The hidden tiles of Government House

The geometric (‘tessellated’) tiles that feature in the entrance hall of Fernberg were at the height of fashion in 1890 when the then owner, John Stevenson, had them installed.

Stevenson had purchased the original 1865 villa and engaged architect Richard Gailey to design additions including a new entrance with a multi-storey belvedere, a grand cedar staircase, a magnificent stained glass window — and an entrance hall featuring encaustic tiles.

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Image: Encaustic tiles installed at Fernberg. 

The first encaustic tiles were hand-made in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, but it was 19th century British entrepreneur, Herbert Minton, who assured their adoption world-wide when his pattern book of 62 designs led to a commission to supply tiles for Queen Victoria’s palatial holiday home, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight in 1844.

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Image: A 'Milton Hollins & Co' advertisement from 1903.

The Royal commission made the tiles immediately desirable but it was their affordability, thanks to mass-manufacturing techniques, that made them a design phenomenon of the Victorian era. They also appealed because of their durability — because the colours are inlaid into the clay before firing, the colours in encaustic tiles never fade or wear away. As a consequence, they were used everywhere from the Houses of Parliament at Westminster to churches, palaces, schools and grand homes around the world — including Fernberg.

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Image: Encaustic tiles at Westminster in London. 

The tiles in Fernberg were covered by wall-to-wall carpet in the 1950s and remained covered until 1997 during the tenure of Major-General Peter Arnison AC as Governor. Restored then and carefully maintained in the two decades since, the Minton tiles today tell an important part of the story of Government House.