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Tunbridge Tutmania

Posted on 30 October 2017


It is a strange coincidence that we have decided on the 4th November 2017 for a Tunbridge Ware study day at Edenbridge. We plan, amongst other things, to discuss our Object of the Month for November but we did not at the time of fixing the date, realize the significance of our choice.

The date we have chosen, is in fact, exactly 95 years to the day since one of the most important archeological discoveries of the 20th century was made. On 4th November 1922 Howard Carter uncovered the first of 16 steps, leading to Tutankhamen’s tomb, which had remained untouched for some 3,000 years.

Following this incredible discovery, there began a craze for all things Tutankhamen. The impact on art and culture was enormous. Egyptian motifs appeared on clothes, jewellery, hairstyles, fabrics, furniture and in architecture. Everybody wanted a little bit of ‘Tut’; America in particular was obsessed. Even President Herbert Hoover called his dog King Tut!

So when we first saw our Object of the Month, which is an extraordinary Tunbridge Ware frame, standing over two feet tall and made up of 46 three-dimensional pyramids, we knew at once that it had been made in the 1920’s in response to the Tutankhamen craze. Whoever would have thought that Tutmania would feature on Tunbridge Ware! 

At The Beginning: Some Home Thoughts From Abroad

Posted on 19 October 2017

We are very pleased that our Object of the Month for October has now found a new home, where it continues to be a topic for discussion. But we thought before we move on to the next Object of the Month you might like to read some comments most kindly sent from a Tunbridge Ware enthusiast, who is now living overseas but still enthusiastically following our discussions.

"Your Object of the Month is certainly intriguing and I hasten to give you my immediate impressions. First of all, the shape is unprepossessing as you say and the lack of any attractive external decoration would suggest to me a date earlier than 1700; the obvious attraction of the piece are the portraits inside; these are "secret" images, otherwise they would be on the outside, and are no doubt of political significance; if the male portrait is indeed of Charles II, I can see no reason to have hidden it. There are numerous silver tobacco, counter and other royalist boxes dating from the Restoration period with a bold portrait of King Charles on the lid; these would proudly show where the owner's loyalties lay and hopefully curry favour in high places.

It is conceivable that the box was a personal memento between husband and wife, rather like a locket, but I would dismiss this on the grounds that the male portrait is more "official" than romantic or sentimental and the object itself does not lend itself to being worn, i.e. like a locket or a ring.

If it dates from after 1700 and were made to commemorate a visit of the Queen to Tunbridge Wells, I would question why the King's portrait was also included. Again, to make it marketable or just as a one-off commemorative piece, I would expect the portrait(s) to be on the outside. As regards the male portrait, I do not recognise Charles II: the King's wig was always depicted with curls and was decidedly more becoming than this one.

You were specifically asking for comments on the date of the box: the rounded rim and base of the object are identical to the silver tobacco boxes of the late 17th century; later boxes in silver from Queen Anne onwards  had sharp edges and no rounding off. The style of the male portrait immediately brings the images of Charles II boxes to mind, but the collar is not, in my opinion, one to be associated with royal dress of the period. Clearly, there is always an argument that commemorative items can be produced long after the time they relate to, but, in this case, it seems unlikely that the subject of a later commemoration should be hidden inside the box and no date or other inscription attempts to record the event in question".

Our reply to these comments was as follows:

"Whilst the female image is on the inside of the box, the male is actually on the outside on the base. The King’s portrait would have been included as he too visited Tunbridge Wells in 1660 and again in 1663. The 1663 visit was with Catherine of Braganza.

We are fairly confident that the portraits are intended to be the king and queen, backed up by the British Museum. Unfortunately copyright issues prevented us from putting the images from the museum on our web site but prints from the 1660’s by William Faithorne (king) and Weneslaus Hollar (queen) can be located on the British Museum website".

And finally a postscript from overseas;

"I am however, still unhappy about his wig and its lack of curls! The BM image is quite clear on this. To have a portrait made without curls would, I suspect, be the equivalent of having one’s photo taken today as one comes out of the shower. Hardly royal etiquette!

It is also a bit surprising that his picture was stuck on the bottom of the box, almost hidden from view, but the Tunbridge maker may have thought this a better solution than creasing it into the inside of the lid.

