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Tunbridge Ware Article
by Alf Murtell

From an original article published by us in 1960

THE earliest recorded maker of decorative Tunbridge Ware was named Jordon, very little is known about him, except that he established workshops in 1685, and his work became so well known and sought after that by 1700 marquetry work on a small scale was being produced in London under the name of Tunbridge Ware.

Decorative Tunbridge Ware falls into three categories:­

(1) From the 1680s to 1850s Tunbridge Ware was decorated with Marquetry and Parquetry.

(2) From about 1730 until the 1890s Turnery work which was known as stickwork.

(3) From the 1830s for about 50 years Tunbridge Ware was decorated with wood mosaic.

Marquetry and Parquetry all Marquetarians are familiar with, though the writer has never seen any evidence that pictorial marquetry was used for decorating, but mainly simple scroll work. Parquetry being much more in evidence, and it was this type of decorative work which prompted the development of mosaics.

Stickwork was apparently known as inlaid turnery, but in fact no inlay was used, it did in fact consist of various coloured fillets of wood being glued together so that a variegated block was formed, and these were turned or shaped, producing many varying and pleasing patterns. A form of this work on a larger scale can be purchased today in the form of fruit plates and bowls.

Wood mosaics. This is the term now usually applied to Tunbridge Ware and is known as Mosaic Tunbridge Ware.

In the late 1820s one James Burrows (whose family had taken over the business of Jordon about 1740) developed the mosaic ware and devised a method whereby a number of identical patterns could be cut from one prepared block which could then be applied to decorate articles of white wood, usually seasoned pine. In 1840 G. & J. Burrows advertised as follows: Inventors of the mosaic Inlaid Ware, Manufacturers of Tunbridge Ware, and Inlaid Turnery of the newest inventions.

The early patterns were simple and usually consisted of geometrical patterns, and these could be cut and laid side by side to form a strip or square of patterns on a box or similar article.

Sometime later one of Burrows apprentices left his employ and passed on his knowledge to George Wise, a cabinet maker in Tonbridge, who started a rival firm for the manufacture of mosaic Tunbridge Ware. The manufacture of mosaic ware was also started by a firm " Fenner and Nye " who in 1834 advertised drastic price reductions as they had installed mechanical driven machinery; this firm was later carried on alone by Edmund Nye, a relative of the original Nye, and it appears that around 1836 Thomas Barton, aged 17 years, an apprentice of the Wise family, joined Edmund Nye's factory, and he is credited with considerably raising the standard of the craft.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851 Edmund Nye exhibited several pieces of hand placed mosaic work, and according to the book " Mansions, Men and Tunbridge Ware " by Younghusband the design of the piece which was awarded a gold medal is attributed to Thomas Barton; this was a chromo­trope table, a mosaic of North American birds composed of 129,500 pieces in which 33 different natural coloured woods were used.

Around this period was considered to be the time during which the best work was carried out.

Whether Thomas Barton was related to John Barton who established workshops in Tunbridge Wells late in the reign of George the 1st is not known, to the writer. However, to John Barton is attributed the invention of a circular saw for the cutting of veneers for the Tunbridge Ware trade.

The demand for mosaic Tunbridge Ware increased, and strangely enough this was the reason for its ultimate demise, for with the increase of demand the production was speeded up, more and more machinery being used, with the result that the individual craftsmen began to lose interest, and in many cases even the polishing, which had been considered very high class, was given over to a spirit varnish, with the result all individuality vanished and the wares looked what in fact they were, a mass produced article and visitors ceased to purchase, and slowly but surely the manufacture of mosaic ware died out, and according to records the last business closed down sometime in the 1880s.

In the 1920s considerable quantities of mosaic work were reproduced by the Tunbridge Wells Manufacturing Company Ltd., in traditional shapes and patterns, and it would probably be safe to say that nothing elaborate was undertaken; no doubt there are people who will still remember this attempt to revive the craft.

The Marquetry work of Tunbridge Wells achieved celebrity during the reign of William and Mary, for towards the end of the 17th century the term Tunbridge Ware had been adopted by specialists of this work in London. Several examples of Marquetry, Parquetry and Mosaic ware can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a games table made at Tunbridge Wells in 1845 for the Prince Consort and decorated with mosaic is in Kensington Palace.

Probably the finest collections of Tunbridge Ware can be seen in the "Pinto" collections at Oxey House, Oxey, Boreham Wood, and in the Museum at Tunbridge Wells.

Her Majesty Queen Mary was a collector of Tunbridge Ware, and when visiting Tunbridge Wells, visited an exhibition of the ware, designs uncut blocks, tools and plates, which an antique dealer of Tunbridge Wells had purchased, all of which came from the works of Mr. Thomas Barton.

The foregoing is of necessity only a brief history of the craft and most of what follows concerns the ware known as Mosaic Tunbridge Ware.

First, of course, the pattern or picture was prepared, usually from water colour designs in the case of a picture, and this was followed by the preparation of a chart. Squared paper was used for this usually 10 squares to the inch. Each square was marked with a numeral which indicated the wood and its colour until the picture or pattern was represented by different woods to be used by the band maker. Each square on the paper would, of course, represent one piece of wood of the size to be used, so that if a pattern was to be built up of 1/16 mosaics and was 1 inch square 16 x 16 squares would be marked in and likewise a pattern to be built up of 1/32 mosaics, 1 inch square, 32 x 32 squares would be marked in. If a picture of, say, 6 x 4 is to be built up using 1/32 mosaics then 192 x 128 squares would be marked and this means the water colour picture being copied would be 19.2 inches x 12.8 inches which would represent 192 x 128 squares in the squared paper. From this it can be seen that the smaller the mosaics to be used the larger must be the picture being copied.

