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Antiques & Collecting - Tunbridge Ware

PUBLISHED: 14:03 12 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:39 20 February 2013

Lady's writing box, c.1785 - £1,300-£1500

Lady's writing box, c.1785 - £1,300-£1500

As anyone who has watched the BBC's Antiques Roadshow or Flog It will know, Tunbridge Ware is very collectable and prices have risen in the last few years.

It was first developed in the mid-1680s by a master woodmaker named Jordan from Tunbridge Wells. It consisted of a special form of inlay which used minute strips of wood in a variety of colours to create patterned veneers. At first these were mainly geometric designs within scroll-work borders and were used for small tables and games boards. Later, floral decorations and landscape scenes were introduced and often used as a veneer for boxes, trays, desks, small tables and other pieces.

Visitors were drawn to Tunbridge Wells by the Chalybeate waters - springs containing iron - which were thought to be very beneficial for rheumatic complaints and as a general tonic. During the 19th century towns with these springs became very popular and prospered as spa-towns. As well as 'taking the waters' there were many other amusements for visitors to enjoy and they often wanted to buy a souvenir or gift for friends. Tunbridge Wells was one of these towns and in 1820 when Princess Victoria spent the first of many holidays there, her patronage led to both the town and its Tunbridge Ware enjoying immense popularity. In 1842 Victoria (now Queen) even granted a royal warrant to Messrs Sharpe of Tunbridge Wells.

By the early 19th century, Tunbridge ware had become a specialised branch of the small cabinet-making trade. No dye, stain or paint was used: red came from sycamore; yellow from nutmeg; and grey and blue from wood soaked in the Chalybeate springs and green from branches of oak trees which had fallen and been attacked by a certain kind of fungus. After 1830, rosewood was used for the background, in place of walnut, and mother-of-pearl was introduced into the inlay. All sorts of wood mosaic patterns were created, geometric and ornamental patterns, birds, butterflies and flowers. Views of places around the spa were also popular. Many items were made for the spa's celebrated gift emporiums: tea caddies, which are now valued at a high price depending on the design; glove-boxes; handkerchief boxes and many more.

Manufacture on a commercial basis ceased in about 1939 but items bearing the original makers mark are the most sought after. Tunbridge ware does not come onto the market very often as it is frequently a family possession and owners are not aware what great-grandmothers 'pretty box' really is. Not many people recognise Tunbridge ware, and it can be bought at car-boot sales! So, if you frequent these, keep your eyes open and you might find something really valuable for next to nothing;

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