What is an Attribution?


See also Tiles Designed by Dr Christopher Dresser



An attribution is when someone expresses an opinion of the origin, this is presumably based on relevant experience in the field but does not indicate that the cited artist/designer/manufacturer is verified.

Attributions on many tiles and in particular Christopher Dresser tiles have been made by people, mostly dealers, and mostly experienced in the pottery trade. There are records of pottery companies for whom Christopher Dresser designed and signed pieces (many mechanical signed i.e. printed signatures so more appropriate called a mark than a signature), very few of these companies made any tiles the only one of note being Mintons Ltd whose tiles are marked Mintons China Works.

Pottery has always been collectable, pieces are available going back several thousand years, thousands of books have been written about pottery and porcelain. Tiles are only a quite recent addition to the collectors portfolio with the advert of highly decorative and stylish tiles made in the 19thC, previously tiles were limited to floor tiles, iznik and delft all of which are limited in decorative aspects especially colours and finishes. It is little surprise therefore that most of the literature concerning ceramic design is authored by pottery experts with scant knowledge of tile design and manufacture.

There has always been luxury pottery, tableware reserved for special occasions, ornamental wares such as vases and plaques, and so highly decorative that they are pure works of art, cabinet pieces. Tiles have historically with rare exceptions been rather securely affixed to floors and walls therefore difficult to pass on through the ages as collectables. Tiles are hard and durable and used mostly in working environments and in high traffic areas, softer surfaces are preferred for domestic situations, a carpet is much more pleasing than tiles.

The use of tiles relates to the creative input, artists design pottery, architects design tiles. This persisted until the technicalities of tile manufacture advanced their decorative aspects and tiles came to be used in domestic environments as an alternative for carvings in furniture and for ornamentation of fireplaces. It is only in the latter part of the 19thC that artists became involved in tile design to any great extent, most of the noted tile designers were, or at least began as, architects, A W N Pugin, E W Godwin, John Moyr Smith, John Windsor Bradburn etc.

Attributions of tile designs to artists have primarily been made by pottery experts who seemingly assume that the similarity in the material translates to some equivalence in other aspects ignoring or ignorant of the differences in the mediums. Such attributions have been made solely based on the similarity in style and indeed a rather limited expression of style for tiles are two dimensional objects, the form says nothing of the designer. Three dimensional objects such as vases and jugs grant much greater scope for artistic expression indeed the form is often more important than the ornament.

In the end, and especially in the case of tile designs attributed to Christopher Dresser, all we are left with is a similarity in style of decoration upon which to base attributions and this is a most tenuous basis. It is as if writers are unaware that Dresser was one of many designers who contributed to the decoration of mass produced wares that came with industrialisation. There is no record of Dresser designing tiles apart from a single design for a pavement found by Harry Lyons and only the record was found not the design. Nevertheless attributions of tile design to Dresser are rather widespread and extremely tenuous for example Minton Hollins for whom there is no indication that Dresser had any involvement yet the fact that Dresser designed some pottery for Mintons Ltd has been extrapolated to incorporate tile wares of the rival company.

'Optimistic' attributions have reached a new peak with online sales especially auctions, where regular auctioneers have are reserved online auction sellers are often the opposite. Regular auctioneers will carry forward the hesitancy of the source material using words and phrases such as 'after', 'in the manner of', 'reputedly' or simply 'attributed to' used in its strict sense.

Online auction sellers may be totally disingenuous cherry picking publications with known errors, ignoring authors' caveats and extrapolating wildly. Here is a good example, the cited image from the source book is shown below, the tile in question is one of the leaf designs offset and cut off at the bottom of the picture.



The source materials is as follows.

One of the earliest of Moyr Smith's tile designs to be put into production appears to be the peacock frieze for Maw & Co., shown at the London International Exhibition, 1871 The design was published as a header in the first issue of Decoration [1], as well as in Ornamental Interiors some years later [2]. However since there is no reference to Moyr Smith designing for the company, nor for Dresser or Talbert for that matter, it may have been supplied via another studio. [My emphasis]

From this the seller claims that it was designed by Moyr Smith whilst working at Dresser's studio and cites the book [3] from which the above paragraph is taken. This is the sole paragraph in the book discussing the tiles/design furthermore the book refers to the frieze from the panel rather than the complete panel. The design in the header and on the tile are different, slight differences maybe but perhaps sufficient to avoid copyright issues.

