I recently came across a marvelous web-page for Amherst Antiques, who specialize in Tunbridge Ware. It is run by Dianne Brick and her husband Ivor, and I immediately realized that there was no point in me trying to write a blog about Tunbridge Ware in the Georgian era – so I asked Diane to do it for me! She kindly agreed to explain a bit about it, and to let me have some images by way of illustration. This is what she has written:
“The wooden souvenir ware from Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells in Kent, known as Tunbridge Ware, reached the height of its production in the mid 19th century. This followed the introduction of a method of manufacture known as tessellated mosaic, which proved to be the perfect technique for adapting popular Berlin woolwork designs for marquetry.
Today Tunbridge Ware is mostly associated with tessellated mosaic work and many people regard Berlin woolwork designs as its main characteristic. But this is only part of the story. Tunbridge Ware existed throughout the whole of the Georgian period but around one hundred years of its history is sadly lost to us, largely because we simply do not know what it looked like.
The first known mention of Tunbridge Ware was in 1697, when Celia Fiennes visited Tunbridge Wells and wrote about “all sorts of curious woodwork” for sale, referring to it as “delicate, neate and thin ware of wood both white and lignum vitae”. This description was likely to have referred to turned items such as bowls and goblets, pepper and spice mills, which were probably made out of holly, sycamore or lignum vitae. (Lignum was first imported to England from the West Indies and mainland tropical America in the early 16th century).
Throughout most of the 18th century we only have tantalizing glimpses of Tunbridge Ware through surviving correspondence or through its mention in literature. Letter writers and diarists such as Mary Granville, Elizabeth Montague and Fanny Burney all wrote about presents they had bought at Tunbridge Wells.
In literature the most well known mentions of Tunbridge Ware occur in Fanny Burney’s Camilla in 1796 and in Jane Austen’s early 19th century novel, Emma, published in 1816.
We know too that Jane Austen herself owned some Tunbridge Ware, described by her niece, Anna Lefroy. Anna talked about a dressing room at Steventon Rectory, the Austen home up to May 1801, in which there were “Tunbridge Ware work boxes of oval shape, fitted up with ivory bands containing reels for silk, yard measures etc.” (*) But this and other scanty descriptions from the 18th century do not really tell us what we should be looking for to identify Tunbridge Ware from that period.
Even this delightful advertising material taken from a song produced in The Lady’s Magazine & Musical Repository of 1802 does not give any clue to the nature of the woodenware on offer. It is only during the first twenty years of the 19th century that we can begin to identify Tunbridge Ware with any confidence, when, in many instances the items produced reflected the fashions of the day.
Whitewood was a popular choice at this period. It was often used for small souvenir items such as this simply painted combined tape measure and pincushion with an applied paper label – A Tunbridge Wells’ Gift. Many different labels with mottos were used during this period in imitation of inscriptions found on enamel boxes. These labels often originated from the Tunbridge Wells’ printer, Jasper Sprange (1745-1823).
More elaborately decorated whitewood items were also made and were intended for wealthy customers. This needlework basket is finely painted with fruit and seashells, a popular motif in Georgian designs.
Following the interest in the theory of the Picturesque in the 18th century, Tunbridge Ware makers also used designs for rustic cottages with overhanging eaves. These perhaps were inspired by John Plaw’s pattern book for picturesque dwellings, which appeared in 1800.
Below, a rare spool box in the form of a cottage with documentary evidence detailing its journey to America in 1818.
Another fashionable interest from the 18th century was the use of prints, which were also adopted by Tunbridge Ware makers to decorate their wares. Prevailing neo-classical ideals influenced the choice of prints used, as did an interest in topographical subjects.
Needlework box with a print of Saturn. Circa 1820
From the same period, this whitewood basket has applied prints of Brighton, a location much favoured by King George IV.
The small spool box has an applied print of Bath Abbey Church and is attributed to George Wise Senior of Tonbridge, who was known for producing Tunbridge Ware with applied prints in the early years of the 19th century.
Other types of decoration such as chinoiserie designs and simulated finishes to represent tortoiseshell or japanned wares can also be found on Tunbridge Ware from the early 19th century along with popular veneered designs. Perspective cubes, starbursts and vandykes often featured on furniture, table cabinets and boxes. But perhaps the most intriguing example of veneered work is this inlaid tea caddy by John Robinson of London and Tunbridge Wells. It dates from 1795 and can only be identified from an applied paper label, without which, there would be no way of knowing it as a piece of Tunbridge Ware.
Its design does not distinguish it from any other caddy of the same period. Perhaps this is a clue to 18th century Tunbridge Ware as a whole. It may just not have been different from any other woodenware of the period and perhaps was only classified as Tunbridge Ware because of the geographical location from which it was sold.”
(*) Quoted by Margaret Wilson in Jane Austen and Tunbridge Ware with information from the Collected Reports of the Jane Austen Society 1966-75.
Thanks Dianne! For anyone interested, I do recommend her site ( www.amherstantiques.co.uk ) here. Amherst Antiques specialize in Tunbridge Ware, operating from the Edenbridge Gallery in Kent, and exhibit at many of the major antiques fairs such as Olympia and the NEC. Dianne is holding a major exhibition of Tunbridge Ware at Edenbridge Galleries – called “Flights of Fancy” – between 4th and 11th October.