Made in Britain
From a converted barn studio nestled in rural Oxfordshire, Douglas Watson is perfecting traditional techniques to create beautiful bespoke designs
We discover the art of tilemaking and decorating at Douglas Watson’s studio
Row upon row of intricately drawn and painted tiles line the walls of Douglas Watson’s studio. Like the pages of an illustrated book or illuminated manuscript, each one tells a story – the shepherdess holding her crook; a 17th-century battleship with pennants flying; brightly coloured Birds of Paradise, each feather rendered in lifelike detail. ‘Right now, I’m working on designs inspired by the medieval papal palace in Avignon,’ Douglas says. ‘It’s part of the joy of my work that I can take a traditional pattern and put my own character into it, creating a tile that’s quirky and individual, and looks wonderful in a home today.’ Douglas has been creating handmade, hand-painted ceramic tiles since 1976. ‘I’d completed a degree in Art History and was earning my living as an abstract artist, but I wanted an additional source of steadier income,’ he explains. ‘That’s when I came across the idea of painting tiles.’ Unlike the contemporary style of his paintings, Douglas turned to history to inspire his new creative venture. ‘I spent a lot of time looking at books and visiting the Victoria & Albert Museum, researching traditional tile-making and decorative techniques. I was inspired by the work of Portuguese artisans and traditional delft designs,’ he says. ‘I soon realised I felt more comfortable with the idea of hand-cutting and painting the tiles than with mechanical production; it just seemed easier to sit down and paint than to set up for screen-printing. And I wanted to keep my work bespoke.’
His sideline soon became a full-time job, and Douglas went on to work with stone and tile companies Paris Ceramics and Attica before establishing his current studio in Henley, Oxfordshire, in 2000. Reproductions and reinterpretations of delft and other 16thand 17th-century patterns are still a mainstay of the business, but customers come for more contemporary styles, too. The studio’s scallop-shaped tiles shimmer like a mermaid’s tail, while the graphic triangles of Harlequin hint at Douglas’ continuing passion for contemporary art (he still paints and exhibits his work). It’s not just single tiles, either: Douglas creates glazed panels in which multiple
tiles are decorated to form a larger image. It takes 30 to 40 hours of drawing to finish a design. He works on paper, using a computer only to help visualise the design in situ and present it to a client.
‘A lot of my work is made for private homes, and it might be a panel as a splashback behind the cooker or tiles for a bathroom,’ he explains. ‘Then there are jobs for restaurants and one-off commissions.’ He recently completed a project for the King of Thailand (‘the scale of it was huge’) and has worked with the artist Yinka Shonibare MBE, devising tiles based on drawings by William Morris. ‘One of the most stressful jobs was creating glazed coats of arms for the boathouse at Dorney Lake, owned by Eton College and used as a venue during the London 2012 Olympics. The first version we made cracked so we had to redo them. They were finished the day before the first Olympic rowing event so it was hair-raising waiting to see how they would come out of the kiln. Fortunately, they were perfect.’ It’s no surprise that his tiles appear in his own home décor. ‘I’m very interested in the Italian Renaissance, which inspired a design for our bathroom,’ he says. ‘Designing for myself gives me an opportunity to try things no one else has asked me to do.’
Douglas works with his wife, Janet, and a very small team, in a 2,000-square-foot studio on a former farm. The old barn is divided into a display gallery, and areas for making and firing the tiles, painting and packing. But Douglas is happiest in his private studio, where he painstakingly plans each individual design. Each commission is sketched in pencil and then replicated in watercolour to show the pattern and proposed layout to the client. Glazes can be individually mixed for each project, so if he’s not busy over his sketchbook, he might be found mixing pigments to match a paint chart or creating an entirely bespoke shade to complement a room’s colour scheme.
The atmosphere in the main room is of contained energy and intense focus. ‘Making tiles is a labour-intensive process, starting from the moment the bags of clay are delivered from Stoke-on-trent,’ Douglas explains. The tiles are cut from clay, dried and then biscuit fired, ready for decorating. ‘We use the Majolica technique, which is how original delft tiles were made. The entire tile is either dipped, sprayed or painted with a background glaze, then once it’s dry, the design is painted onto it with ceramic pigments and oxides such as copper, manganese and iron – materials that have been used for hundreds of years. When they are applied, the colours may look very different to the end result – cobalt looks pink when it is painted on, for example, and turns an intense blue only once it has been fired – so part of the skill is visualising how the finished tile will look. The background glaze acts almost like blotting paper, absorbing the applied design, so if we make a mistake in the pattern or the colour of the glaze, the entire tile has to be redone.’ It takes an average of 20 minutes to paint a tile, although it depends on the intricacy of the design. The tiles are then fired a second time, a process that fuses the colours and glazed background to create the finished tile. ‘The small size is a challenge that I enjoy; there are always surprises with the limited size and format. You can paint with broad or fine strokes and play with colour.’
His work focuses on the beauty of individual tiles, but Douglas has a bigger picture in mind when he thinks of the future. ‘My dream is to design an entire room glazed with tiles and panels, like you might see in a Renaissance palace,’ he says. ‘It would be spectacular!’
Visit Douglas’ website douglaswatsonstudio.co.uk and see his paintings at douglaswatson.co.uk.