I would have expected the royal visit in 1663 to have given rise to a number of souvenir boxes, in which case one would have thought that this particular box would have been better thought out. This makes me wonder whether the box had already been made before the idea of a souvenir occurred to the maker and he then improvised, when he realized there was an opportunity to upgrade an unsold item of stock; this would also explain why other souvenirs of the royal visit do not appear to have been produced. He would then have used the images, which came to hand and not necessarily the best available. People would have understood that they represented the royal couple and their visit to Tunbridge Wells.

A Stuart King without curls and wearing a collar without any sign of armour is a difficult one to digest, but these are details and I think you can be reasonably confident that your box dates from the second half of the 17th century".



At The Beginning

Posted on 30 September 2017


We would not usually choose such an unprepossessing piece of Tunbridge Ware as our Object of the Month but we could not resist our choice for October. It certainly is not in the best of condition, nor are we able to date it accurately. But it is the lack of certainty about where it should sit on the Tunbridge Ware time line that intrigues us.

The limited information available about the origins of Tunbridge Ware are thought to come from the writings of Celia Fiennes, who wrote about “all sorts of curious woodwork” for sale at Tunbridge Wells in 1697. She referred to it as “delicate, neate and thin ware of wood both white and lignum vitae”. This probably referred to turned items such as bowls and goblets, pepper and spice mills made out of holly, sycamore and lignum vitae.

Although writers referred to Tunbridge Ware throughout the 18th century, we do not unfortunately have a clear idea of how it might have looked. Some of the earliest identifiable examples date from the beginning of the 19th century, when whitewood items with simple painted line decoration often occur.

The first impression of Our Object of the Month suggests that it is a whitewood, covered pot painted with concentric rings from the late 18th or early 19th century. But a closer inspection reveals that it has an image applied to the base and another to the inside, in the manner of the applied prints and labels typically found on Tunbridge Ware of the period.

Although it is difficult to see all the details of these images they are recognizable as portraits of King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. Their hairstyles suggest they are taken from prints about the time of their marriage in 1662. A specialist at The British Museum has indicated that the images on our pot are copies in pen and ink of prints from the 1660’s.

It appears that this small pot must have been made to celebrate Catherine of Braganza’s visit to Tunbridge Wells in 1663. But the big question is, ‘how long after the visit was the pot made?’

As far as we know the pot itself suggests late 18th or early 19th century. But could it possibly be earlier? Alas, we simply do not know! We therefore must leave it with you to ponder whether there is a chance that this goes back much further and whether in the beginning of the Tunbridge Ware story such an item could have been created.

The King Collection: A Retrospective

Posted on 31 August 2017


We were sad to hear a couple of weeks ago that after a long illness, Ken King had passed away.

Ken will be remembered by many as the author of the illustrated list of end grain Tunbridge Ware views, which he compiled in 1981.  By his own admission this list had its shortcomings but was more comprehensive than anything that had previously been available. Indeed for many years it was a sought after listing for dealers and collectors alike and was not superseded until 2012, when Howard Rockley produced his guide to Topographical Tunbridge Ware.

Throughout the 1980’s & 90’s Ken actively bought and studied Tunbridge Ware views, widening the body of information available. It was down to him that the view of Gisborough Priory was finally identified and we are sure he would have been delighted to learn that we discovered its companion view of Wollaton Hall in 2014.

It was in 2012, after many years of collecting, that Ken finally decided to sell his Tunbridge Ware. We feel that we were very privileged to be invited to handle the collection, the bulk of which was sold in two exhibitions. The first of these was Landmarks, featuring a large number of Tunbridge Ware views, which attracted enormous interest amongst collectors both home and abroad. Indeed it had been a number of years since such an important collection had appeared on the market. I am sure many are grateful to Ken for this and will continue to remember him.

By chance the day after we heard of Ken’s death, we were delighted to re-acquire a piece from the King Collection.  Like all the collection it is fine quality. Although not one of Ken’s topographical pieces, it is an unusually designed desk stand with a drawer and a carrying handle.  We therefore feel it is appropriate to choose it as our Object of the Month for September.

