Period Living

Made in Britain

From a converted barn studio nestled in rural Oxfordshir­e, Douglas Watson is perfecting traditiona­l techniques to create beautiful bespoke designs

- Words Andréa Childs | Photograph­s Jeremy Phillips

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 douglaswat­ and see his paintings at douglaswat­

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