A Tiley Group of Gentlemen

The Tile Club, founded in 1877, was a collective of artists, writers, and musicians. Though most of the club members were relatively young and new to their careers when they joined, many became rather successful and famous. Alumni include the likes of William Merritt Chase, Stanford White, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Francis Hopkinson Smith.

The club was formed during the “Aesthetic Movement,” an art movement and “decorative craze” that spanned the mid 1870s-1880s and focused on handcrafted decorative objects.1 The artists hoped to take in revenue from the tiles, as they most emphatically did not want to become the type of “social artists” who made their livings by attending parties and pandering to the whims of high society.2 Though Tile Club members did wish to sell their art, profit was not of the utmost importance to them. As one member noted, if they couldn’t sell the art they could simply “keep it, as they did their other paintings.”3 Examples of art and artists from the Aesthetic movement may be found on ArtFact.

The club was driven more by social adventure than earning a profit. Though the artists eventually established permanent headquarters at Edward Austin Abbey’s home at 58 ½ West 15th Street, they began by meeting once a week at each other’s studios to eat, drink, smoke, paint tiles and tell sordid stories. The club shunned established “society”, and members surrounded themselves with an air of exclusivity. Membership was limited to 12 people at a time, though new members joined as others left -it is estimated there had been perhaps 30 club members over the course of the club’s 10-year existence.4 There were no officers, dues, or attendance requirements.5 Membership was acquired through invitation only, and all club members were assigned nicknames based on what they looked like or the work they did. For example, William Merritt Chase was Briareus due to his multitude of talents, and William Mackay Laffan was Polyphemus, or Cyclops, because of his glass eye6.

Because of the elusive nature of the club, most of what is known about it must be ascertained through the series of articles the group wrote for Scribner’s Monthly, an American literary periodical published from November 1870 to April 1881.7 The stories are heavily illustrated and highly entertaining. The four articles that appear in Scribner’s are entitled “The Tile Club at Work,” “The Tile Club at Play,” “The Tile Club Afloat,” and “The Tile Club Ashore." The first article describes the origins of the club and the subsequent three document summer trips taken by members. Some of the members' later successes might be attributed to the way the magazine elevated their profiles. The articles refer only to Tile Club members by their given nicknames and are full of facetious-sounding tales and inside jokes. While the events chronicled within seem mostly accurate, much of the dialogue is written to entertain and cannot be taken at face value.8 The articles are sharp, witty, and completely irreverent in nature, emphasizing the club’s Bohemian roots. (Read historical issues of Scribner's here).

It is clear from the outset of “At Work,” written in January 1879, that the so-called Tilers do not take themselves very seriously. A conversation revolving around what kind of work the club should undertake begins with, ‘”This is a decorative age,” said an artist, “We should do something decorative, if we would not be behind the times”’9 and ends with “A good idea! Let us all do tiles!”10 The article proceeds to describe how club meetings were run. Each week one member was expected to provide food and one week someone was ridiculed for bringing hard-boiled egg sandwiches. As for the first meeting, "it was attended by two persons…they painted two tiles, but there is no record of these objects of art. Their authors are supposed to have relieved themselves by throwing them at each other.”11 The article also included pictures of tiles, which were captioned quite literally, and as a result, humorously. A sketch of the club at work is titled “Tilers tiling”12 and an image of a man etched onto a tile is called "A Tile of a Tile Man.”13 The end of the article details the club’s plans to sell an article to fund its upcoming journey to Long Island to a “grasping publisher…with many apologies to SCRIBNER’s MONTHLY that is precisely what the Tile Club proposes to do”14.

The articles published in Scribner’s entitled “At Play” (February 1879) “Afloat” (March 1880), and “Ashore” (February 1882) document trips to Long Island, Lake Champlain, and an abandoned shipwreck, respectively. The articles further underline the group’s good humor and Bohemian attitudes. In “At Play," we learn that the highest compliment a Tiler can pay is to call something “tiley.”15 We read as members adorns themselves with ribboned hats in Bridgehampton16 and then trek to Easthampton solely to make fun of John Howard Payne, who penned the famous song, Home! Sweet Home!17

“Afloat” finds the group tired of tiles, because “each member was already in possession of numerous assorted mantel-pieces,”18 and plaques are substituted instead. We find the group traveling up the Hudson on a schooner, delightedly sounding a large Japanese bell anytime an interesting ship passes by and amusing other passengers with eccentric outfits and late night music-playing. Most endearingly, the artists hire a servant they christen “Deuteronomy," the “only tourist who contrived to make the trip a period of unbroken rest”19. Despite Deuteronomy’s unwillingness to do the work he was hired to do-or perhaps, because of it—the group grows quite attached to him and hires another servant rather than letting him go.20 “Afloat” is also extremely well illustrated, so much so that the New York Times noted that the actual text may go unread without “serious loss” as the illustrations present “sufficient fullnesss.”21

“Ashore” is the most fantastic of all the articles, describing how the group decides to summer on an abandoned ship called The Two Sisters and experiences a night in which the members are all disjointedly awakened from sleep only to not remember it the next day. In the morning, they separate in horrible moods to draw and return to find that they have all painted sea monsters.22 The club also seems to have officially given up its decorative pursuits at this point. The artists lost many plaques in an 1881 warehouse fire, which they commemorated in writing. “'It was a dispensation of Providence!' sighed the Owl as he thoughtfully folded up the check that the insurance company had sent him."23

The Book of the Tile Club, published by Francis Hopkinson Smith (The Owl) in 1886, along with, “The Other Fellow, and Tile Club Stories,” published in 1904, give more intimate details to nights spent in the studio. For example, we learn that the Terrapin (Frederick Dielman, as he hailed from Baltimore, land of turtle soup) was greeted at every event with the chorus, “Oh, poor Terrapin! Oh, poor Terrapin! FISH!”24 the last word being shouted. Why was this done? No member of the Tile Club, that Bohemian lot, even knew. The club dissolved around 1888, also for reasons unknown—leaving us only with great art and amusing anecdotes.

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