For those wishing to find out more about the King Collection, the Landmarks Exhibition illustrated booklet and Howard Rockley’s Topographical Tunbridge Ware can be purchased through the web site and are listed in the section of  Tunbridge Ware under £100.

Edenbridge On Vacation

Posted on 14 August 2017

 This is to let you know that The Edenbridge Galleries will be closed from Monday 21st August so that all the staff can have a well-earned rest. The Galleries will re-open on Tuesday 29th August.

During the closure we are still available for queries concerning Tunbridge Ware. Please contact us by email or by telephoning our office on +44(0)1892 725552.

The How But Not the Why of Bird's Eye

Posted on 28 July 2017


The Cabinet Makers’ Assistant published by Blackie & Son in 1853 suggests that bird’s eye maple was ‘…one of the most beautiful materials employed in the manufacture of cabinet furniture’ with the best timber being exported from North America in the late 18th century.

It did not however appear on Tunbridge Ware until the 1860’s, when it became one of Hollamby’s favourite veneers. Typically it was used as a background veneer, with the small dots or bird’s eyes enhancing the mosaic of the Tunbridge Ware.

Blackie accurately described how the bird’s eye figuring was produced. It results from internal spines or points in the bark of the maple. Once cut into veneers, these spines strongly resemble the eye of a bird.  Although it had been commonly thought that spines are aborted bud or shoot formations, 20th century writers* now dismisses this theory. Why maple and also some other woods such as horse chestnut develop these internal spines, remains a mystery.

Our Object of the Month for August is a stationery box attributed to Henry Hollamby with a background veneer of bird’s eye maple.


*Record & Hess, Timbers of the New World 1972

Blue Sky Thinking

Posted on 29 June 2017


There are two versions of the Tunbridge Ware view of Herstmonceux Castle and our Object of the Month for July is an example of the less common one.  Whilst the mosaic of the castle is the same on both versions, the one we are illustrating is set in an oval background with the sky in mosaic as opposed to a plain background veneer. 

There are only two topographical subjects in Tunbridge Ware with this feature, both by Henry Hollamby. A mosaic sky can also be found on Shakespeare’s Birthplace, a view that was particularly well received and commended by the Prince of Wales at the Bath & West of England Show in 1881.

The choice of a mosaic sky is an interesting one. Veneers in shades of brown do not really lend themselves to depicting a blue sky.  It was however possible that Hollamby was hoping that the technique, with which he was already familiar, of soaking veneers in the local chalybeate water would actually result in a true blue. It is documented in the 19th century that Tunbridge Ware makers were treating maple and Hungarian ash in this way to achieve silver, different shades of grey, and sometimes deep violet.

How successful Hollamby was, we are unlikely to know. Sadly with the passage of time, veneers that were soaked in the mineral water have not retained their assumed colour.  Whether Hollamby ever achieved a true blue remains a mystery. It could just have been blue sky thinking on his part.

A Baltic Beauty

Posted on 31 May 2017


In recent months we have had occasion to discuss some unusual effects found on wood veneers used on Tunbridge Ware. Our information day in March about spalted wood gave us the chance to consider wood attacked by fungus. Now is the turn of wood thought to have been attacked by insects.

Our Object of the Month for June has Masur birch* as its background veneer. Often confused with bird’s eye maple, Masur birch has markings making flecked or pocked patterns to the veneer, suggesting irregular insect activity. Bird’s eye maple by contrast appears as small dots within circles caused by internal spines within the wood.

Charles Holtzapffel first described Masur birch in his 19th century descriptive catalogue, suggesting that it was imported from the Baltic region in the early years of the century. It was however not in common use, occurring infrequently on English furniture. It was more often reserved for small decorative articles such as dressing boxes or tea caddies. It occasionally featured on Tunbridge Ware especially in the 1840’s, when it was combined with miniature parquetry and we think is well worthy of the description ‘A Baltic Beauty’. 

* Masur birch is also known as Karelian birch. Karelia is now an area on the borders of south eastern Finland and Russia. The name Masur refers to the Masurian Lakes, an area of modern Poland to the east of the River Vistula. The terms ‘Masur’ and ‘Karelian’ probably describe similar figured wood but from different locations.