The author notes the similarity and takes a somewhat hesitant leap but includes caveats. The auction seller grabs it and is off like a rocket, not only cherry picking information but ignoring specific information to the contrary and then extrapolating to an associated tile.

Charles Francis Annesley Voysey is another designer much cited by dealers and collectors in error, there is no doubt that he designed tiles but there is verification for just a few. Certainly he designed for Pilkington although because a Pilkington tile bears some resemblance to Voysey designs is in itself no justification for attribution. Tiles by Maw and Marsden are often attributed to Voysey, there is no evidence for this. Other companies cited are Sherwin & Cotton & T & R Boote again without solid evidence and with these companies the likelihood of a connection is exceedingly remote.

Citing inaccurate references has been demonstrated to be an art in itself in particular from auctioneers catalgues. Established auctioneers, both local and the international, strive hard to be accurate in their descriptions. They can call upon their own experience and research the established literature but the established literature is not without error and these may be picked up. Auction catalogues from major auction houses such as Sotheby's, Christies and Phillips make valuable contributions to the literature but are best viewed as what they are brochures for items for sale compiled within the constraints of time and costs. Reports or guarded attributions therein become part of the accepted knowledge when repeated by traders, perhaps the classic example is Christopher Dresser by whom there are no verified designs for tile but auction catalogues are cited as source material.

One of the most consulted tile books is The Decorated Tile by J & B Austwick, it is an excellent book and was the first to illustrate a significant number of tile versos. However it was published on 1980 and in the intervening thirty years researchers have uncovered much more information, in the order of one hundred material errors have been found in it. There are 159 entries in Appendix A Tile Backs and Marks, 159 sounds impressive but 130 are attributed by virtue of bearing names, initials or trade marks and 3 are unidentified. That leaves just 26 of which 11 are to some extent incorrect. Four appear to be completely wrong, the manufacturer never used that verso, seven are incorrect as far as the verso was used by several decorating companies.

This is most clearly seen in the attributions to Sherwin & Cotton of which there are six, three are certainly by Boote, another may be Boote, Woolliscroft or another but that drawing is not sufficiently distinctive to indicate the manufacturer. Whilst many early examples of Sherwin & Cotton's decoration for sure appears on Boote blanks Malkin has been noted, another assumed to be Woolliscroft and another could be one of several manufacturers. Many manufacturers especially in the transfer print era began as decorators buying in blanks and progressed to pressing their own, Boote were a major supplier of blanks and pressed moulded tiles to order.

Austwick's indicated date ranges are also incorrect in several instances.

Making attributions is a very difficult area and almost inevitably should include caveats, unfortunately sellers do not always take them on board. In truth there are very few tiles that can be with any degree of certainty ascribed to a particular designer, the vast majority were simply in a the style of the times. Good and great artists are always on the look out for new sources of inspiration, an artist may see a design and think,"that is nice but I'd do it slightly differently" and so they do. Identical copying was common, one only has to look at the famous Mintons Ltd to see, even so many designs appear by more than one manufacturer but one can not say that one copied the other for they may have take the design from the same source such as one of the many art reference books that were published.

I am confident that wherever an attribution given by Tile Heaven is at variance with other sources Tile Heaven is correct. Far from trying to associate a tile or design with a famous brand I am much more interested in discovering the unknown working class heroes who made so much of what we enjoy possible. It is remarkable how designs by famous designers tend to be uncommon i.e. not very popular in their day whilst the popular designs are mostly by unknown artists. Pugin and Moyr Smith are the only designers of repute whose wares are common, designs by the famous such as Lewis Day, Charles Voysey, and E W Godwin are rarely found compared to those by unknown designers and many works by unknown designers are attributed to the famous, those whose designs were not very popular. Strange world isn't it.


[1] No date given and I can't readily locate it.
[2] 1880
[3] John Moyr Smith 1839 - 1912 A Victorian Designer by Annamarie Stapleton



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