Friday, July 1, 2011

Lewes, Sussex


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.

* * *

† 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.

18 comments:

Hels said...

There is nothing new under the sun... every new trend has been derived from something that was invented ages ago. Perhaps in the inter-war era, architects looked at 18th century mathematical tiles and said, "we can do that! Let's invent brick veneer siding"

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: We all stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton (I think) said – or on the shoulders of 18th-century builders anyway.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of once more seeming ignorant, as I am, what is the “classical number of panes” in an XVIIIth century English house? Three wide by four vertical? Are there variations by region, period, anything else?
François-Marc Chaballier

Philip Wilkinson said...

François-Marc: Yes, I should have explained this! You're right, three across and four vertical - or in other words six panes in the upper section, six in the lower, an arrangement commonly known as 'six over six'. But there are many variations, and an unusual number of panes on its own isn't an indication that there's anything odd about the structure.

Susy said...

Hello, you follow it a bit.
What you have written in the last
post is interesting, now when
I am in England (in August), I'll look
your beautiful homes with another eye.
Suzy x

Philip Wilkinson said...

Suzy: Thank you. Enjoy your trip to England.

worm said...

most fascinating Philip, I had no idea that this happened!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Worm: Oh today's builders think they're clever with their bits of skyscraper cladding that, if they're lucky, don't fall off on to the pedestrians below, but they're nothing to that cunning lot in the 18th century.

Peter Ashley said...

How odd. I was pointing out (if you'll forgive the pun) these tiles to a friend only last week. We were on a flying visit to stock up with Harvey's Blue Label from the brewery on the Ouse.

ChrisP said...

It is also said that in 18th century Lewes householders wanted to reclad their homes in the latest style but most houses were built right up to the street, so there was no room for a brick wall. Mathematical tiles were the answer, and presumably more socially acceptable than plaster.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: There we go again, shadowing one another. I wonder if you noticed the wonderful stained glass on the shopfront of a former dairy, somewhere between the tiles and the brewery (the latter being of course a place of pilgrimage).

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: I didn't know about the 'no room for a brick wall' theory: interesting.

I'm sure bricks and tiles were seen as a cut above plaster in the 18th century.

The Devoted Classicist said...

How much I appreciate this information! I had asked several people over the years and no one seemed to understand what I was talking about!

Philip Wilkinson said...

DC: I'm glad to be helpful! Alec Clifton-Taylor has more on the subject of mathematical tiles in his excellent book, The Pattern of English Building.

Peter Ashley said...

I obviously need to spend much more time in Lewes, instead of just flying in, parking on pavements and legging it into Harvey's.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Indeed you do. There are at least three secondhand bookshops too.

Jon Dudley said...

More Sussex! Fabulous! Thank you Philip. Lewes has such delights doesn't it? at one time we seriously considered buying that very building...it's additional false door is intriguing; but you are in the gaze of virtually every visitor to the town, being right next to the castle and Barbican, so we gave it best. When you and Unmitigated Ashley next come to Lewes be sure to visit the Tom Paine Printing Press just up the street.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Jon. It would have been a very tempting house but, yes, every visitor hangs around in front of it. I had to wait some time to photograph it without people in shot. The Tom Paine Printing Press indeed looked very interesting and I hope to investigate when I return.

Meanwhile, another one from my recent Lewes visit soon.