Perched high atop the rail in the main hall, a set of five decorative tiles tells the story of Lancelot and Elaine, as told in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Idylls of the King. The tiles were favorites of the Glessners who originally acquired them to adorn the library fireplace in their home on Washington Street (shown above). When they moved to Prairie Avenue in 1887, they had the tiles carefully removed and put on display in the main hall, where they may be found today.
The tiles were produced by Minton, Hollins, & Co., located in Stoke on
in Trent . Herbert Minton established Minton and Company in 1830. Later the company split into two firms – Minton & Co. which produced china and floor tiles, and Minton, Hollins, & Co. which produced wall and floor tiles. By the 1850s, the latter firm was the largest tile manufacturer in Staffordshire, England , and installations included the England of Royal Palaces , the Houses of Parliament at Windsor , and the U.S. Capitol. The company survives today as a prestigious line of Johnson Tiles. Westminster
The artist for this series of tiles was John Moyr Smith (1839-1912), who served as the head designer of picture tiles for Minton from 1872 to 1879. Smith produced over twenty series of transfer-printed tiles which drew their inspiration from Greek mythology, English history, the works of Shakespeare and other authors, and fables. His execution of simple classical figures and background imagery in sharp outline show the influence of a group of artists calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Minton’s block transfer technique was used to create these tiles. A copper plate etched with the design was inked with a solution containing pigments, linseed oil and resin. This image was transferred by rolling and pressing paper onto the copper plate and allowing it to dry. The paper was then removed from the plate and applied to a tile to transfer the image to the surface of the tile. It was then permanently affixed to the tile through firing.
The tragic love poem by Tennyson depicting the Arthurian legend of Lancelot and Elaine is told in five parts:
The first tile shows Lancelot meeting Elaine and her brother after being lost in the woods. Elaine instantly falls in love with Lancelot, who informs Elaine’s father, Lord of Astolat, that he will participate in a tournament. To return the Lord’s kindness to him, Lancelot agrees to wear Elaine’s favor in the diamond jousting competition.
In the second tile, a victorious Lancelot returns from the tournament, suffering from a lance wound in his side. Sir Gawaine gives Elaine the victor’s diamond, informing her that it was the legendary Lancelot who had fought for her. Elaine goes to find Lancelot.
The third tile shows Elaine following her confession of love to Lancelot, who has been restored to health by Elaine’s care. Although Lancelot cares for Elaine, he cannot put aside his deep love for Guinivere, and refuses Elaine’s proposal of marriage. Elaine mutters, “Him or death, death or him,” sings The Song of Love and Death, and collapses. Lancelot departs with no goodbye, hoping this will end her love for him.
In the fourth tile, Elaine will not be dissuaded of her love for Lancelot. Her father and brothers tell her that Lancelot is Queen Guinivere’s lover, unbeknownst to her husband, King Arthur. Elaine refuses to believe them. Unable to attain Lancelot’s love, despairing Elaine wills herself to die.
The last tile follows Elaine’s death. Her body is being prepared for burial in the sacred graveyard by King Arthur; Guinivere stands by his side. Lancelot confesses to her in death that all of his accomplishments mean nothing.