Tunbridgeware

by Vivienne Challans

Vivienne is the granddaughter of Thomas L. Green who produced Tunbridge ware at Rye Mosaics on Market Road

This article appeared in RM&LHG Journal 61′

What is Tunbridgeware?

The exact origins of Tunbridgeware are not well documented but it seems it was originally made by cabinet makers of Tonbridge before the springs were discovered in the early 1600′s and brought into being in the town of Tunbridge Wells. Early ware made for visitors to the Spa was mainly wood turned on a lathe, at first without decoration and later painted with lacquer. However the craft changed considerably over the years. The second half of the 18th century saw the introduction of veneered ware where thin slices of different coloured woods were inlaid to form a design or picture. In the 1830′s the art of tessellated mosaic work, which is made in a completely different way to a normal veneer inlay, began.

The industry flourished and as the mosaic designs evolved so the range of products grew from banjos, to furniture and yo yos. As with any art form there were a number of famous producers, each with distinctive designs – names such as Wise, Fenner and Nye, Thomas Barton, Robert Russell, Henry Hollamaby and Boyce Brown and Kemp.

How Tunbridgeware was made

The production of mosaic work was painstaking and slow. Firstly a design in the form of a chart would be made of the subject with a key to the wood to be used– as in the example designed by Thomas Lyttleton Green, my grandfather. Many patterns were used: geometric, cube, berlin, woolwork (popular in Victorian times); patterns used for banding patterns, landscapes, animals, flowers and well-known buildings.

Next, and this is where this method is so totally different, the tiny pieces of wood which had been cut by hand were assembled according to the chart until a row was completed, which was then glued, put under pressure and left to dry for at least twelve hours. The next was assembled in the same manner and so on until all the rows in the chart/pattern were completed.

These strips were then assembled in order with reference to the chart to form a block with desired pattern running its length rather like a stick of rock. It was from these blocks that the ‘veneers’ were cut and used on the items to be decorated.

Large designs could comprise six, nine or even twelve smaller units and take weeks or months to complete, Some of the designs of blocks representing a view like the Pantiles such as that made by Boyce, Brown and Kemp could contain up to 25,00 tesserae. The veneers cut from a block were about 1.6mm) 1/1681 thick and a seven inch block could yield about 70 to 80 identical veneers. Apart from a lathe which was used for turning buttons and knobs etc, the circular saw that cut the veneers was the only other piece of machinery. The glue was important too to ensure a perfect finish was obtained. Animal glue used was warmed in a double boiler glue-pot to the correct temperature to ensure the consistency gave a good join.

Finally the finished pieces had to be varnished–another meticulous job as there was no ‘quick-dry’ version available and several coats of shellac varnish might be required.

Woods from around the world

The wood used came from around the world, probably chosen for the colours they offered. The names of some of them sound like poetry: rosetta (rosy brown), pedouk, mulberry (yellow), kingwood (deep brown/ purple), holly (white), purple heart, ebony, fustic (yellow), sycamore, walnut and cherry to name a few. There were about three hundred woods used as the colours all came from the wood itself. Even the green was not dyed but came from oak that had been attacked by a fungus. I am told that my father and his sisters were taught to be on the lookout for green oak whenever out walking in the countryside.

The last producer

My grandfather, Thomas Lyttleton Green. was the last person to make Tunbridgeware on a commercial scale. My memory of my grandfather is a little hazy as I was quite young when he died but I remember a kind, gentle humoured man who was nice to be with. He was born in Maidstone in 1892 and went to Tonbridge School before qualifying as an engineer. During the First World War he served in France in the Royal Flying Corps. He married at the end of the war and honeymooned at the New Inn, Winchelsea.. It was about this time he met Richard Kemp, a son of one of the partners of Boyce, Brown and Kemp, a leading manufacturer of Tunbridgeware from the late 1870′s until the Second World War.

Rye Mosaics

Richard Kemp and Thomas Littleton Green formed a partnership and Rye Mosaics was born. Kemp brought with him skills learnt from the family business and also, it seems, a quantity of veneers. Sadly this partnership did not prove to be a total success and in 1934 was dissolved. Green took over sole management of the business. He proved to be an enterprising manager and introduced electricity to operate his saw, lathe and sander. He had a workforce of three and the business not only sold souvenirs to visitors to Rye but also supplied retailers.

In April 1932 his work was displayed at the Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia. The Evening News wrote.

Among the wonders of Olympia are many examples of romantic old crafts. And of all of them the most puzzling is that of the Old Rye Mosaics. Samples of them are displayed among fancy iron work near Princess Elizabeth’s little house – penholders, inkstand needle cases, snuff boxes and so on all made from infinitely small fragments of coloured wood.

 The paper quotes Green as saying

They are made from naturally coloured woods, of which we have about 300 sorts in stock now, including English green oak, apple pear and other fruit trees, holly, mahogany, yew, rosewood, plane and laburnum.

Whilst Rye Mosaics could not match the production of the commercial businesses in Tunbridge Wells it nevertheless produced a wide range of smaller items, from boxes for playing cards, matches, stamps etc to mirror and picture frames, pin trays, yo yos, brooches. ringstands, needlecases and bookmarkers. Green used a number of traditional Tunbridgeware designs including the perspective cube work. He also used the Hollamby technique of spelling out words in mosaic and a range of boxes were produced spelling words such as ‘Rye’ to sell to visitors to the town.

Green also developed a range of designs that included the clock and jacks of St Mary’s, the windmill, a parrot, a butterfly and a design for the coronation of Edward VIII that was subsequently modified for the coronation of King George VI.

The photo of the needlecase at left, showing a windmill and attributed to Thomas Lyttleton Green, was found on the site RX birdwalks.  This paragraph from the site explains the connection. This must be the fungus referred to above.

Oak  branches fallen to the floor of wealden woods are often stained a surprising blue-green by the mycelium a fungus called Chlorosplenium aerugescens (Blue Elf-cap). From the early 19th century this coloured wood formed a component of Tunbridge Ware, the decorative use of various woods, not all native, on a wide range of souvenirs.

Thomas Green did not mark any of his wares but many of his boxes use a characteristic tongue joint at the corners not found in use by other Tunbridgeware makers. That Green possessed skill and artistry is evident in the necklace that can be seen in the Rye Castle Museum.   In an  interview for an article in the Evening Newshe is reported to have mentioned a Tunbridgeware penholder which has nearly 1,000 tiny fragments of wood in its intricate ornamentation and a string of beads with 540 pieces to each bead.

A Royal Visitor

It seems that Lady Maud Warrender, who lived at Leasam House, visited Rye Mosaics with her friend Queen Mary who apparently made it known that she would be pleased to accept a necklace made of Tunbridgeware beads. Green made one for Queen Mary and a replica for his wife, which can be seen in Rye Museum. The outbreak of war in 1939 brought the production of Rye Mosaic works to a halt as my grandfather joined the Royal Engineers.

The location of Rye Mosaics in Market Road was approximately where the entrance of Jarrold Close is today. Sadly, during the war a bomb fell close to the workshop causing devastation and irreparable damage to both stock and the workshop.

With thanks to my father and Brian Austen’s book Tunbridgeware and related European Decorative Woodwares, 3rd revised edition W Foulsham 2001)

Vivienne Challans 2007

Addenda: You might also want to visit the  Tunbridge Wells Museum which has the largest collection of Tunbridgeware in the world and the  Tunbridgeware website with its many illustrations.

First posted in Rye Trades and Industries on 20th January 2010
Last updated: 8th December 2012
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