Ironbridge curator Matt Thompson: off-duty, he prefers plain white tiles

Profile: Matt Thompson

Interview by John Holt, Issue 114/09, p60, 01.09.2014
From ceramics to steam engines: all in a day's work for an Ironbridge Gorge curator
Matt Thompson is the senior curator at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust in Shropshire, which recently took delivery of a vast private collection of rare tiles made by famous names such as William Morris and William De Morgan. They will go on display in a new gallery opening this autumn.

What does this collection tell you about the development of tiles?

It’s interesting that the notion of copywriting a design wasn’t as developed in the 19th century as it is now.

Alongside the distinctive medieval craft chic of Morris and his contemporaries, there are cheaper, encaustic tiles influenced by those designs but mass-produced and destined for the hallways of townhouses rather than palaces and churches.

What does it say about the private collector himself?

It reveals a great sense of taste; you can tell a single person’s hand has been at work and there are annotated memories and stories for each of the 1,300-plus objects. One record, for example, states that a tile was “bought for 2/6d at a Chalk Farm market from a lady with a really yappy dog”.

Another tells how a fellow collector had to be economical with the truth about the cost of a £50 tile, telling his cash-conscious wife he had actually secured it for just a fiver from Portobello Market.

We have provenance coming out of our ears and some of it, it has to be said, is frightfully scurrilous. Another tile was, apparently, prised from the wall of a bombed-out cathedral.

Is being the curator of a 10-museum site a blessing or a curse?

These collections vary from industrial holdings to decorative ceramics, archive material to scheduled monuments and below-ground archaeology. I could start the day by looking at late 18th-century prints and watercolours in terms of conservation, display or loans – the white gloves side of things.

I might then hot-foot it over to Blists Hill Victorian town to view the operating steam engines in terms of health and safety or managing the tensions between working a historic machine – which is always going to be a destructive process – and retaining its integrity.

I have one eye on the past and another firmly on the future and it’s my job to see that nothing that happens here compromises our standing as a museum. After all, there are really important stories here, not just on a local or national level but links with difficult subjects like the transatlantic slave trade.

What tile design adorns your bathroom at home?

White with an off-white grout. I like to keep things very plain when there’s so much decorative material at work. That’s my excuse, anyway.