An Introduction to Tunbridge Ware

Decorative wood ware has been made around Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells since the 1660s but the best known are the mosaic designs developed there in the 19th century.

Local legend has it that in 1606, on discovering the spring that gave birth to Tunbridge Wells, Lord North borrowed a small bowl for tasting purposes. That bowl is said to have been one of the earliest documented pieces of Tunbridge Ware.

The Victorian loved rich patterns even in the smallest ornaments.  Some of the most decorative, yet useful objects were made in wood, patterned in a distinctive mosaic decoration known as Tunbridge Ware.  The mosaic look was achieved through a technique first developed in the 1820s.  It is said that a Mr James Burrow of Tunbridge Wells was intrigued by the possibilities of making a necklace of patterned and coloured wooden beads and his experiments led him to the discovery of a special mosaic technique.  He selected a variety of different coloured woods, such as sycamore, holly and maple.  Thin strips were cut from each wood and then carefully arranged in a bundle which, when viewed in section, displayed the desired pattern.  The strips in each bundle were then tightly glued together and after drying, very thin slices were cut and then glued onto the surface in the same manner as a marquetry veneer.

The craftsman would examine a detailed diagram of the required pattern, although very skilled craftsmen had the ability to work straight from the pattern itself.  The diagram showed the pattern in blocks of colour.

It is claimed that up to 180 naturally coloured woods were used, though fewer than fifty provided the full repertoire of texture and colour.  Most were local timbers, the greens being provided by oak and other trees attacked by a fungus which stained the tissues a brilliant emerald.

This new process would typically produce tiny pieces of mosaic, each small piece (tessera) measuring around one millimetre.  Finer tesserae were made for the finest detail and larger tesserae could be used on bigger pieces.  The noted manufacturer Edmund Nye used 110,800 pieces of 3mm tesserae in a table depicting a ship at sea.  The table was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851.  The fact that Tunbridge Ware was present at the exhibition shows that it was among the finest craftsmanship that Britain could offer at the time.

The use of naturally coloured woods is one distinction between Tunbridge Ware and lesser though comparable treen ware.  The Tunbridge Ware of the 18th century bears little resemblance to what most people understand it to be today.  Nowadays the common perception is of minute mosaic decoration – the designs being either geometric or pictorial presentations, or both.  The earliest Tunbridge Ware is nothing other than particularly well made and decorated Treen.

During Victoria’s rule Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells had no more than 10 manufacturers at any one time.  They were cottage industries with a dozen employees at most.  Thomas Barton was the best known and renowned for his output and craftsmanship.  In the early 1800s Barton had been apprenticed at the Wise factory – a family concern dating from 1685.  Barton later joined Edmund Nye to become chief designer, then partner and shortly before Nye’s death, factory manager.

During the 18th and 19th centuries there were manufacturers of Tunbridge Ware in London, Birmingham, Brighton, Dover, Hastings, Hever, Southborough, Weymouth, Worcester, Worthing, York and later Rye.  The writing was on the wall in the 1880s with the number of local manufacturers having dropped to five in 1878.  Cheap, inferior imports and part mechanisation caused quality to drop.  Then, at the turn of the century the cost of skilled labour was driving up prices and making cheap imports more attractive.  The last factory in Tunbridge Wells closed in 1927.  One of the partners, Richard Kemp, was taken into a new partnership with Thomas Green in Rye in 1931.  The Rye factory closed during the second world war and neither Green nor the trade had the interest to re-open.

Killarney ware was produced on Southern Ireland from the 1820s and suffered a similar fate to Tunbridge Ware.  They used far fewer mosaics and the decoration has more folk-art in content.  Spa woodware (Germany and later Belgium) resembles pre-mosaic Tunbridge production – painted and/or veneered.  Sorrento ware is still being made today – dyed woods are used for the marquetry, mosaics were rarely used and Olivewood is usually the base.  Mauchlinware and other Scottish souvenir ware are, in the main, small pieces decorated by penwork, paint, transfer, photographic images or strippling.

There are two main types of collector whose preferences influence the market.  The Tunbridge Ware collector who looks out for fine turned pieces, or the most popular boxes and other pieces with tessellated mosaic views of scenes or animals.  Labelled pieces are always in demand.  The second type are those whose own particular theme of collecting overlaps with Tunbridge Ware production – writing accessories, tea caddies and sewing accessories.  The majority of interest comes from within the UK, with some interest in USA and a small amount from Europe.

Few dealers specialise in Tunbridge Ware.  Only the larger auction houses have frequent entries.  The big London salerooms regularly include the finest, rarest or larger pieces among their furniture and decorative sales.   Fakes are virtually unheard of due to the highly skilled and time-consuming methods of construction.

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