Smashing Chintz - 'I have used my hands ...'

UK Handmade portfolio member Janine Nelson explains what has inspired her love of mosaics and how she creates her Smashing Chintz pieces.

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

Bullfinch in tree by Smashing Chintz


In the Victorian times housewives used to decorate pots with little pieces (shards) of broken pottery stuck on with putty. This is now referred to as boody ware, shardware or memory ware. 

My great, great grandmother Sarah made at least two of these mosaic pots and ten years ago I inherited them via my mother's aunt. 

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

Janine’s great great grandmother, Sarah

Already hooked onto making mosaics, it was a lovely surprise to discover a link to a distant grandmother. It made me reconsider the materials I was using which ranged from shells and pebbles to mirror and beads, and so, in 2006, I decided to focus on using patterned crockery. I also made a decision to call my work 'Smashing Chintz'.

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

Pot made by Janine’s great great grandmother, Sarah

Since spotting Cleo Mussi's mosaics in an issue of Elle Decoration in the early 90s I've always liked her mosaics and they sparked my initial interest in mosaics.  Cleo Mussi originally trained in Textiles at Goldsmiths' College and went on to make decorative mosaics using patterned vintage china.

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

Face by Cleo Mussi

Over the years I have been lucky to do various workshops in mosaic; with Cleo Mussi, Maggie Howarth (pebble mosaics), Luciana Notturni in Ravenna (Byzantine style mosaics) and Emma Biggs (contemporary mosaics with traditional materials). The interest in using patterned china has always remained. I love pattern, collecting and making use of material that has personal meaning to people and might otherwise be thrown away.

In 2002, I saw the mosaics of 'Picassiette' in Chartres, France.  Raymond Isidore was a grave sweeper with an obsession. His obsession involved covering every surface of his tiny house and garden with mosaic using broken china plates.  His nickname Picassiette is a reference to the French word for plate, 'assiette' and to Picasso. For Picassiette it wasn't just about making a decorative surface. His imagery was symbolic and held personal meanings associated with his wife.

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Picassiette’s chair

'I have used my hands and they have made me happy. We're not living in a very good century. I would like to live among flowers and in beauty.'   The Guardian Weekend, August 1995.

He built his house and mosaic garden between 1938 and 1964 (the year he died and the year I was born) working on it day and night. He covered the furniture inside with mosaic too, the stove, the bed, his chairs and the radio. It's amazing to see and I remember my main response being how small the house was. He lived there with his wife and three children.

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

Picassiette’s house

It was reading this article in 1995 that made me want to visit Picassiette's house and I finally went there in great anticipation in 2002.

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

Brother Déodat – The Little Chapel wall

Then in 2009 I visited Guernsey and The Little Chapel. Entirely covered in mosaic inside and out, it is a joy to visit. Created by Brother Déodat in the early 20th century, it is, at 16 ft x 9 ft, the smallest functioning (consecrated) chapel in Europe and possibly the world. The walls are richly decorated with pieces of broken china, pebbles and shells.

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

Brother Déodat – The Little Chapel



UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

mosaic making equipment

To make your own mosaic using broken china you'll need some basic equipment. If it's a three dimensional object (like my great great grandmother's pots) you can use a silicone glue instead of putty. For cutting the pieces of china you can use a hammer (placing the plate or mug between pages of a newspaper or magazine on the floor then bashing it until the pieces are the right sort of size) or for greater control and accuracy you can use mosaic nippers or leponitts (wheeled nippers). Make sure you protect your eyes (goggles) and avoid handling the broken pieces. The gentler you are with the cutting the easier it is - it shouldn't strain your wrist or elbow.

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

plywood cow template

I generally use laser cut out plywood for my bases (sealing both sides with a milky solution of PVA glue first). I work by firstly arranging then glueing the carefully broken pieces of china into place the right way up on the wood with PVA glue. This is called the direct technique. PVA glue takes 24 hours to fully dry. The next stage is grouting so that all the gaps are filled. On my great great grandmother's mosaic the putty fulfilled this purpose. (For outdoor projects appropriate glues and bases need to be used.)

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

assembling cow mosaic

The colour and tone of the grout is important. Too light and you can lose parts of the design as they can disappear. Too dark and again parts of the mosaic may disappear. The safest option is a mid-tone, in other words grey. I used to find using a dark blue grout worked for me but the manufacturers stopped making it. You can create your own colour by adding acrylic paint to the grout powder when mixing it.

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

ready for grouting

Grouting has to be done without interruption as the grout dries and starts to set quite quickly. I use spatulas to apply the grout and wipe it off after it has starting to become dry (If you wipe the grout off the mosaic too soon it will take the grout out of the gaps). Old rags are really useful for wiping this and I wear rubber gloves for grouting as well as a dust mask when mixing the grout.

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

grouting kit

After the grout has fully dried (24 hours), I polish the mosaic with vinegar on a rag. This brings up the shine of the mosaic and removes grout dust. Finally, to finish off I might paint the edges and back, frame or glue a brooch back on, all depending on what I am making. 

UK Handmade - Smashing Chintz

Mosaic cow by Smashing Chintz

The mosaic cow pictured was made using a pretty but cracked jug that used to belong to my grandmother.


For more of Janine's work visit her website

You can visit her studio as part of Lewisham Arthouse Open Studios on 4th and 5th June, 2016.


For other contemporary makers using broken china, see Cleo Mussi  and Angela Ibbs.


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