Tunbridge Ware: A History


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.

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment

Birdcage tables


During the 18th century the tripod table became one of the most popular forms. Developed from the smaller kettle or urn stands, the tops became larger in diameter and the columns taller and sturdier. They functioned as occasional, or ‘tea’ tables, and often featured elegantly shaped legs, terminating in either a ball and claw or a pad foot.  They sometimes had a dished or ‘piecrust’ shaped top. The most common detail of the column would be a ring turning or a vase shaped stem, as in this example, dating from about 1760.

The natural shine on the hard and dense ‘Cuban’ mahogany that was used at this time is evident here, as are the sturdy, well-balanced proportions. The finer examples from this early Georgian period often featured a ‘birdcage’ mechanism, as seen here, which allows the top to revolve on the base. It comprises two squares of wood, joined at the corners with turned columns, to which the long bearers under the table top are hinged; the top revolves freely on the top of the stem which slots right through the birdcage and is secured with a wedge.

Originality is always important when buying an 18th century tripod table; if the top is original to the base, there will be no other screw holes on the undersurface, and no sign of the bearers having been moved. When there is a birdcage present you can often see the indentations of the top of the columns. There should also be rubbing marks on the bearers from the action of the table opening and closing.

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment

What is Rosewood?

Antique rosewood whatnot

This elegant Regency rosewood four tier whatnot came into the showroom this week. A question we are often asked is – what is rosewood? Where does it come from and when was it used?

Rosewood is a fine grained tropical hardwood, a beautiful timber that has been prized for centuries. The name comes from the scented aroma of the freshly cut timber – supposed to smell of roses, in our opinion it is more like chocolate! A decorative exotic wood, it was always expensive, and imported to England in small quantities until a rise in its popularity in the Regency period.

It was used in the solid form, but was most commonly cut and used in veneer form, as on this whatnot: the turned uprights are solid Brazilian rosewood while the shelves are veneered. Traditionally difficult to work because of its extreme density, it was known for quickly blunting tools, and, because of its oiliness, its resistance to glue.

There are two main varieties of Rosewood that were commonly used; the first and most prized is Brazilian rosewood, or Dalbergia Nigra. Also known as Rio rosewood, the colour varies from chocolate to violet brown, with distinctive black streaks that look almost like ink stains giving it dramatic figure.

During the 19th century, East Indian rosewood, or Dalbergia Latifolia, started to be imported. This also has a very distinctive figure; very dark purple-brown in colour, it is distinguished by its very fine dense grain, and the narrow parallel striped figure. Both forms polish to a beautiful smooth shine.

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment

Dovetail Joints: What they can tell us about our Antique Furniture


Dovetail joints, named due to their resemblance to the bird’s tail, were first used as far back as ancient Egyptian times where they are found on the furniture entombed with mummies. They were first used in English cabinet making in around 1650. Commonly used in woodwork joinery, they can act as a useful tool while dating our furniture.  Until the 1880s, all furniture dovetails were cut by hand using a chisel and hammer.  With the industrial revolution dovetailjointscame the advent of the machine, and from the late 19th century onwards, dovetails were often cut by machine. These are easy to spot as they are not nearly as fine as the hand cut dovetails.

Dovetails act as a fine display of skilled craftsmanship by cabinetmakers. A thing of beauty, they are also one of the strongest joints in cabinetmaking. The ‘tail’ and ‘pins’ are cut using small precision saws and chisels. Small angled cuts were made, followed by careful cleaning down by a sharpened chisel on both sides to avoid splintering. A little glue is added to cement the connection. A well-crafted dovetail will last for centuries.

The first dovetails, as used on early walnut furniture, were fairly large and crude. As cabinet makers refined their skills the joints became smaller and neater. Look at the joints on the drawer of this Georgian dressing table for example. The ‘tails’ are so narrow at the base that they are almost imperceptible. A fine join became a signature for killed craftsman

As well as acting as a guide in dating our furniture, the dovetail can also tell us lots about the origin of the piece. Continental furniture is known for having much cruder, larger dovetails; the tails are at a much steeper angle. Simpler country furniture also often had larger dovetails, or even a single tail and pin.

