Tunbridge Ware: A History

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New in this week is this fantastic Tunbridge ware inkstand, circa. 1870. Rectangular in form, the two glass inkwells flank a stamp box and pen recess. It is of rosewood construction, with the top and sides decorated with a fine mosaic style inlay in holly, ebony, sycamore and boxwood.

This intricate mosaic style inlay is commonly known as Tunbridge ware. The term comes from the Spa town Tunbridge Wells in Kent where wood turners in the district first used the process from as early as the 17th century. With the development of Tunbridge Wells into a fashionable spa town throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Tunbridge ware became extremely popular with visitors to the town as souvenirs. It was most commonly created in the form of a box, however all kind of objects were made including toys, jewellery, pictures and furniture.

The early forms of Tunbridge ware consisted of simple turned wooden wares which were often painted, or decorated with applied printed paper labels or printed views. In the 19th century veneered work became popular, initially incorporating large parquetry designs. Towards the later part of the 19th century, the tessellated mosaic technique was created, which resulted in the elaborate designs (such as this example) including intricate, often floral motifs.

So how was this mosaic effect created? Thin sticks of varying timbers were glued together in bundles, replicating patterns which had been previously designed on squared paper. These were then sliced into thin veneers which were applied to the item to create a pictorial vignette. Local timbers were combined with foreign timbers, to produce crisp, high contrast patterns. Most commonly used were oak, holly, yew, sycamore and maple. Even green timber was achieved using oak from trees attacked by fungus.

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