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A Brief History of Tunbridge Ware

Tunbridge Ware is a bit like marmite, you either love it or hate it. Those that love it, very often collect it with a passion, and those that hate it have been known to simply throw it away.
cribbage_board.jpg The term 'Tunbridge Ware' is applied, mainly, to a unique form of decorative wooden inlaid marquetry that was developed and manufactured in the Tunbridge Wells area of Kent, from the 17thC (c.1650) until the late 1930's, though the most sought after period is between 1830 and 1900.

Minute strips of wood, in a great variety of natural colours and types were used to build up, first, geometric patterns, and later, floral decorations, landscape scenes, buildings, animals and birds.

Why Tunbridge Wells and then Royal Tunbridge Wells?
mansfield_collection01.jpg Way back in 1606 a chalybeate spring was discovered on the Tunbridge site, by a nobleman, Lord North. Chalybeate water is impregnated with salts of iron. The area was bridleway and common land, used by nearby farmers to graze livestock. Mineral water was believed to have healing properties and it wasn't long before more and more people flocked to drink from the spring. People mean trade and soon wells were dug and coffee houses built. Local tradesmen began selling their wares to the visitors, mainly wealthy Londoners.

The first Royal visitor to Tunbridge was in 1630 when Queen Henrietta Maria, consort of Charles I, came after the birth of the future Charles II. Later in 1698 Princess Anne (Queen Anne in 1702) visited the early town. It wasn't unheard of for Princess Victoria to make frequent visits to Tunbridge with her mother, Victoria Maria, Duchess of Kent, on a quest to buy local made Tunbridge Ware as gifts for her family.

mansfield_collection04.jpg Writers of the time spoke of the fashion for drinking the 'healing' waters and of the goods and provisions available to visitors. Gradually this included comments about 'all sorts of curious wooden ware' available as souvenirs and gifts. With trade and rapid expansion during the 19thC the town prospered, becoming a popular spa resort. Housing, industry, a theatre, churches and eventually roads, piped water, a hospital and the railway all came to Tunbridge and 'the wells', transforming it into a thriving provincial town. The town was eventually made 'Royal' by King Edward VII in 1909.

mansfield_collection02.jpg It was during the 18 & 19thC's that the town became famous for its Tunbridge Ware. Tourists were offered a variety of souvenirs as mementos of their stay at the wells, these early wares being mainly 'treen' and undecorated turnery. Gradually gifts became more and more sophisticated, moving on from the early painted wood ware to printed and decorated wood ware in the 18thC, and parquetry from the early 19thC.

During this time, the main veneer patterns available were cubes and the triangular Vandyke pattern. Borders would be plain stringing and banding of contrasting timbers. Expensive and time consuming production methods encouraged change and in a fairly short time (around 1830) the sophisticated tessellated mosaics, which we all know so well, became known as Tunbridge Ware.

The term Vandyke, often heard when describing Tunbridge Ware, is named after the artist Sir Anthony Vandyke (1599-1641), one of the great Flemish portrait masters, and refers to the scalloped lace collars depicted in his paintings.

Among the earliest mosaic was Stickware invented by James Burrows in 1830. Blocks of differently coloured triangular and diamond shaped wooden sticks were assembled by gluing them together into a tight bundle. Sometimes these had a plain wood central core that could be removed to produce hollow wares such as salt and pepper pots and pin cushions. Halfsquare mosaic was developed at the same time and was used as veneer to decorate boxes and other items. Stickware remained popular throughout the next hundred years of production, but was really only the first stage in the development of true tessellated mosaic.


Above: A writing slope, c.1860
Right: Pantiles - Henry Hollamby, c.1860
The Tessellated Mosaic technique, once perfected, allowed for very elaborate designs and has become the most well-known and admired form of Tunbridge Ware. Intricate patterns and even pictures could be produced as the minute wooden tesserae could be bundled together, glued, tied and dried, according to preset designs marked out on oversized graph paper patterns. Designs could be seen end on, rather like the letters and pictures running through a stick of rock. Once the bundle became a solid block, it was cut transversely into veneers of around 1.5mm and glued to a variety of blank boxes, trays, inkstands and tables etc.

mansfield_collection03.jpg To assist the Bandmaker in assembling the blocks, some 160 different varieties of wood were available, both native and tropical, as more and more exotic woods were brought back by the early explorers. In reality, only about 40 were in regular use, perhaps the most important being sycamore, mahogany, walnut, oak, holly, yew, maple and rosewood. Only natural coloured woods were used, or woods that produced stronger colour naturally by the action of fungus, such as green oak, and boiling.