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment

Commode in the manner of Giuseppe Maggiolini


Amongst new stock this week is this stunning Italian rosewood commode, with finely designed marquetry work. Dating from about 1790, it is decorated with neo-classical urns, flowers and swags in the manner of Giuseppe Maggiolini. Comprising three long drawers, it has a quartered veneered top, front and sides, with well executed marquetry roundels and decorative crossbanding. With wonderful colour and patina, it even features its original key.

The name Maggiolini became widely associated with all furniture decorated with wood inlay in late 18th and early 19th century Italy. He created masterpieces of illusions: bouquets, classical architecture, musical instruments, ribbons, and fruit, composed of arrangements of various stained or naturally coloured woods. His designs were so famous that during his own lifetime his work was widely copied.

Giuseppe Maggiolini began his career as a carpenter in a Cistercian monastery and established his own workshop when he was twenty. In 1771 he began working for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, Governor General of Lombardy. In addition to serving the court of Milan, Maggiolini created pieces for other European royalty including the king of Poland, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the duchess of Austria, and Napoleon’s widow, Empress Maria Luisa.

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment

Buying an Antique Chest of Drawers – a Guide

4002aThere are several things to consider when buying an antique chest of drawers. Perhaps the most important is the condition of the piece – do the drawers glide in and out smoothly, are there any loose veneers or handles, does it have woodworm?

A chest of drawers is a functional piece – the drawers need to be robust enough to hold items that you might wish to store, so it’s always worth taking one of the drawers out to have a closer look. Take a look at the drawer bottoms – are they securely fastened to the drawer sides? If not, they will collapse when fully loaded. Also look for splits in the wood in the drawer bottoms – there will nearly always be some in an antique, caused by natural shrinkage, but they should either have been filled with a wooden fillet or, as is often seen, taped with fabric to prevent things slipping through. As you push the drawer in the very last inch does it “clunk” [technical term!]? If it does, the drawer runners are worn and will need replacing by a restorer – otherwise damage will occur to the carcase.

Check also for loose feet, and have a look at the backboards – these are nearly always constructed of a softwood, such as pine, but should be firmly secured. There should never be any plywood anywhere – this wasn’t used until the 1930s, so has no place in a Georgian piece. Finally, run you hand over the top to see if there are any loose veneers. Marks and scratches of age are perfectly acceptable [as long as they are not unsightly] and often show that the patina is original. Too bright and shiny and it will probably have been repolished, which not only devalues the piece, it rather destroys the point of buying an antique!

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment

Georgian Plate Warmers

Nothing beats having your favourite dish served up on a lovely warm plate. This desire for a hot plate is nothing new to British diners, and there are artefacts from the 18th and 19th centuries that suggest we were once even more preoccupied by a ‘hot plate’.

And this makes sense if we consider how cold British houses could be for much of the year. Until the later 20th century rooms were often poorly heated, even in wealthy homes. Households with servants urged their staff to hurry from kitchen to dining room so food could be served hot, or at least warm, on heated plates. Hot food was appetising and proof of a well-run home too.

Regency Mahogany Pedestals

Regency Mahogany Pedestals

The Victorians even had spoon warmers; a decorative container filled with hot water to keep serving spoons and sauce ladles warm.

Plate warmers were commonplace in the kitchen where they would be a simple construction from wood or metal. However, when placed in the dining room, where they could be seen by the guests, they were much fancier affairs. They would often be found in the drawer of a sideboard, or the inside of a pedestal. These fine quality Regency mahogany pedestals would have looked very grand in the dining room; one is lined with tin; hot coals would be placed in the bottom, and the door shut, allowing the plates to be heated.

Georgian Fireside Plate Warmer

Georgian Fireside Plate Warmer

Through the doors at Thakeham Furniture this week, we have this fabulous and extremely rare George III fireside plate warmer. A fantastic piece, in very good original condition, lined with tin on the inside, which would have faced the fire and had the plates placed on it. The original swan neck carrying handles meant it could easily be put in place by the fire, and taken away once the plates were at the desired temperature. It is a clever piece of design which would have looked attractive in the dining room and successfully heated plates without blocking too much heat from the fire and thus still keeping the dining room nice and warm!

