Tunbridge Ware Through the Regency

Though small decorative wooden objects had been made in the Tonbridge area for well over a century before the Regency, the style of that art form was just entering a period of transition during our favorite decade. For that reason, what is now considered to be the quintessential type of Tunbridge ware was not actually made there in large numbers until the middle of the nineteenth century. Regency authors who wish to gift one or more of their fictional characters with these charming toys will want to be sure they give them the right type of Tunbridge ware objects.

Tunbridge ware through the Regency . . .

The town in Kent which became known, in 1909, as Royal Tunbridge Wells, had its origins in the first years of the seventeenth century. In those early days, there was very little in the area, with the exception of the chalybeate spring which had made it famous. During the Great Plague of 1665, several members of the Royal Family, as well as a number of affluent Londoners, took refuge in the area. They all hoped that the waters of the mineral springs would protect their health and save them from the plague. This large influx of influential visitors established Tunbridge Wells as separate village, which took its name from the nearby market town of Tonbridge, though with slightly different spelling. As the seventeenth century progressed, and more and more people regularly came to the area, the town of Tunbridge Wells gradually grew up to serve them. By the early eighteenth century, Tunbridge Wells had become a popular resort town, even for those who had no interest in drinking the waters of the chalybeate spring.

Many of those who spent time in the up-and-coming spa town were fairly affluent, and most were quite pleased to spend money on finely made pretty things as mementos of their visit. From the late seventeenth century, in their spare time, some of the local woodworkers in the Tonbridge area made small trinkets from their scrap wood, which they could sell to visitors who came through the town. In fact, it is believed that Tunbridge ware may be the first purpose-made souvenirs in all of Britain. Initially, these pieces were small boxes, cups, bowls, plates, spoons, busks for stays and other simple items of treen ware. Over time, some of these plain wooden objects were embellished with simple painted ornamentation.

By the early decades of the eighteenth century, veneering and other specialty surface woodworking techniques were becoming fashionable. At that time, a number of the wood-workers in Tunbridge Wells began to employ some of those techniques as new technologies made the work easier and more efficient. In addition, a number of fine woods, both native and exotic, were becoming more widely available in Britain, including lignum vitae, holly, birch, sycamore, boxwood, laburnum, walnut, beech, lime, mahogany, yew, oak, maple, ebony and rosewood. The Tonbridge area wood-workers used primarily natural colored woods. However, those "natural" colors did include green oak. Some oak wood took on that color due to the action of a fungus on fallen trees. Another option was to boil wood in the iron-rich water of the chalybeate spring for a time before it was worked. This had the effect of turning pale woods, such as holly and birch, a steel grey color. Patterns resembling tortoiseshell could be scorched into light and medium colored woods using hot sand.

From the last decades of the eighteenth century, marquetry was the most commonly used veneer technique on the majority of Tunbridge ware items. With this technique small, thin pieces of different colored woods were cut into geometric shapes. These small shapes would then be fit together, rather like a puzzle, to form a patterned veneer large enough to cover whatever the wood-worker was making. This patterned veneer would then glued to the surface of a wooden object, such as a box or cribbage board. After the turn of the nineteenth century, elongated diamond and triangle shapes became increasingly common for this work. By the time the Regency began, these shapes were used in a veneer pattern known as the van dyke. This pattern was named for the deeply scalloped lace collars seen in so many of the paintings by Anthony Van Dyke. Typically, the elongated diamond shapes were fitted together to look like cubes in perspective. This veneer was then glued to the top of a box or other object. It was often bounded by stringing, that is, narrow strips of veneer composed of alternating woods of light and dark colors. The sides of the box were then usually veneered with a pattern of elongated triangles in alternating dark and light colors, pointing up and down. Van dyke patterned Tunbridge ware increased in popularity throughout the Regency. Other veneer patterns were still being used, but none of them seemed to have been as popular during our favorite decade as the newer van dyke pattern.

