The Yorkshire craftsman Robert Thompson (1876-1955) is better known by a single name – ‘Mouseman’. Born in Kilburn in 1876, the son of the village's jobbing carpenter and stonemason, Thompson was inspired by the splendid medieval carvings at Ripon Cathedral to create his own oak furniture in the British vernacular tradition. He accepted his first of many ecclesiastical commissions in 1919 from the church at Ampleforth.
The use of the adze for shaping and smoothing surfaces gave his furniture its distinctive rippled appearance. However, it was through an engaging trademark - a rodent signifying 'industry in quiet places’ first used in 1920 - that Thompson is best remembered. He later wrote:
‘The origin of the mouse as my mark was almost in the way of being an accident. I and another carver were carving a huge cornice for a screen and he happened to say something about being as poor as a church mouse. I said I will carve a mouse here and did so, and then it struck me, what a lovely trademark.’
‘Mouseman’ furniture has been in near continuous production for over a century. The family firm of Robert Thompson's Craftsmen Ltd continues in Kilburn, using the same traditional techniques and skills Thompson perfected.
With a loyal UK collecting base - and a growing number of fans overseas – ‘Mouseman’ furniture of all periods has a strong following on the secondary market.
However date can be key to pricing. As a general rule, the earlier the piece, the closer it will be to the original design and the better its colour and patination.
With some notable exceptions, such as the desirable series of bird and animal carvings, collectors make a distinction between pieces made during the Robert Thompson era (pre-1955) and those made by a subsequent generations of the family firm.
Not all ‘Mouseman’ forms are still in general production. However, as many classic designs are still being made, shape and form seldom give a clue to the date of a piece.
Dating is achieved by close analysis of the construction details - that changed as the century progressed - or indeed the form of the mouse signature. The earliest mice, used on pieces from the 1920s into the 30s have front paws, while a quite different rodent, without paws, made its debut in the 1930s.
Some of these details can be seen in the remarkable ‘Mouseman’ commission created for the Horlick’s factory in Slough that Sworders will sell on Tuesday 9 October 2018. This cache of approximately 45 lots were made by the Thompson workshop in three batches in 1930, 1936 and 1938 for a new office wing at the factory. The chairs in this consignment have all the attributes of early models: solid panel backs, a ‘rush rail’ mortised and tenoned to the front legs and upholstery of interwoven leather. Some pieces, such as a dresser with the letter H and the date 1930, have the added bonus of elaborate Arts & Crafts style ironwork, probably supplied by the talented Kirkby Moorside blacksmith Will Dawson.
A strong provenance such as this will generally add interest and value but a range of different price points - from an ashtray or napkin ring at under £100 to high £1000s for larger items - is one of the appeals of Mouseman furniture. Also commanding a following (albeit at lesser price levels) are the similar pieces of handmade oak furniture made by other craftsmen in Yorkshire's North Riding - each adopting a small creature or motif as a signature. From rabbits to beavers, some thirty of these 'critters' have been identified.
Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson oak hall chairs,
each with leaf carved backs, the top panel with a shield bearing the Horlick arms, over a burr-oak panel, with latticed leather seats.
David Jagger (1891-1958),
A LADY WITH A TENNIS RACQUET AN ADVERTISING STUDY
oil on canvas
91.5 x 63cm
A Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson oak partner’s desk,
with an adzed top with scrolled corners, with three drawers either side of a kneehole, and a slide opposite cupboards, with panelled sides, with the mouse signature,
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John Black ASFAV
Director 20th Century Art & Design
John has a degree in Art History augmented by a one year course at Christies, and has 15 years auction room experience. An integral member of our team he has a broad knowledge of the decorative arts, however his principal interest lies in 20th Century Design. John runs our successful Decorative Art and Design sales, held three times a year.
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