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment

Portrait of a Young Man


Amongst new stock this month is this exquisite French painting of a young man in 16th century dress. Oil on canvas, circa 1750, in a later, 19th century giltwood frame. Formerly in the collection of the Duc de Persigny.

Pasted to the back is a label that states:
Feu M. le Duc de Persigny
Portrait de jeune homme, buste [XVI siecle]

The label has been cut from a copy of the catalogue of a sale of the paintings and other effects, after the death of  the Duc de Persigny in 1872. The portrait is catalogued as no. 100, under Inconnus [Artist Unknown]. The catalogue is available to view online at openlibrary.org.

Jean Gilbert Victor Fialin, duc de Persigny (January 11, 1808 – January 12, 1872) was a French statesman of the Second French Empire.He was involved in the abortive Bonapartist coups at Strasbourg in 1836 and at Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1840. After the second, he was arrested and condemned to twenty years’ imprisonment in a fortress, commuted to mild detention at Versailles.

After his release, he took a prominent part in securing the election of Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) to the presidency. With others he was involved in plotting the restoration of the empire, and was a devoted adherent of Napoleon III. He was appointed Minister of the Interior in January 1852.

The collection of paintings included in the sale after his death was extensive, and included works by Cuyp, Durer, Tintoretto, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

The picture is beautifully executed, in particular the detailed brushwork of the jeweled doublet and ruff; an exceptional portrait, with striking characterisation.

For more details, please click here to view the item on our website.

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment

French Versus Wax Polish

Here at Thakeham Furniture we specialise in pieces with an original ‘patina’; but a question we are often asked is: how was that finish originally achieved? Would the piece have been French polished or wax polished back in the 18th or 19th centuries?

It is not widely known, but ‘French Polish’ was not introduced until about 1820 in England. It’s a method of application, rather than a type of finish: a pad of upholsterers wadding is soaked in a mixture of shellac dissolved in meths. This is then wrapped in a soft, washed cotton cloth – together this is known as a French polish ‘rubber’. The rubber works the polish into the grain of the wood in a circular motion, and numerous coats are applied, each one being rubbed down with fine wire wool in between. The finish is completed with a thin layer of wax.

Previous to this, most furniture from the walnut or early mahogany periods would have been finished with one of two methods – either with a mixture of beeswax softened in turpentine, polished off with a cloth. Or, for the more expensive pieces, a laborious method of polishing using linseed oil with brick dust. This is described by Sheraton, in his ‘Cabinet Dictionary’ of 1803, as ‘The general mode of polishing furniture’ … ‘which will infallibly secure a fine polish by continued rubbing’.

The Victorians took to French polishing – it creates a very bright, glassy shine, which does bring out the colours of the wood. However, it is also very easily scratched, and is particularly sensitive to spills of water or alcohol. In the workshops here, we only really use French Polish on items from the 1820s onwards, or for pieces such as dining tables which look so lovely with a rich shine; on most pieces we use our own beeswax based polish to enhance and preserve the original patina.

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment

Chippendale Period Kettle Stand

Candle stands first appeared in England during the Restoration period, c1680.  About 1735, these rudimentary tables began to evolve into graceful and useful “tripod” tables, with a straight, carved, or baluster shaft and cabriole legs. Tops were mostly circular, while some were square, octagonal, or “shaped”.

Small tripod tables of roughly this height were made as antique-kettle-stand-49-Lstands for tea kettles and their  heaters, for the ceremonial Georgian process of “taking tea” – although no doubt they were placed next to drawing room chairs for other purposes also. Ince and Mayhew, and Chippendale, both included examples of this type among their designs..

The diameter of the top being much less than across the base is typical: it meant greater stability, and follows the proportions of contemporary wine glasses. The stem is complex, with ring turnings and two complementary spirally fluted knops. The knees of the cabrioles are covered with carved acanthus and the toes are moulded up into an elegant scroll. It is in superb original condition, with a finely patinated surface. The top is original – although it has been re-screwed at some point – and the only restoration that has been carried out is to the Gothic fret gallery.

As always with these sought-after little pieces, the quality of both the timber and the carving is exceptionally fine. The mahogany is Cuban –  the very finest, close-grained wood, with a good weight, that allowed the crisp execution of the carving.

Posted in Antique Furniture | Leave a comment