[For much of the nineteenth century articles of Tunbridge ware – wooden objects with elaborate mosaic inlays – were popular with tourists and collectors. William Fenner, Edmund Nye and Thomas Barton, three of the best-known makers, operated from the same location on Mount Ephraim].
The desk was a spectacular piece of craftsmanship. It was made from expensive king-wood (imported from Brazil) and decorated with a veneer of woods from other trees – holly, yew, plum, cherry, blackthorn and many more. The lining was rich, gold-coloured satin. The top was covered with purple velvet and held cut glass containers mounted in silver. One drawer was fitted out as a sewing box, the other as a drawing box.
In 1826, when the people of Tunbridge Wells wanted to give seven-year-old Princess Victoria a present, it seemed obvious that it should be a piece of Tunbridge ware. A subscription of five shillings per person was requested and a total of twenty-five guineas collected. Lots were drawn to choose which of the town’s manufacturers would have the honour of making the present. William Fenner was selected and produced the desk in his workshop on Mount Ephraim. There is no record of what the Princess thought of this lavish gift, but on later visits to the town she bought many pieces of Tunbridge ware, both for herself and as presents.
Tunbridge ware was made and sold to visitors to the town from the 17th century onwards. At first it consisted of plain wooden objects. As time went on these were painted and then inlaid with patterns and pictures. In around 1830 a new technique was developed, known as ‘tessellated mosaics’. Working from paper drawings, narrow strips of different-coloured woods were glued together in small bundles, so that the design could be seen across the end (like the words in a stick of rock). Slices were taken and set into boxes, trays, tables, desks and a wide range of small items. Woods from trees in England and all over the world provided a palette of colours and, with enormous skill, manufacturers such as William Fenner produced amazingly intricate designs – including geometric patterns, birds, butterflies, flowers, and local scenes sometimes copied from guidebooks.
When William retired in 1840, his nephew Edmund Nye acquired the Mount Ephraim workshop, known as The Chalet, and moved his business there from the Pantiles. In his designs he favoured pale backgrounds with flowers, foliage and geometric borders set into them. In 1851 Edmund was one of three Tunbridge ware manufacturers who exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park, where he displayed two tables, a work-box and a bookstand. His work was commended by the judges.
Much of the design work for Edmund’s successful exhibits –including a galleon in full sail which was said to be composed of 110,800 pieces of wood – was the work of his employee Thomas Barton. The most highly regarded of all the manufacturers, Thomas’s work was known for its artistry and skill. His preferred style was dark backgrounds, of mahogany or coromandel (similar to ebony), and inlays incorporating oak which had been stained bright green by a fungus.
Thomas worked for Edmund Nye for many years, was appointed as his factory manager and later went into partnership with him. In 1862 Edmund made a will in which he stipulated that on his death Thomas should be given the option of purchasing the lease on his properties at Mount Ephraim and the Parade (Pantiles) for the low price of £400. When that event occurred the following year, Thomas took advantage of the opportunity and he continued producing high-quality Tunbridge ware at the Chalet for the next 40 years. Like William and Edmund before him, he sold the finished articles through a shop on the Pantiles, although purchasers were welcome to visit the workshop by appointment.
In 1899 Thomas helped organise an exhibition of Tunbridge Ware at the Town Hall aimed at reviving and promoting the industry, which had declined considerably by that time. A design competition was held and the results put on display, together with articles of inlaid wood from all over the world, loaned by the South Kensington Museum, and pieces of Tunbridge ware, loaned by local owners. The star exhibit was a Tunbridge ware backgammon board, believed to date from the 1640s and therefore one of the earliest pieces ever made. The Kent & Sussex Courier reported that one of Thomas’s workmen ‘was present with a turning lathe to illustrate, by ocular demonstration, some of the mysteries of the manufacture’.
When he died in 1903, aged 84, Thomas’s obituary described a man who, as well as being a gifted and successful manufacturer, had played an active part in the life of the town. At various times he had been an alderman, a magistrate, chair of the Water Board and chair of the Tradesmen’s Association. The obituary-writer said that Thomas ‘had the rare good fortune by his kindly geniality and transparent honesty of purpose, to have never made a single enemy, or had an ill word spoken of him’.
Disappointingly the 1899 exhibition did not succeed in its aim and the manufacture of Tunbridge ware declined further after Thomas’s death, with the one remaining factory closing in 1927.
- Tunbridge ware was manufactured by a small number of family firms, who also included the Wises, Burrows and Sharps.
- The Tunbridge Wells Museum has a large collection of Tunbridge ware, including pieces by all the main manufacturers.