For years, I noticed a non-ceramic tile used on the floor of most older churches in downtown Buenos Aires. Those tiles retain their color despite heavy wear, the designs are unique & colors seem muted, earthy. Somehow I always forgot to check into it. But during a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London a couple months ago, my questions were answered.
Encaustic tiles were all the rage from the mid-1700’s to the 20th century, especially in Gothic Revival buildings. Since most tiles of this kind were coming out of England —in particular a company called Craven Dunnill Jackfield, Ltd. located at the heart of the Industrial Revolution in Shropshire (download their catalogs!)— it’s not surprising that they ended up in the churches of Buenos Aires. Commercial ties between England & Argentina were strong in the 1800’s, despite (or perhaps causing) two failed British invasions.
The V&A exhibit explained how the tiles were manufactured. Apologies for the grainy diagram… low museum light.
Stage 1 • A plaster mold is made to shape the pattern on the tile. Colored clays are pushed by thumb into the mold to make the detail of the pattern.
Stage 2 • A layer of strong, red earthenware clay is then pressed onto the top of the mold, using a mawl, a type of soft mallet. The end result will form the base of the tile when it comes out of the mold.
Stage 3 • The wooden frame is removed, then the tile is peeled off the plaster mold. This tile shows the raised main shapes & the layer of red, earthenware clay at the base. Normally an encaustic tile is not fired at this stage.
Stage 4 • Watery clay (called slip) is poured into the hollow gaps between the raised shapes, which stand slightly higher than the slip although they are covered by it. Different colors of slip can be used to create multiple background colors.
Stage 5 • A metal scraper is used to scrape the dried excess slip from the raised decorations, until the top surface is even, revealing the details of the pattern. Then the finished tile is fired.
Alternative methods can be used to create similar tiles without firing. If your Catalan is good, then Pere Martí i Carreras shows the step-by-step process on YouTube in a series of short videos. From what I understood, they try to make all liquid medium at the same density. Then after pouring & pressing, the tiles must dry for 21 days. I didn’t catch anything about firing, then again my Catalan is rusty! Read the comments at the end of the post for further clarification.
The following video (no sound) shows the same process. I would love to learn how to do this!
To see these tiles in Buenos Aires, check out most of the churches downtown. Some of the most spectacular examples are at the Basílica de San Francisco (Alsina & Defensa) & the Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad (San Martín 1035), shown respectively below:
Now comes the tricky part. Churches had less budget constraints & could afford fired more expensive encaustic tiles. But a non-fired cement tile (named for its major component) looks very similar. To my untrained eye, I wouldnt know the difference. But several comments (see below) assure me that several of these pics are of baldosas calcáreas. Always learning something new! In Balvanera, the wonderfully restored Café de los Angelitos (Avenida Rivadavia & Rincón) sports floor tiles:
Further afield in the neighborhood of Barracas, the train station Hipólito Yrigoyen (Juan Darquier, 900 block) has some worse-for-wear examples. Better preserved are the tiles inside the Instituto Santa Felicitas:
It would be wonderful to find out if any tiles came from Craven Dunnill Jackfield, but there’s probably no record anywhere of their origin… & I won’t be tearing up tiles just to look at the back for clues 🙂 Tiles —whether encaustic or cement— can often be found in hallways in the casa chorizo, popular during the same era. Happy hunting!