A crack team

PUBLISHED: 14:59 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013

Tiles

Tiles

Lesley and Michael Durbin of Shropshire's Jackfield Conservation Studio have earned an international reputation as tile restoration experts

A crack team

Lesley and Michael Durbin of Shropshire's Jackfield Conservation Studio have earned an international reputation as tile restoration experts

Last month, you read why you should visit Jackfield Tile Museum and we revealed some of the things you could see there. Here, we go behind the scenes to find out about the work of the Jackfield Conservation Studio, run by Lesley and Michael Durbin.
Located on the same site in Ironbridge as Jackfield Tile Museum, Jackfield Conservation Studio is not open to visitors. You contact Lesley or Michael Durbin when you have tiles needing restoration. Arguably, it is the world leader in tile restoration and Lesley has written Architectural Tiles: Conservation and Restoration - the definitive work on the subject.
Indeed, it was Lesley who began work at the Jackfield Tile Museum in the summer of 1983 and was heavily involved in establishing the museum. With the experience of sorting, repairing and displaying thousands of tiles, Lesley set up Jackfield Conservation Studio with her husband in 1990
Now, having gained an excellent reputation worldwide, Jackfield Conservation Studio's clients include property developers, museums, local authorities, churches, English Heritage and charitable trusts responsible for the maintenance of historic buildings.
They have done work for the House of Commons, English Heritage Medieval Tile Project, the Royal Courts of Justice, St Albans Cathedral, Warwick Castle, the National Trust and Osgoode Hall in Toronto, Canada.
Restoring tiles is specialised work within a niche conservation area so Lesley and Michael travel across the UK carrying out their work. Sometimes, they are just required to write a report on the damaged tiles and provide a method statement for undertaking restoration. In other cases, they will restore damaged tiles and despatch them for installation on site. Most satisfying is when Lesley and Michael are commissioned to undertake a complete restoration of an area of tiles and then fix them in place. This can be an existing but damaged section of tiles or old tiles that have been rescued and are to be prepared for display in, say, a museum.
At the time of my visiting, they were working on tiles which had been found and were to be displayed in the Black Country Museum. They were being cleaned, sorted and restored ready for despatch to the museum.
Sometimes, Lesley or Michael need to do a lot of research into the patterns on the tiles before they can begin a restoration project. For example, the Pilkington Society has archives of the company's original designs, and, of course, there is the Jackfield Tile Museum and Craven Dunnill Jackfield Limited nearby. There was a boom in tiles in Victorian times but handbooks and catalogues were not produced
Tiles don't age and are generally quite robust. However, they do develop cracks, which absorb dirt, and sometimes get broken - so parts can be missing. Working on large tables, the tiles are cleaned and broken parts are joined with filler paste. The excess paste is then painstakingly scraped away.
Originally, pigments contained nasty things such as lead and arsenic. Now, Craven Dunnill makes replica pigments which can be matched to the original colours and carefully applied as a cold glaze to hide cracks. Sometimes, new plain 'biscuit' tiles are used to replace missing parts and painted to match.
If, when you visit Jackfield Tile Museum, you look very closely at some of the displays of tiles you may see where they have been repaired.
Sometimes, a choice has to be made between restoration and replacement. In areas where food is handled, where the tiles will be subject to heavy use (such as on a floor) or in Listed Buildings, replacement is often the only option - albeit a more expensive one. This is when Jackfield Conservation Studio works closely with Craven Dunnill Jackfield to produce new tiles which will match the old ones. Unless complete authenticity is required (as with Grade 1 Listed Buildings), modern tile adhesives can be used instead of the traditional Portland cement. Victorian tiles were neither perfectly square nor all exactly the same size and these inaccuracies are replicated in replacement tiles. Forget about those little plastic tile spacers used these days; Victorian tiles were laid by eye.
Lesley and Michael employ Daniel Bird as an assistant conservator and he does most of the painting on tiles. Such is Daniel's skill that when not busy with tiles, he works on commissions gained by Jackfield Conservation Studio to produce a facsimile of a fine art painting. This allows the owners of such paintings to sell the original and avoid the expense of insurance or restoration. At the time of my visit, Daniel was working on a reproduction of a painting by William Adolphe Bougoereau from a photograph. When finished, only an expert will tell the difference.
Lesley and Michael are accredited by the Institute of Conservation and are members of the ceramics section. There is no specific training for those interested in tile restoration, although there is a more general conservation course run each year and certified by Aston University.
To gain experience at tile restoration, being surrounded by tiles every working day, as Lesley and Michael are, is the only way. They do, however, get tile relief when they get home. "We don't have any in the house," says Lesley.

The Jackfield Conservation Studio Ltd
Tel: 01952 883720
Email: lesley@jackfield.fsbusiness.co.uk

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