The Victorians love the flamboyant nature of Tunbridge Ware, buying it in great quantities. As a result the industry enjoyed considerable prosperity. Large numbers of items were produced, including: pin cushions, cribbage boards, ink stands, toys, tea caddies and caddy spoons, tables, jewellery, bowls, bookends, paperweights, snuffboxes, pen and glove boxes, tea-poys, writing slopes and a multitude of boxes that could be used around the home.

MC_chess_table_edmund_nye_c1855.jpg Designs were often indicative of the item, stamp pictures on stamp boxes, for example, but geometric patterns were otherwise augmented with finely detailed animals like butterflies and moths, deer, dogs, flowers, landscape views, building and castles. The Pantiles at Tunbridge Wells, Penhurst Place, Hever, Eridge, Balmoral, Windsor and Tonbridge castles were always popular caddy and box lids.

A burr, or burl, is a tree growth with a complex structure that, when cut, lends itself to very decorative veneers, and none more beautiful than light burr sycamore, which is often found between the patterned areas on pieces such as glove boxes.

The famous makers.
Any visit to an auction or antiques fair will familiarize you with the local craftsmen who became famous names in Tunbridge Ware manufacture, and it is these makers that fetch the highest prices today.
Earliest were the Wise and Burrows families from the middle of the 18thC, though Fenner and Co always made that claim. But after 250 years, I guess it's not that important. What is interesting was the apparent head hunting that went on, which had the effect of advancing the techniques of tessellated mosaic to the highest standard and certainly increasing the quantities available.

TWM_work_table_edmund_nye.jpg In the second half of the 19thC famous names include Edmund Nye, Thomas Barton, Henry Hollamby and Robert Russell. Edmund Nye and his father took over the Fenner premises after a 30 year partnership which saw William Fenner retire in 1840. The Nye's were joined by Thomas Barton in 1836, who previously had been apprenticed at the Wise factory. Barton was among the finest of the 19thC designers and produced several pieces for the Great Exhibition in 1851. He took over the Nye business in 1863 and continued on his own until 1901.

Following an apprenticeship to the Burrows family, Henry Hollamby set up on his own in 1842 to become the largest manufacturer of Tunbridge Ware, employing around 40 people. Noted for his large views of famous buildings, the business was destroyed by fire in 1891 and never revived. Robert Russell also exhibited at the Great Exhibition and worked in Tunbridge producing sophisticated designs for over 20 years.

By the turn of the century, as fashion dictates, Tunbridge Ware lost some of its intrigue and the art started to die out through lack of competent craftsmen and workers otherwise caught up in the industrial revolution. When Thomas Barton died in 1903, there was only one surviving firm, that of Boyce, Brown and Kemp. Despite bringing increased mechanization to the production process, sales were slow and after changing hands several times the firm closed in 1927. After a short, small scale, revival in the 30's, the start of WWII saw Tunbridge Ware production fade away.

Buying Tunbridge Ware
The market for Tunbridge Ware remains strong and large national and private collections have made huge leaps in value in recent years, as have individual pieces. When buying there is much to evaluate, with collectors looking for tessera marquetry in the best condition.
  • Any pieces that have suffered significant damage or loss of veneer should be avoided as intricate mosaic patterns are notoriously difficult to repair.
  • Make sure mosaic is adhering properly all over as individual pieces are easily lost. Veneer that is lifting like a bubble over a large or small area will eventually collapse and break up.
  • The lids and other connecting parts need to fit properly. Non-fitting parts can indicate marriages or warping which is impossible to repair.
  • In recent years cheap imports and look alike has begun to fool the unwary.
  • If you can find pieces with their original label, so much the better. Printed labels can say things like 'A trifle from Tunbridge Wells', or carry important makers by name.
  • Look for something that stands out because it has a good design or picture and contrasting colour. Price is almost always dependent on the quality and intricacy of the decoration.
  • Royal Tunbridge Wells remains a popular place to visit and retains much of its original charm and elegance, with several antique shops and dealers dedicated to the Tunbridge Ware collector and the furtherance of its popularity.

Images are used with grateful permission and are courtesy of:
1.) The Mansfield Collection ( - no longer online) and
2.) Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery www.

Author: Phil Chave

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