Tunbridge Ware and Treen

Tunbridge Ware and Tunbridge Ware boxes- in its currently recognised forms of decoratively inlaid woodwork – originated somewhat confusingly in nearby Tonbridge and not in the town of Tunbridge Wells itself. There is some suggestion that the earliest examples were actually produced in London, and brought in to the spa town by traders who set up shop around the Pantiles for the duration of ‘the season’ which attracted a great many affluent visitors, eager to acquire mementos of their visit. There is evidence, for instance, of items being produced in Kentish Town and Cheapside (London) during the first two decades of the 18th century in sufficient quantity to service the ‘tourist trade’, as local production was barely more than a cottage industry at this point in time.

The source for the subtle difference in spelling of the two neighbouring towns is a story in itself. The spelling Tunbridge Wells – originally no more than a simple derivitive of ‘The Wells near Tonbridge’ – was formally adopted around 1870 when the Post Office deemed it too confusing for their staff to have to distinguish between the two similarly-named conurbations. Similarly, the arrival of the railway network demanded that a similar distinction be made to prevent visitors alighting at the wrong station.

Tunbridge Wells, the upstart neighbour of Tonbridge, retained the original spelling, no doubt due to its popularity with the upper echelons of British society, whose sensibilities were not to be offended at any cost. Poor old Tonbridge had existed quite happily for at least half a millennium before Tunbridge Wells came into being (although, to be strictly fair, the spelling of the town’s name – even when in splendid isolation – vacillated between one version and the other on something of a random basis).

Early Tunbridge Ware was seen as a means for craftsmen from Tonbridge to derive their own share of the additional income from visitors to the nearby spa town, although their early products bore little resemblance to the marquetry pieces with which we are familiar today. Prior to the mid 18th century Tunbridge Ware was a far less complex offering and consisted of small, wooden vessels bearing painted, etched or pen-drawn images on plain backgrounds – collectively known as ‘white-wood’ pieces. In the latter years of the 18th century there were a number of examples produced which saw conventionally-printed images (on paper or parchment) mounted on to these wooden articles, and given a thick coating of lacquer. Some of these line drawings were hand-tinted to produce fully-coloured images. As the popularity of the spa town as a resort increased, so did that of its trademark souvenirs, and several manufactories began to experiment with mosaic-type marquetry and parquetry patterns, developing a catalogue of increasingly intricate designs which became synonymous with Tunbridge Ware. The craftsmen had cut their creative teeth on the production of earlier, more straightforward geometric designs – the readily distinguishable ‘perspective cube’ and ‘Van Dyke’ patterns, for instance. The wider popularity of Berlin Woolwork tapestry in the Regency period was to inspire the production of ever-more intricate ornamentation, which initially replicated the floral motifs of the Teutonic craft, but soon evolved to encompass the depiction of topographic scenes and other more complex, pictorial designs.

As for the characters involved in the production of the wares, there are a few celebrated names who proved to be more durable than others. Edmund Nye took control of the Fenner company in 1840 and became one of the most popular designers, along with Henry Hollamby, the Burrows family and Thomas Barton. The aforementioned white-wood pieces were made by George Wise at his factory next to the main bridge over the Medway in the centre of Tonbridge from 1746, though the company set up a second manufactory on Frant Road in the neighbouring town – Tunbridge Wells – early in the 19th century.

Tunbridge Ware items are among the most beautiful pieces of antique treen available. Tunbridge Ware stamp boxes and Tunbridge Ware sewing boxes, writing slopes, tea caddies and jewellery boxes are beautiful and practical antiques and make fine decorative additions to any home.