Created using traditional woodworking techniques, treen is sought-after for its timeworn looks, as Katrina Burroughs discovers
For Bob Mills, a collector for over 20 years, the attraction of treen lies in the insight the objects – small carved or turned timber objects, usually of practical use and invariably characterized by simple, satisfying form – provide into the lives of those who crafted and used them: ‘I have a very simple 18th-century lever nutcracker that has a little nail in it where someone mended it, and you can see all the wear and tear it has endured over the years. Holding it, you get a tangible feeling that it’s been used and well loved.’
Becoming a collector Before the late-17th century, when pewter, silver and ceramic tableware began to filter into use for the gentry, wood was the default dining material for all: from peasant to king, everyone would have used turned wooden platters and bowls. The simplest spoons and bowls were carved or turned on pole-lathes by local artisans, while elaborately decorated engine-turned tankards and wassail bowls were created by court craftsmen. It’s rare to be able to identify the maker of a piece of treen (a curious little word meaning ‘of a tree’), though tokens such as lovespoons are sometimes carved with the initials of the lovestruck creator and his ‘spoonee’. Scottish ceremonial quaiches (two-handled whisky cups) often made of two different woods, spliced together by the lost art of feathering, may bear inscriptions, but these are usually dedications and commemorations, rather than a maker’s mark.
So in the absence of any big brands to collect, which treen is most desirable? The record is £24,000 for a pair of rare George II painted fruitwood goblets, at the Christie’s sale of the Jonathan Levi collection in 2006, but it’s unusual for treen to cost so much. The most frequently collected pieces are readily available and inexpensive: countless bowls, egg cups and ladles are to be found at antiques markets for under £50.
Collector and dealer Duncan Baggott describes the attraction of these more modest pieces: ‘You can use them and they’re such a pleasure to hold, so tactile.’ Otherwise, collector Kevin Roe reckons the joy of treen is that something good can be found almost everywhere. ‘Whether you’re at Portobello, Newark, or a car boot fair, there’s always some little thing to find.’
Treen for the dining table Plain spoons, ladles, dishes, platters and salts, made for everyday meals in modest households, are relatively inexpensive to collect: a small 19th-century elm bowl might cost £150-£200, while at a specialist dealer, a large 19th-century sycamore dairy bowl (sycamore is odourless and tasteless, so it didn’t affect the taste of the milk) might cost £400-£500. Either would look fabulous today on a rustic farmhouse table.
Because of its age and years of use, even the simplest piece of treen tableware can boast breathtaking colour. Kevin Roe caught the treen bug four years ago, and now collects beautifully patinated tableware. ‘I have egg cups, bowls and spoons – anything that’s not too big,’ he says. ‘I’ve always had a fascination with wood and I love all the colour variants in treen.’
The earliest pieces made for court use are still the most costly: ceremonial cups with covers, lidded tankards and wassail bowls. These are often in lignum vitae, a close-grained tree native to Jamaica, the West Indies and the Americas, three times as hard as oak. Lignum was imported as ballast and then ‘rose engine-turned’ by court turners, using a technique developed by ivory turners in South Germany, to make pieces adorned with intricate rose petal motifs. Also known as the ‘tree of life’ the wood was believed to have medicinal properties and was frequently used for eating and drinking vessels, in the hope that the beneficial traits would pass from the wood into the food.
Dealer David Levi says: ‘Early goblets tend to be the most sought-after of the dining wares – late-16th and 17th century goblets can cost between £3,000 - £10,000. But anything of that date is highly desirable. It’s incredibly rare to find pieces of this age that have escaped woodworm, wear and tear and fire for all those years.’ Levi emphasizes that treen goblets needn’t cost the earth. For collectors willing to buy later pieces, prices fall: plain Georgian treen goblets can be had for £1,500.
Some of the most decorative tabletop treen objects are the boxes made for a variety of precious goods, from tobacco to tea. Not every wooden box counts as treen: veneered, panelled and inlaid boxes don’t generally fit into the category – think plain turned or carved timber. But that doesn’t mean decoration is folksy or prices low. An engine-turned Elizabethan table tobacco box, resplendent with rose motifs, in glowing lignum vitae, would set you back over £5,000. A tiny, mid-17th century snuff box with carved rope and Gothic arch decoration, might be £1,000-£1,500, while an 18th-century fruitwood Scottish snuff box, with fine carving, can be bought for just over £500.
Duncan Baggott, who stocks and collects treen of all descriptions, says that among the most irresistible – appealing to those who like their treen crammed with character – are the Victorian boxes in the shape of Pugs’ heads, which can be had at auction from around £300. There are little canine-inspired inkwells, tobacco boxes and, largest of all, 35cm high humidors, usually sporting a red-painted collar, dark-stained jowls and green or amber glass eyes. Baggott says: ‘I have one of the larger pieces myself – it’s so striking, and so tactile.’ Indeed, to many people, that’s pretty much the definition of treen: a piece of wood that just cries out to be touched. David Levi agrees. ‘The patination of treen is just so wonderful,’ he says. ‘It’s nutty, variegated – you just want to touch it!’
Dealers of traditional wooden country furniture often stock decorative treen, but unusual pieces can pop up anywhere. David MacDonald, furniture specialist at Sotheby’s, remembers: ‘One couple brought in a goblet that they’d found for 60p at a car boot sale in 2004. It was decorated with the three-legged emblem of the Isle of Man, and was William and Mary. It was carved from a coconut, which was very rare and would have been a costly, imported piece. I put an estimate of £800-£1,300 on it... it later sold for £6,000.’
Novelty treen Because treen objects are such personal pieces, there are some fascinating curiosities to collect, such as Welsh lovespoons, each carved by a suitor for his sweetheart. Featuring motifs such as hearts, enlarged commas symbolising the soul and wheels signifying industry, they often bear the date of the gift and initials of the betrothed. Lovespoons earlier than 1900 can cost over £1,000, but beware of the numerous 20th-century copies on online auctions. If it looks too good to be true, it is. If the personal nature of lovespoons charms you, but the price cools your ardour, 19th-century knitting sheaths are a good alternative.
These were devices that allowed a knitting needle to be tucked into the waistband of the knitter’s clothing, so that she could knit with just one hand – a singed end shows it may also have been used as a torch in the gloaming to unpick mistakes! Made as romantic gifts, knitting sheaths often display incredible craftsmanship such as ‘birdcages’ – open cages containing balls – or chains, all carved from a single piece of wood. Often inscribed with the name of the girl they were made for and the date, they are much less widely recognised than lovespoons, and are available for under £200. Treen nutcrackers, in all manner of quirky designs, are another popular novelty and are realising very respectable values nowadays: a late-17th/early 18th-century boxwood nutcracker, with a carved face of a bearded man, whose jaws came together to crush the nut, sold at Gorringes in September for £2,200. But for those on a more modest budget, there’s plenty of choice, too. Bob Mills, proud owner of hundreds of nutcrackers, and author of a Shire book on the subject, says: ‘You can begin quite inexpensively with something like Black Forest late-19th century nutcrackers in human and animal forms. It’s known now that they were mostly Swiss-made but we still refer to them as Black Forest. There is a range of interesting designs, figural and animal shapes – and they only cost from £40-£50.’
PHOTOGRAPHS: CAROLYN BARBER
STYLING: RACHEL WOOD