The oak joinery of the Still Room china presses, Temple Newsam House (isn’t it good North German wood?)

The focus of the Still Room reconstruction project, 2007-2008, was the conservation and re-building of the china presses, made in 1740 by Leeds joiner Henry Atkinson. I had a hunch that the oak was perhaps not local, mainly because, from reading a great book called the “The Lunar Men” by Jenny Uglow, I learned that Britain’s canal network was quite well developed by this time. Swillington Bridge is a point very near Temple Newsam House on the Aire and Calder Navigation Canal. I commissioned a dendrochronologist, Dr. Ian Tyers, to analyse the oak. His conclusions were interesting. When the oak timber had been trees they were growing somewhere in north Germany/Netherlands/present-day Belgium, in an area roughly centred on Bonn. The logs would have been floated down the Rhine, and perhaps a tributary before that, to Amsterdam or Rotterdam. There the logs would have been processed into boards in the commercial sawmills that were going great guns in the Low Countries in the early to mid-18th century. From there the boards must have been shipped across the North Sea to Hull. This ties in with records at Temple Newsam House. “31 August 1739. Mr. Scott, Hull, 170 Oak boards and battens=£38-10-0. 31 August 1739. John Shackleton, for freightage of 170 Oak wainscot boards=£2-0-0.”
A full account of the re-construction of the presses and the room is given in the book published from the papers given at the Stichting Ebenist conference, Amsterdam, 2008, conference theme: the conservation of vernacular furniture.
Copies of the Still Room paper are freely available from Temple Newsam House on request, and can also be read on-line via the link below:
The re-construction of this interior has been a great success on several levels. Another aspect of the house is being interpreted and presented, the living and working accommodation of domestic staff; it is an appropriate space to display some of the very fine vernacular furniture in the Temple Newsam collections; the visiting public enjoy it very much, and the space can also be re-configured easily for lectures, corporate hospitality etc. The presses themselves are exemplars of the art of the carpenter and joiner, of simple construction, yet robust and fit to purpose. They show both sophistication and economy of effort. It must be remembered that tradesmen such as Henry Atkinson were working to tight profit margins for clients who were sometimes reluctant to part with their money! On a personal note I found working on the presses a humbling experience, pausing to think sometimes during the re-construction and installation stages that nearly 300 years before me other craftsmen had been working in the same location on the same presses, and I hope I will be forgiven for sharing here one of my favourite free verse poems, by D.H. Lawrence,
Things men have made with wakened hands, and put

soft life into

are awake through years with transferred touch, and go

on glowing for long years.

And for this reason, some old things are lovely

Warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.

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