate Antwerp tile pictures like this were perhaps painted from full-size cartoons, of the sort that were used for tapestries and stained-glass windows. It is known that parts of such a cartoon, designed by Joachim Wtewael in 1599 for a window in the Groote Kerk in Gouda were later copied by Willem Jansz. Verswaen for huge tile pictures (20). The painters of the Firle tiles were probably supplied with full-size cartoons like those used for the transfer of trace lines onto stained glass. Such cartoons could have been used for painting tiles by pouncing onto the unfired glaze, a technique later used at Delft and elsewhere for mass-produced single tiles (21). The artists of these hypothetical cartoons would sometimes have made use of engravings. The Conversion of Saul panel seems to be based on an engraving by Enea Vico, but with modifications, and additions, while the Tobit scenes at Vila Viçosa are based on engravings after Maarten van Heemskerck. Heemskerck (1498–1574) made or designed numerous engravings of Old Testament subjects, but no Drowning of Pharaoh’s Army is recorded by Hollstein. Despite searches on our behalf by eminent print specialists, no engraving has been found by any Antwerp-based or other artist that could have provided the basis for the Firle panel or panels. Though it may be that a print source will yet be found, the most likely hypothesis seems to us that the tilemakers were provided with a drawing by an Antwerp artist such as Peter Coecke van Aelst (1502–1550); it is to an artist in Coecke’s circle that Claire Dumortier tentatively attributes the immediate model for the Conversion of Saul. A fluid relationship between potters and painters in Antwerp in the middle of the century is suggested by the supposition that Hans Floris (1520/24–1567), who was a member of the prolific Floris family of Antwerp artists and subsequently worked as a tile painter for Philip II in Spain, was apprenticed at Den Salm (22).

Figure 10 The full fireplace at Firle
Figure 11 Reverse of fig. 5 with positioning markings

All the Firle tiles seem to have been of much the same size, about 14 cm square and about 2 cm. thick (Fig 10). They are painted in blue, orange, yellow, and green, with little or none of the manganese purple which was widely used as a drawing colour in Italian maiolica. On the back of some of the tiles are painted marks, apparently guides to placement for the fixers; the most legible of these is reproduced in Fig. 11 (23). The likelihood is that the tiles were part of a wall decoration, though they are solidly made and it cannot be entirely ruled out that they made up a floor.

Figure 12 Border tile with grotesques on a pilaster and date 154[?]
Figure 13 Border tile with strapwork and vase

Figure 14 Border tile with scrollwork and vase
Figure 15 Border tile with scrollwork and vases

The Firle tiles seem so similar in style to the Vleeshuis panel as to suggest that they are from the same workshop, perhaps the same painter. The grotesque and strapwork border tiles (Figs. 12–15), while not identical, are similar in conception (24). Furthermore, the tile dated 1546 (Figs. 1 and 16) is virtually identical, and surely by the same hand, as one dated 1544 (but without the mark), now in the Vleeshuis, which is stated to have been discovered together with the Conversion of Saul tiles and is attributed by Dumortier to a painter at Den Salm (25).

Figure 16 Border tile with a pedestal, workshop or painter’s mark, and date 1546

The dated Firle tile bears, in addition, a mark consisting of the letters I, A, and B under a double cross. This mark also occurs on a roundel, of rather different style, in the Rijksmuseum, dated 1550 (26). It resembles a mark in which the same three letters are surmounted, instead of the double cross, by the letter F; this latter mark occurs on a tile dated 1558 at Vila Viçosa and on a jug in Brussels dated 1562 (27). These two marks have been variously interpreted. Most recently, Dumortier has suggested that the mark as it occurs on the Firle tiles may relate to the documented potter Jan Bogaert (c.1518–1577), whose pottery De Maeght van Ghent (The Virgin of Ghent) was not far from Den Salm (28). The reasons for supposing that the Firle tiles were made in Den Salm, however, seem cogent. If this is the case, a reconsideration of the interpretation of these marks is necessary. Is it really likely that two competing potteries, De Maeght van Ghent and Den Salm, would have used such very similar marks? It is to be hoped that further archaeological or archival evidence from Antwerp itself may throw light on the problem.

Both the Firle and the Vleeshuis border tiles draw on the abundant repertoire of ornament being produced at the time by artists and printmakers in Antwerp. Peter Thornton comments pithily that “ornament was one of Antwerp’s principal products, in the form of prints and drawn designs”; and the 1540s were the decisive years for the emergence in Antwerp and the Northern Netherlands of a distinctive form of grotesque ornament (29).

