Tunbridge ware is the name given to small wooden objects - boxes, trays and so on - decorated with a mass-production technique that imitated the effects of marquetry and parquetry. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Tunbridge Ware


 Some of the most decorative but useful small objects were made in Tunbridge ware, a range of wooden items patterned with a distinctive mosaic.

 Tunbridge ware is the name given to small wooden objects - boxes, trays and so on - decorated with a mass-production technique that imitated the effects of marquetry and parquetry.

 It is named after Tunbridge Wells in Kent, where the technique was developed in the late 17th century; in the 19th century it became so popular that it grew into a veritable industry.

 Marquetry is a decorative veneer made of shaped pieces of wood (or other suitable material such as ivory) formed into a mosaic; parquetry is marquetry with a geometrical pattern.

 Both are very time-consuming and therefore expensive to produce. The manufacturers of Tunbridge ware solved the problem of creating similar designs that could be replicated comparatively cheaply.

 The design was made from sticks of wood of various colours, glued together in bundles in such a way that the ends formed a picture or pattern.

 By slicing this bundle of sticks transversely (rather like a loaf of bread) a number of identical versions of the picture were created, thin enough to be stuck to the surface of the box, tray, or whatever else was to be decorated.

 Some highly skilled craftsmen could cut ten or even more slices from a 2.5cm/un length of sticks.

 Tunbridge ware manufacturers made a huge range of articles such as stamp boxes, cigar boxes, trays, needle cases, cotton reels and measuring tapes.

 In 1837, one company, Fenner and Co., advertised backgammon sets, tea caddies, inkstands, comb trays, thermometer stands and much more.

 At the height of the industry, more than 180 woods were in use. Sometimes these woods were boiled to enhance their natural colour, although the local oak was already a lovely green tone, thanks to a fungus that dyed the wood tissue.


 The most popular Tunbridge ware articles were those intended as souvenirs, decorated with views of places such as Shakespeare's house.

 Floral motifs were also common, and butterflies, shells, dogs, cats and fish were other favourites. The mosaic veneer did not necessarily cover the entire article, often being laid in as an edge border or a central motif.

 Despite the speed of production, Tunbridge ware items were finely crafted. Some makers combined various techniques in their wares.

 Mosaic borders might surround a transfer print or painting, or occasionally be mixed with traditional marquetry techniques.

 There were also craftsmen who experimented and developed their own techniques.  George Wise, for example, rolled and pressed wood shavings into a thick glue; when this was dried and sliced, the effect was that of marbling.


 A huge amount of Tunbridge ware was produced during the 19th century and much of it still survives.

 However, it has now become so popular with collectors that pieces in pristine condition are becoming hard to find.

 The mosaic veneer is virtually impossible to repair, so the value of Tunbridge ware depends even more than with most collectables on the condition of the article.

 A scratched surface can be stripped and re-varnished, but if the veneer is torn or sections have peeled off, the object may be practically worthless.


 Apart from the question of condition, the piece of Tunbridge ware will depend on the type of object and the nature of the decoration.

 Generally speaking, the more unusual the article and the more complex the design, the more expensive it will be.

 For example, boxes of one sort or another are common, but yo-yos are rarities, highly prized by collectors.

 Similarly, floral motifs, butterflies and children were popular designs, so rarer subjects such as portraits and birds are worth more, as are identifiable views (apart from those of popular tourist attractions, which were turned out in their thousands).


 Among the other interesting items of Tunbridge ware you can look out for are candlesticks, pincushions, picture frames and bonnet stands.

 There were even examples of jewellery, including brooches and cuff links. Small items are not necessarily the cheapest.

 Some thimble cases, for example, were turned on a lathe to create a barrel shape, and the work involved is reflected in the price.



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