TAKE a wander around Paisley and you’d be forgiven for missing the fragments of history taking you back to the town’s time as a titan of industry.

Around 100 years ago Paisley was coming to end of a world-leading spell at the peak of the thread manufacturing industry.

The town skyline was dominated by mills with JP Coats and Clark’s employing the vast majority of those living in the area, with plenty from around Scotland and further afield, like Ireland, heading to Renfrewshire for work.

READ MORE: Punk artist Jamie Reid's 50 years of protest captured in Paisley exhibition

In fact, such was the impact of the mills that many of the tenement buildings in the town were first purposed for housing employees in close proximity to the workplace.

And hidden ‘Behind Close Doors’ is a world of tenement tile art dating back to the Victorian period.

Commonly known as ‘wally tiles’ tenements were decorated with the ornamental - often hand-painted - majolica, embossed majolica and tubeline tiling.


At the time, between 1840 and 1920, the tiling was commonplace and present in almost every tenement building in the area, so there was little clamor to proactively protect it.

But now, while disguised behind the unassuming doors of tenement buildings the wally tiles are disappearing through damage or simple redecoration.Glasgow also has many remaining examples of beautiful tenement tiling dating back to the 1840s. 

Catherine Watt fell in love with the hidden artwork when she first discovered it 30 years ago.

The artist has teamed up with Paisley video production company StudioFV to highlight the existence of the tiling and encourage others to discover and share examples around the country.

“I had come across some tiles a year and a half or two years ago, and that really sparked my interest,” revealed Catherine.

“The more I looked, the more I started getting in to the history of the tenements, the tiles and the social history. The idea of adding tiles to the close was for hygiene reasons, but the Victorians believed the ornamentation would enrich people’s lives too."

Glasgow Times: Wally tiles are hidden behind unassuming doors in tenement buildingsWally tiles are hidden behind unassuming doors in tenement buildings

Glasgow Times: The decorative tiles have ben heralded as "public art"The decorative tiles have ben heralded as "public art"

A year after launching the project, Catherine now has more than 1600 followers, and she is calling for Paisley people, and those in tenements around the country, to discover and share any tiles they find before it is too late.

“The tiles and the tenements are at risk of being overlooked and damaged as time goes on,” said Catherine.

“My main aim was to document what was there because I was very conscious that none of these pieces of public art are protected in any way. 

"There is a good chance at some point that somebody will take it out, it’ll get damaged beyond repair. Then it’s just gone forever.”

Glasgow Times: Wally tiles were first put in place in Victorian timesWally tiles were first put in place in Victorian times

Glasgow Times: There are fears tiles could be lost through damageThere are fears tiles could be lost through damage

Glasgow Times: The Behind Close Doors project has photographed hundreds of decorative tilesThe Behind Close Doors project has photographed hundreds of decorative tiles


Ed Hart, director and producer of the ‘Behind Close Doors’ video project for the recently rebranded StudioFV (previously Fablevision Studios), said the project “struck a chord” with the group.

And he too is hopeful the short film and social media drive will help inform Scots of the “rich cultural heritage” on their doorstep before it’s gone for good.

He said: “The Behind Close Doors: Paisley's Hidden Tenement Tiles project particularly appealed to us because of our interest in art, history and placemaking.

“We have worked on many video projects over the years which have had at their heart the theme of regeneration, often with respect to something that is already lost. 

“Few things are as redolent of city life in Scotland as the tenement.  Although there has been wholesale destruction of tenements over the years - despite the best efforts of people such as architectural historians Frank Worsdall and Gavin Stamp - there are still examples from various periods which contain the most extraordinary wally tiles, stained glass, encaustic tiled floors and ornate ironwork.

"Paisley, Glasgow and the West of Scotland in general, are particularly rich in this regard and even in some of the most unexpected places you can find beautiful examples of Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau-inspired tile designs.

“The title of Catherine Watt's various social media channels is well chosen. Many of these closes are hidden from plain sight by doors that do not hint at what lies behind. 

"They are a true portal in the sense that they take us from a decoration-free modernist and post-modernist world to a domain where decoration truly makes an entrance.

Glasgow Times: Curator Catherine WattCurator Catherine Watt

“Catherine's concern that these beautiful examples of design -  could just disappear unnoticed - also struck a chord. With so much indifferent architecture and design around us, we were delighted to have the opportunity to celebrate and record these beautiful examples of design.

“There is a feeling, particularly in the often cavalier attitude of planners, developers and public indifference that sometimes, to quote Joni Mitchell, 'We don't know what we've got 'til it's gone'. Hopefully, Catherine's project and this film will make people consider this rich cultural heritage.”