Figure 17 Tile (floor-tile?) with coloured arabesques
Figure 18 Engraving from Francesco Pellegrino, La Fleur de la Science de Portraicture (Paris, 1530). After Thornton 1998

The tile in Fig. 17 is an anomaly. It is painted with coloured arabesque decoration, closely comparable to and perhaps derived from Francesco Pellegrino’s La Fleur de la Science de Portraicture, a pattern book for embroidery published in Paris in 1530, which seems to have had influence on craftsmen beyond its intended readership (Fig. 18) (30). This sort of design, according to Dumortier (31), only came into general use on Antwerp tiles from about 1550, so if, as there seems every reason to believe, this tile is part of the same scheme as the other tiles and dates from about 1546, it is an early example of this type of decoration. It is, unlike the rest of the loose tiles, heavily mortared on the back, suggesting it might have been part of a floor.

The Conversion of Saul panel consisted of 98 tiles and measures 96.5 x 193.5 cm. The panel or panels from Firle may well have been of similar size. If so, and if the hypothesis that there were two panels at Firle is correct, we may have scarcely more than a tenth of what once existed. Even in their fragmentary form, the tiles are handsome: originally, they perhaps composed the most sophisticated, complex, and up-to-date work of ceramic art to be seen anywhere in Tudor England. Dare one hope that, somewhere beneath or in the grounds of the house, other tiles from the composition may one day be discovered?

Figure 19 Two joining narrative tiles with tents
Figure 20 Narrative tile with lances and soldiers
Figure 21 Part of a border tile with a landscape

Figure 22 Narrative tile with part of a jug and landscape
Figure 23 Narrative tile with landscape and part of a lower border
Figure 24 Narrative tile with hills, clouds, and part of an upper border

Figure 25 Narrative tile with mountain, sky, and part of an upper border
Figure 26 Narrative tile with part of a lower border
Figure 27 Narrative tile with rocks and part of a lower border