On completion the chart was passed to the bandmaker who proceeded to follow the chart's instructions. Let us assume that the chart to be followed consists of 1/16 mosaics the finished pattern 1 inch square and remember that the end grain is what will finally represent the finished pattern or picture.

Let us take a simple pattern using only five different toned woods which will be represented in the absence of colour as follows (please note that our web version is in colour as you can see!) :


The chart has been prepared from the pattern and will look something like this. Remember that each square represents 1/16 square of wood on the finished block.

The bandmaker will have many strips of wood measuring 6 x 1 x 1/16 (diagram 1) all sorted into various colour groups and starting from the bottom left-hand corner of column 1 takes one strip which represents the letter in that square and then proceeds to the square above, and a strip representing that letter is chosen and placed on top of the first strip, he then proceeds in the same way up the column, these are then glued together, bound and left to set, and then column 2 is treated in the same way, followed by 3, 4, 5, etc., until he has a series of blocks 6 inches long, 1 inch wide x 1 inch high con­sisting of various coloured veneers 1/16 thick, each one representing a complete column on the chart (diagram 2). These have now to be cut into strips 1/16 thick so that each column of the chart is repre­sented (diagram 3). Usually 10 columns were cut from each block, now one column from each block was assembled in the order 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., as shown on the chart and these are glued together and (diagram 4) shows that the bandmaker now has a block 6 x 1 x 1, the end grain representing the pattern.


Above: Diagram 1

Right: Diagram 2

Below: Diagrams 3 & 4
pix3_col1 pix4_completed_block

The block is now cut across the grain cutting a slice 1/16 inch and assuming 10 cuts to the inch the block will produce approximately 60 identical wafers (diagram 5) and as the original assembly of the wood strips will produce 10 such blocks, about 600 wafers will be produced repre­senting 50 ft. of mosaic pattern.

As previously stated early mosaics were simple, following geometrical patterns, but with improved techniques the tesserae were made smaller and smaller. The patterns were copied from and designed similar to the embroidery work in cross stitch on squared canvas known as Berlin work, some of this work being very elaborate with some­times more than 20 tesserae to the inch. Obviously with the improved techniques, more detail could be obtained and mosaic views became more and more elaborate and many popular local views were produced in very good detail.

The Pinto collection contains an inkstand by Edmund Nye measuring 10¾ x 7¼, inches decorated in geometric design with square tesserae of 22 and 25 to the inch and contains nearly 46,000 pieces, and a stamp box with Queen Victoria's head on the lid the same size as on a stamp, the head alone being made up of at least 1,000 pieces.

Some of the designs were such that they could be more simply assembled, for example if we look at (diagram 2) it can readily be seen that in block 1 the first four strips are the same wood and instead of using four strips 6 x 1 x 1/16, only one piece of B. 6 x 1 x 4 need be used, followed by A. 6 x 1 x 3/16, then C. 6 x 1 x g, A. 6 x 1 x 3/16, and finally B. 6 x 1 x ¼, the block will now look as shown in (diagram 6) the colour pattern will be exactly the same as (diagram 2).

Proceeding across the chart in the same way the design will finally be composed of 160 pieces of various lengths x 1/16 thick, as compared to the original assembly of the designs which is composed of 256 1/16 x 1/16 tesserae; obviously by this method a saving in time is made in respect of the gluing of the woods.

Diagram: 5
Diagram: 6

Vandykes: These are rows of elongated triangles arranged in light and dark woods alternatively and were often used as a border surrounding a picture or pattern, two examples are shown in (diagrams 7 and 8) 7 being a simple example and 8 more elaborate as each side of the light triangles have a dark fillet and the dark triangles have a light fillet creating a very pleasing effect.

It can be assumed that these were made up in blocks similar to the way described for the pattern blocks, with the difference that the completed pattern shows the side grain of the wood instead of the end grain.

Cube effect: This pattern was very popular and was used to decorate many types of boxes, (diagram 9) gives an idea of the effect created by choosing contrasting shades of wood, i.e., solid cubic blocks in perspective. It will be noticed that all angles are 30 degrees from the verticals, and each piece is diamond in shape. It is particularly noticeable that cube designs on Tunbridge Ware are composed of many various toned woods with very pleasing results.

Bandings: Most Marquetarians have seen and know what they are, they were, and are still, used a great deal.

Diagram 10 illustrates a very simple design and it will readily, be seen that various patterns can be achieved by the addition or deletion of the strips enclosed in the top and bottom strip.

Diagrams: 7 & 8
Diagram: 9

In order to achieve a reasonable amount of strength the top and bottom strips have the grain of the wood running from end to end, whereas the pattern can be end grain.

The system of assembly is similar to that of the more modern block or laming board used today, i.e., a sheet of veneer (diagram 10 (1) ) on which strips are laid to form a regular pattern (diagram 10 (2) ) on top of which is placed another sheet of veneer (diagram 10 (3) ) the whole being glued and pressed, after which strips are cut veneer thickness, and assuming 10 cuts to the inch a prepared piece 36 inches by 6 inches would produce 180 feet of banding.

Marbled Veneer: This was a form of decoration used on Tunbridge Ware late during the period of manufacture, the waste shavings from the mosaic blocks were collected, loosely rolled with glue and then pressed into solid blocks, after which they were cut into veneers.

Accessories: Locks, keyholes, escutcheons and hinges were of a very high quality especially during the mid-century period, and inspection of a good quality hinge of those days will cause one to wonder why similarly made hinges are not produced today, for they are designed in such a way that the lid of a box would only open just beyond a vertical position.

Later, Mother-of-Pearl inlay and wood inlay superseded the brass keyhole escutcheons.

Diagram: 10
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