Tunbridge ware was produced primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was made in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells in Kent, about 40 miles south-east of London. Originally pieces took the form of wooden objects made as a side line by local woodworkers to sell as souvenirs to visitors who flocked to the spa town of Tunbridge Wells to ‘take the waters’. Early Tunbridge ware featured inlaid marquetry and parquetry decoration or was often in the form of boxes applied with published prints of well-known local scenes or buildings. The style of Tunbridge ware that we are most familiar with today evolved in around 1830 when William Burrows invented an ingenious technique for creating distinctive tessellated mosaic veneers which were applied to a wide range of smaller items, often boxes, such as tea caddies, work boxes, sewing or desk accessories etc.
The technique for creating this work was intricate and labour intensive. Very thin rods or slivers of wood of triangular or diamond-shaped cross section were arranged to form the desired pattern or design and then stuck together using high quality animal glue. Then they were put under pressure and left to dry. This cluster of rods was then cut with a fine saw into thin slices of veneer which could be applied to various items. The end product was given a hand polished finish or applied with a shellac varnish. Designs were many and varied, ranging from depictions of recognisable local views or buildings, geometric cube work patterns such as ‘tumbling block’, and scenes copied from Berlin wool work pictures, which were very popular at the time. Around forty different species of wood, both British and continental, were used to create the tesserae. These provided different colours and effects and they were of a natural colour and never dyed. Green wood was sourced from fallen oaks which were infected with a fungus that created rich green coloured veins within the wood.
The creation of Tunbridge ware was something of a cottage industry with around ten different makers concentrated in the areas of Tunbridge Wells and nearby Tonbridge. Three of these craftsmen exhibited their work at the Great Exhibition in 1851, where the maker Edmund Nye received a commendation for his work, a table depicting a ship at sea, in which 110,800 tesserae were used to create the scene.
The rise and fall of the craft was linked to tourism and an eventual change in public taste. By the end of the 19th century the industry was in decline, with skilled workers hard to find, and demand for such wares waning. The final surviving firm, Boyle, Brown & Kemp, closed its doors in 1927. We are pleased to offer this delightful collection of Tunbridge Ware, which demonstrates the variety and range of the craft in terms of form and design.