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Archer 1997. Archer, Michael. Delftware. The tin_glazed earthenware of the British Isles. London.
Betts and Weinstein 2010. Betts, Ian, and Weinstein, Rosemary. Tin_glazed tiles from London. London (Museum of London).
Blanchett 2000. Blanchett, Chris. “The Floor Tiles at The Vyne”, Glazed Expressions (Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society), no. 41.
Britton 1987. Britton, Frank. London Delftware. London.
Dumortier 1986. Dumortier, Claire. “Het atelier van de Antwerpse geleyerspotbacker Franchois Frans (16de eeuw)”, Mededelin_genblad Nederlandse Vereniging van Vrienden van de Ceramiek 125, pp. 4–37.
Dumortier 2002. Dumortier, Claire. Céramique de la Renaissance à Anvers. De Venise à Delft. Brussels.
Dumortier 2003. Dumortier, Claire. “Estampes et majoliques anversoises (XVIe_début du XVIIe siècle)”, in Jean Rosen (ed.), Majoliques européennes. Reflets de l’estampe lyonnaise (XVIe XVIIe siècles), Dijon, pp. 180–7.
Gaimster 1999. Gaimster, David (ed.). Maiolica in the North. The Archaeology of tin_glazed earthenware in north_west Europe c.1500–1600. British Museum Occasional Paper no. 122, London.
Gaimster and Hughes 1999. Gaimster, David, and Hughes, Michael. “South Netherlands maiolica floor tiles from the Broad Arrow Tower, Tower of London”, in Gaimster 1999, pp. 175–9.
Gaimster and Nenk 1997. Gaimster, David, and Nenk, Beverley. “English Households in Transition c.1450–1550: the ceramic evidence”, in David Gaimster and Paul Stamper (eds), The Age of Transition. The Archaeology of English Culture 1400–1600, London, pp. 171–95.
Hollstein. Hollstein, F.W.H. Dutch and Flemish Engravings and Woodcuts ca.1450–1700. Amsterdam 1949–2001.
Hurst and Le Patourel 1999. Hurst, John, and Le Patourel, Jean “Imported maiolica floor tiles from Whitehall Palace, London”, in Gaimster 1999, pp. 181–3.
Knox 2000. Knox, Tim. Firle Place, Sussex. Firle.
Korf 1981. Korf, Dingeman. Nederlandse Majolica. Haarlem.
Lane 1960. Lane, Arthur. Victoria and Albert Museum. A Guide to the Collection of Tiles. London.
Marly_le_Roi – Louveciennes 1983. Châteaux de faïence. Exhib. cat., Marly_le_Roi – Louveciennes.
Marzinot 1979. Marzinot, Federico. Ceramica e ceramisti di Liguria. Genoa.
Meco 1988. Meco, José. The Art of Azulejo in Portugal. 2nd ed., Amadora.
Plegezuelo 2002. Plegezuelo, Alfonso. “Jan Floris (c.1520–1567), a Flemish tile maker in Spain”, in Veeckman 2002, pp. 123–44.
Rackham 1926. Rackham, Bernard. Early Netherlands Maiolica. London.
Rackham 1959. Rackham, Bernard. “Netherlands maiolica tiles” in Martin Biddle et al., “The excavation of the Manor of the More”, Archaeological Journal 116, pp. 186–8.
Ray 1973. Ray, Anthony. English Delftware Tiles. London.
Ray 1991. Ray, Anthony. “Francesco Niculoso called Pisano”, in Timothy Wilson (ed.), Italian Renaissance Pottery, London (British Museum), pp. 261–6.
Schéle 1965. Schéle, Sune. Cornelis Bos. A Study of the Origins of the Netherlands Grotesque. Stockholm.
Simoes 1946. Simoes, João Dos Santos. “Panneaux de majolique au Portugal”, Faenza 32, pp. 76–87.
Thornton 1998. Thornton, Peter. Form and Decoration. Innovation in the Decorative Arts 1470–1870. London.
Vaudour 1981. Vaudour, Catherine. “Masseot Abaquesne faiencier à Rouen”, L’Estampille 130 (January 1981), pp. 20 33.
Veeckman 2002. Veeckman, Johan (ed.). Majolica and Glass. The Transfer of Technology in the 16th_early 17th century. Antwerp.
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1 We are grateful to Viscount Gage, to Hazel Gage, and to Deborah Gage for courteous encouragement and advice in the preparation of the present article; and to Peter Woolgar for his helpful collaboration and for taking photographs of the tiles for us. We thank also: Bridget Allen, Ian Betts, Claire Dumortier, Annie Holly, Koenraad Jonckheere, Tim Knox, Caroline Palmer, Jan Pluis, Hugo Penning, Sarah Rushmere, Chris Schuckman, Paul Taylor, Jan Daniel van Dam, Peter van der Coelen, Johan Veeckman.
2 Dumortier 2002 supersedes previous studies of Antwerp maiolica, which included ground_breaking articles by Henri Nicaise; see also Gaimster 1999 and Veeckman 2002.
3 Antwerp 1993, no. 101; Dumortier 2002, cat. no. 12.
4 Dumortier 1986; Dumortier 2002, cat. no. 32.
5 For example Marzinot 1979, pp. 138–53. Among the most mysterious examples of multi_tile pictures, perhaps made in Italy or by Italians, are two at Quinta das Torres, Azeitâo, Portugal; these have never been adequately published, but see Simoes 1946.
6 Ray 1991.
7 The main works are illustrated by Vaudour 1981; for the wider French context: Marly_le_Roi–Louveciennes 1993.
8 Meco 1988.
9 Dumortier 2002, p. 226.
10 Britton 1987, p. 20.
11 The Malling jug itself (British Museum, P&E1987,7–2,1) has London mounts of 1581–2. See Archer 1997, p. 411; Dumortier 2002, cat. No. 67
12 For the Vyne tiles: Rackham 1926; Blanchett 2000; Dumortier 2002, cat. no. 1. Lord Sandys brought Flemish glaziers to England in 1522 and the tiles may have been laid around the same time. Dumortier attributes them to the Den Salm workshop under the direction of Guido Andries and suggests a date around 1520.
13 Gaimster and Hughes 1999.
14 Hurst and Le Patourel 1999.
15 Rackham 1959.
16 Wilson forthcoming, with references to other finds of Antwerp tiles from London and elsewhere; also Betts and Weinstein 2010.
17 See their lives in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
18 There are two early inventories of the house, one of 1556 (Sussex Archaeological Collections 45, 1902, pp. 114–27) and one of 1633 in the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster (we thank Tim Knox for a transcript of this). Neither mentions the tiles, which, if fixed in a wall or a floor, would not have qualified as movable property. Deborah Gage points out to us that various works of art came to Firle after World War II as part of the Cowper inheritance from Panshanger; but this seems an improbable source for the tiles.
19 The horns given by many artists, including Michelangelo, to Moses derive from a mistranslation in the Vulgate of a Hebrew word meaning “shining” by the Latin cornuta “horned”, Exodus 34: 29.
20 Lane 1960, frontispiece and p. 61.
21 Ray 1973, pp. 51–5.
22 Dumortier 2002, pp. 30, 51, 237; Plegezuelo 2002.
23 On the back of Fig. 17 is a sketch of a head; and on the back of fig. 21 is a hard_to_decipher sketch, perhaps a horned Moses.
24 For the sources, including Fontainebleau school prints, of grotesque and other ornament on Antwerp tiles, see Dumortier 2002, pp. 130–4.
25 Korf 1981, p. 28; Dumortier 2002, cat. no. 16.
26 Antwerp 1993, no. 102; Dumortier 2002, cat. no. 73.
27 Dumortier 2002, cat. no. 65.
28 Dumortier 2002, pp. 82, 230.
29 Thornton 1998, p. 59; Schéle 1965, p. 13.
30 Thornton 1998, pp. 33–4. Dumortier 2002, p. 131, notes the existence of a series of copies of Pellegrino’s illustrations by Cornelis Bos, for which see Schéle 1965.
31 Dumortier 2002, p. 188.