Once all of the veneer was glued in place and dried, the object would be finished by a light sanding followed by hand rubbing it with oil, usually linseed oil. The hand-rubbing process could take some time, but it would give the surface a smooth, slightly matte finish, rather than a highly polished one. Just as important, the oil finish would bring out the pattern of the marquetry as well as the grains in the various pieces of wood which comprised it. That seems to have been the standard finish for Tunbridge ware until the mid-nineteenth century, when the pieces began to be finished with varnish. Unlike linseed oil, varnish could be applied faster, and therefore, more cheaply. Unfortunately over time, the varnish had a tendency to darken and/or become cloudy, a problem which did not occur with a hand-rubbed linseed oil finish.

Even before the nineteenth century began, a wider range of objects could be found in the souvenir shops at Tunbridge Wells than had been seen there in the earlier decades of eighteenth century. Boxes remained one of the most popular forms, from snuff boxes, to glove boxes, to sewing boxes, to writing boxes, to tea caddies, among many others. However, objects other than boxes were also veneered by Tunbridge wood-workers. Picture frames, wig and bonnet stands, candlesticks, trays, pipe holders, paper knives, pen holders, pincushions, needle cases, thread winders, thimble cases, measuring tapes and even brooches and pendants, are just some of the items which were made as souvenirs, available for sale in Tunbridge Wells during the Regency. We know that Harriet Smith, a character in Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, had a small Tunbridge-ware box in which she kept that special piece of "court-plaister" with which Reverend Elton had briefly toyed.

Game boards, particularly chess, backgammon and cribbage boards, lent themselves well to marquetry veneers and a large selection of them could be found for sale in the shops of Tunbridge Wells. In fact, by the early nineteenth century, full size gaming tables were being produced for sale in the some of the shops of the resort town. In most cases, the tables may have been made by cabinet-makers from other areas, but the tops of these gaming tables were usually veneered by local craftsmen. Some of these gaming tables were made with a top that was veneered on each side, so it could be rotated to play either chess or draughts on one side and back-gammon on the other. Another item of furniture which was sometimes decorated with marquetry in the Tunbridge ware style was a lady’s work-table. In most cases, the top of the table was decorated with a patterned veneer while the rest of the piece was simply carved and finished wood, probably made by a local cabinet-maker. These work tables were fairly rare during the Regency, but they became a bit more common during the Victorian period.

Early craftsmen of Tunbridge ware in the mid-eighteenth century included several members of the Burrows family. By the end of the century, the William Fenner Company was also an important maker of Tunbridge ware. Both makers had premises in Tunbridge Wells itself. In nearby Tonbridge, George Wise was also making Tunbridge ware, from at least 1746. George’s son, Thomas, inherited the business from his father, in the late 1770s. In 1806, Thomas’ nephew, also named George, took over the Wise Tunbridge ware business. During the Regency, Burrows, Fenner and Wise were perhaps the best known and most prolific craftsmen of Tunbridge ware in the area. However, in our favorite decade, there were other wood-workers making Tunbridge ware items on a smaller scale, but most of their names are lost to history.

Very late in the Regency period, a new style of veneer was being developed for Tunbridge ware. It is believed by most scholars that this new style was inspired by an emerging form of needlework known as Berlin work. Patterns for this type of needlework were first published in Berlin, Germany in the early nineteenth century. These patterns were very similar to the patterns used today for counted cross-stitch. Images, from a single flower to a full landscape, could be created by graphing each individual stitch on a grid. A similar technique was adopted by some of the more inventive makers of Tunbridge ware. They were able to create many images by essentially making a mosaic with tiny squares of wood on a grid, instead of stitches in wool on canvas. One of the early innovators of this technique was James Burrows, of the prominent family of Tunbridge ware makers. Those these new, pictorial veneers were very popular with visitors to the resort town, they were very costly because they were so labor-intensive to product. However, near the end of the reign of George IV, a technique was developed which made it much more cost-effective to produce pictorial veneers for Tunbridge ware. Instead of using single, tiny square, a image would be assembled by gluing together strips and rods of wood to create the desired image. Once the glue had dried, this bundle of strips and rods could be cut crossways into thin layers to produce a large number of the same image or design. These pictorial wooden mosaics could then be glued to any object of Tunbridge ware.

