Friday, July 1, 2011
Doing the math
Lewes is full of houses with beautiful brickwork, but sometimes the ‘brickwork’ is not what it seems. Many of the fronts of houses in this town are not built of brick at all but covered with a kind of tile designed to look like brick. These tiles, called mathematical tiles. became popular during the 18th century and were usually used to clad timber-framed houses so that they looked as if they were built in brick. There are lots of them in Lewes, and in other places in southeast England, such as Brighton.
Although mathematical tiles are usually the same colour as regular red bricks, they are quite easy to spot when you get your eye in. They’re a different size from bricks and, because of their slender profile, they look different at joins and at the corners of the building. Sometimes the tiles are not red at all, but black. There are quite a lot of these black tiles in Brighton and they also feature on this Lewes building, Bartholomew House, near the entrance to the castle.
At a quick glance you might think this house was built of black glazed brick. But when you look more closely, there are several odd things about it that give the game away. Here’s a house with the sash windows and fanlights of the 18th century, but the proportions are all wrong. An 18th-century house would not normally have the ground-floor window in the middle: this window would line up with those on the upper floors. The pair of doors is unusual too. And the fact that none of the windows has the classical number of panes. And the way in which the three lower windows almost touch at the corners. And the lack of arches and keystones above the windows.
Put all this together, and it looks as if this is a framework building. In other words, what’s holding it all up is not a brick wall, but a timber frame, and this frame dictates where the windows and doors can be. Some time in the 18th century, the owners decided to upgrade it, following the fashion, using glazed black tiles. If you look at the corners (photograph below), there’s a narrow wooden band covering up what would be an uncomfortable join if the edges of the tiles had been exposed: a neat solution to a major headache with mathematical tiles. The moulding around the windows is probably wooden too (I was so taken with the look of this house that I forgot to kick or tap these parts to find out.)
Why tile a house like this? It is sometimes said that mathematical tiles came into favour as a way of avoiding a tax on bricks that came in in 1784. But mathematical tiles were in use well before this date – and were taxed too†. It was more to do with fashion. Timber was out; brick was in; tiles gave the appearance of brick without the expense of a complete rebuild. Fashion – and finance – ruled the day, and the builders of 18th-century Lewes did the math.
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† As pointed out by Alec Clifton-Tailor in his chapter on Lewes in his Six More English Towns (1981). I’m indebted to his account in this post.