A Dragon on the Roof

After watching the video last week on unfired mud houses, my thoughts turned to fired architectural features. We all know that fired clay is everywhere in the house; toilets, floors, fireplaces and brick walls, but I was thinking particularly about roofs, or, as Hans van Lemmen calls it in his fun little book from Shire, Ceramic Roofware.

Tile roofs have been used throughout the world for millennia. Lemmen focuses his attention on Britain (Shire publishes hundreds of small, inexpensive books on British history, many of which are of interest to potters). The Romans brought tile roofs to Britain (the word tile is from the Latin tegula). Sadly, like most of the innovations the Romans introduced to the inhabitants of the British Isles, all was forgotten once the Empire broke apart and the Romans left. During the Dark Ages, roofs were made of thatch and wooden shingles.

But thatch and wooden shingles are dangerously flammable. A whole row of houses could quickly go up in flames with just one stray spark from a cooking fire. Gradually, tiles came back into use, first for prestigious buildings and then in urban areas for safety’s sake.

There are good directions for making your own medieval style English roof tiles in The Potter’s Alternative by Harry Davis. Early English tiles were flat and rectangular with a nail hole at the top for attaching. Some were made with a heel at the top so that they could be hung rather than nailed (or often both). Like all roofing materials, they overlapped to prevent rain from coming in. These early tiles were hand made by local potters and were fire resistant and waterproof and, unlike thatch, they did not attract mice and other critters. We could, if we wanted, or needed to, make them today ourselves in our studios and they would serve our homes well. Davis gives detailed instruction for not only flat English tiles but for the more often seen pantiles. “It is an ignominious experience indeed,” he writes, “ to be in the position of wanting to make pots in some remote place, wanting also to show the local inhabitants how to do so with the materials they have around them, and yet not knowing how to put a roof on some shed in which to do this. To succumb to using corrugated iron, or some other manufactured roof material made 10,000 miles away, is humiliating as well.”

Ok, when I grow up I want to be Harry Davis, or at least have his skill, or maybe Michael Cardew, not for his fame, but for his extraordinary self-sufficient abilities in addition to his art. If a potter put only two books on the shelf, Pioneer Pottery and A Potter’s Alternative are the two that I would suggest. Even if your studio is in suburbia or a city and you use an electric kiln, it is worth knowing this stuff.

Pantiles, the curved roof tiles, were brought to the UK from the Low Countries. As demand increased and the industrial revolution got underway, tile making was mechanized and roof tiles became prevalent and affordable.

Van Lemmen is interested in much more than roof tiles however. He goes on to discuss chimneys, chimney pots and decorations with enthusiasm. Chimney pots came into fashion during the Georgian era when coal burning replaced wood, necessitating the stronger chimney draft that the pots created. Like tiles, chimney pots were initially handmade; thrown on the wheel. They were traditionally two feet tall, or the length of a potter’s arm. By the middle of the twentieth century, electricity and gas had replaced coal, and chimney pots were no longer needed. Many were destroyed but because they were often so decorative, they were salvaged as garden ornaments and today there is a robust international business in antique chimney pots and reproductions.

It’s the ridge finials in Ceramic Roofware that really make me smile. Here we see the potters’ imaginations gone wild, surely inspired by distant Chinese roof decorations and closer to home,  magnificent cathedral gargoyles. They made winged dragons, kingly lions, enormous birds and purely ornamental shapes as ridge finials. Imposing. Playful. I think if I could sculpt (and alas I cannot). I might make a frog finial for our roof, perhaps sitting cross-legged reading a book.  I know, it would look a bit out of place in rural Connecticut, but as more and more of us put solar panels on our roofs, roof dragons might be just the thing. I notice there’s a roof dragon website in Britain.

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