Tile a while

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Jackfield in the Ironbridge Gorge was once the world leader in ceramics. Fiona Flynn reveals how visitors can create their own masterpieces.

The workshop at Jackfield Tile Museum has the magic ingredient for a successful school outing - pupils come home with a made-on-site trophy.

Jackfield, once the world centre for Victorian ceramic tile production, is in the idyllic Ironbridge Gorge. The first bridge built of iron, in 1799, is a stone's throw away.

Not only local schools visit. Parties from the south make journeys, calling in also to other Ironbridge museums and Blist Hill, a nearby Victorian theme village. They stay in local youth hostels and residential centres.

A trip to Jackfield begins with a tour of the remains of the original factory, where children worked in primitive conditions from the age of 12.

Those Victorian and Art Deco tiles that grace period fireplaces are made at Jackfield. So too are the large tiled picture scenes you used to see in hospitals, and those on the floors of Victorian pubs. The tiles - which were also exported to decorate foreign palaces and temples - now sell for at least pound;23 apiece.

The tile-making workshop, aimed at schools but also open to the public, is good value at pound;5 to pound;6 a person. Students are taught to use a technique known as 'tube lining' . They draw a design onto tile with wet clay, then fill in the spaces with colour glazes.

The process requires concentration, so everyone has a trial run on a reject tile. The workshop leader painstakingly talks the class through the process. When everyone feels sure of using 'the slip', the class can work on the real tile.

Students are encouraged to prepare a design before they come. But spontaneous thought on the day can work wonders too.

Teachers are briefed beforehand to keep designs simple. They are sent an education pack with a template for photocopying.

Choosing glazes is great funJ- the Victorian colours are fabulous. The chemical process that turns the glazes from nondescript washes to brilliant colour is fascinating.

The tiles take two days to fire in the kiln, so the finished products are sent onto the school at cost price within a couple of weeks.

You may be happy for children to do their own thing entirely. Many schools work out a panel together, each child doing one section.

A panel of up to thirty tiles, showing one large design or a number of individual pictures, with the name of your school - and perhaps the year it was done or a school motto - is a wonderful permanent display for a school hall or entrance foyer.

The workshops are suitable for anyone from age four upwards. Primary school children usually favour pictures of fish or flowers, while older pupils will sometimes try writing with the 'slip', if not given guidance. It's really up to you how you use the workshop. While the factory trades on it's period flavour, it would be interesting to investigate some contemporary decorations, including abstract designs.

The workshop takes around an hour and a half and concludes with a tour of the museum.

The staff at Jackfield make every effort to get pupils looking properly at the fabulous tiles on display - you will be busy getting absorbed in the gorgeousness of it all. The museum pieces are not dated, though it would be interesting to get older students to date the designs.

The education pack is conscientious. It details how a visit to Jackfield fits in with history, science, maths, Damp;T and art and design from key stage 1 to key stage 3.

A simple design, well-executed, is a boost to any child's self-esteem. Particularly if it is still on permanent display in the school several years later.

Contact Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire TF8 7LJ. Tel 01952 884627 Cost pound;5 per person. Email: jennifer@cravendunnill-jackfield.co.uk

Web: www.ironbridge.org.uk

Nearby attractions: Gladstone Working Pottery Museum.

Stoke-on-Trent. Tel: 01782 319 232Ironbridge Gorge Museums. Tel:01952 432 166

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