Information from Woods in British Furniture Making 1400-1900 by Adam Bowett

Why Chevy Chase?

Posted on 02 May 2017


God prosper long our noble king

Our lives and safeties all!

A woeful hunting once there did

In Chevy Chase befall*

Our Object of the Month for May is an unusual piece of Tunbridge Ware. Quite apart from the fine mosaic of a bird and the handsome marbled veneer borders, the image of the Chevy Chase character turns up infrequently on Tunbridge Ware. This has set us wondering why indeed it occurred at all on a souvenir from Kent in the late 1830’s – 1840’s, when the image is essentially associated with the Scottish borders.

The Chevy Chase is immortalized in a ballad, which probably originated in the early 15th century and initially was spread by oral tradition, then appearing in print between 1623 & 1760. It tells the story of a large hunting party in the Cheviot Hills, which was led by Percy, the English Earl of Northumberland. This sparked off a border skirmish with the Scottish Earl of Douglas, who regarded it as an invasion of Scotland by the English. The result was the bloody Battle of Otterbourn in 1388 in which there were no winners. The English lost the battle and the Earl of Douglas lost his life.

The ballad seems to have remained popular through history with references occurring in literature at the time when the Chevy Chase character appeared on Tunbridge Ware: Sir Walter Scott referred to it in Rob Roy in 1816 and somewhat later in 1847 Emily Brontë mentioned it in Wuthering Height. Sir Edwin Landseer, who was hugely popular in his day, receiving royal patronage for his animal paintings, also painted The Hunting of Chevy Chase in 1825.

But was the popularity of the ballad itself and interest in the works of Scott and Landseer sufficient to persuade the Tunbridge Ware makers to portray the image of Chevy Chase in mosaic? Another possibility for increased interest could perhaps be the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, the year following his coronation. No reigning British monarch had visited Scotland since 1650 and there was considerable ill feeling between the two nations to be assuaged.

The visit of the King north of the border, which was organized by Sir Walter Scott, was deemed to be a success. It did however serve as quite a talking point, highlighting all things Scottish, not least because of the King’s tartan outfit, which was too short for his ample form, revealing the pink pantaloons he wore underneath!

So was this Scottish visit itself reason enough to stimulate increased interest in Chevy Chase? Please do let us know what you think and whether there are any other possible reasons for the image appearing on Tunbridge Ware.

* This is the opening verse of a ballad entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1624. Versions of the ballad were printed repeatedly in the 17th & 18th centuries.

Castles Close To Home

Posted on 28 March 2017


Our Object of the Month for April features Tonbridge and Hever Castles. Both castles are close to the home of Tunbridge Ware and both qualified as locations likely to attract attention in the 19th century following interest in the picturesque and the romantic. But by that time both were in a bad state of repair and could easily have become complete ruins.

Tonbridge Castle had been partly demolished in the Civil War and further damage occurred in the 18th century, when stone was removed to build bridges and locks along the Medway. By 1780 the castle site was described as ‘an ancient castle and vineyard’. In the 1790’s its owner, Thomas Hooke built the mansion onto the gatehouse, using more stone from the original building. The castle ruin and the mansion still stand today and are both a tourist attraction and offices for the local borough council.

Hever Castle was built in 1270 as a fortified manor house and became famous as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. After passing through many hands, the castle was inherited by Edmund Meade Waldo in 1841, when it became a working farm, leased to a series of tenants. By 1890 it was virtually uninhabitable with the roof leaking and water seeping from the moat into the structure. Finally it was purchased and restored by William Waldorf Astor. Like Tonbridge Castle it is now a much-visited tourist attraction.

Whilst both Tonbridge and Hever Castles had suffered over the centuries, they remained iconic buildings, well suited for depiction on Tunbridge Ware. The Burrows family, Edmund Nye and Henry Hollamby were all known to have been responsible for views of the castles and George Wise was also a likely contender for an unusual version of Tonbridge.

The Tonbridge and Hever Castles on the Object of the Month are the well-known versions by Henry Hollamby.

For more information on castles depicted on Tunbridge Ware please see Topographical Tunbridge Ware by Howard Rockley.

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