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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.