Today, this kind of pixilated design, seen on many items of Tunbridge ware, is now considered the quintessential style of veneer for that type of wood work. However, it was not fully developed until the Prince Regent had become King George IV and his regency for his mad father had come to an end. During our favorite decade, most Tunbridge ware was generally adorned with a mosaic veneer in the van dyke pattern. It is interesting to note that the van dyke pattern of Tunbridge ware was still made well into the reign of Queen Victoria, right alongside the pictorial veneered pieces. Sadly, this new pictorial veneer, though initially popular, could not save Tunbridge ware, and interest in the work began to dwindle in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The last of the Tunbridge ware wood-workers survived in the early twentieth century, when the last maker finally closed its doors, in 1927. Despite the fact that Tunbridge ware is not longer being made, so much of it was produced that many pieces can still be found for sale in second-hand and antique shops around the world and online.

Dear Regency authors, might a special souvenir of Tunbridge ware allow you to add some historical enrichment to an upcoming tale of romance? Will one of your characters, perhaps a spoiled young woman, visiting a Tunbridge Wells souvenir shop, demand that her guardian buy her some expensive piece of Tunbridge ware? Will your heroine be patronizing that same shop and be able to deftly divert that spoiled girl’s attention, thus gaining her the admiration and gratitude of the brat’s guardian, a handsome but very reserved gentleman? Or, perhaps the hero has given his heroine a Tunbridge ware souvenir since it was the place where they met. Might it be a measuring tape, given to her before his departure to the Peninsular Wars, or the Battle of Waterloo, with the suggestion that she can use it to measure the time before he returns to her? Mayhap your heroine has an old Tunbridge ware box which is a treasured possession she has inherited from her grandmother or other elderly relative. Could that it be that cherished box holds a secret which will restore the family fortunes and allow the once impoverished young lady to marry her beloved? How else might a piece or two of Tunbridge ware serve a purpose in a story of romance set during the Regency?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Tunbridge Ware Through the Regency

  1. I fell in love with marquetry and parquetry – the technical term for the glued together strips cut into thin slices and often inset rather than applied – with my mother’s jewel box, which was two little drawers and a lift-up mirror. It was veneered in burr walnut with a cream scotty dog on one side and a black scotty dog on the other, and all edged with a chequerboard pattern of tiny squares. I am pretty certain it is standard marquetry because of the grain of the checks. I’ve done a few dolls’ house pieces in my time! so I appreciate the skill of the artisans. [my first piece of marquetry is a mug stand in the tumbling boxes style].
    anyway, mother’s box is definitely oiled not varnished, and I am wondering now if it is older than I thought it was!
    the plot bunny arises to my mind of a young woman taking over the intricate and delicate work as her artisan grandfather’s sight fails. she is an orphan, and her grandfather’s skill had meant that her mother had been able to go to school, and to marry up. Our heroine helps the hero to find a special piece as a gift to his betrothed. Of course, the betrothed spurns a gift of wood, when she should have had a gift of jewels and precious metal, and the hero, hurt, finds himself confiding in the artisan’s granddaughter, and discovers that she is doing the work, and all is HEA when he realises that she can support the position as his wife. And he wants to display his wife’s virtuosity and suggests she makes frames for prints in a print room using marquetry instead of the shell work, quilling or feather work so many genteel women did to thus show off their nimble fingered avocations.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Your mother’s box sounds lovely. It must be a nice memento of her for you. If it has a hand-rubbed oil finish, it may be earlier, or, it might also be a very high-quality item. Hand-rubbed finishes were still done after varnish became more widespread, but they were less common and usually done only on the best quality pieces.

      I love your plot bunny! Since I value craftsmanship so much myself, I always enjoy a story which includes a talents craftsperson. And those stories are even better if there is an eventual reveal of the true craftsperson.



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