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As poor as a church mouse– but as rich as a ‘Mouseman’!

The first mouse carved on furniture made by Robert Thompson in his work shop was in the 1920’s and was a genius piece of branding not only was it an unmistakeable trade mark but it also had the cuteness factor . The popularity is such that they have become some of the most expensive mice ever to go through a saleroom. Some of the oak sideboards by the “Mouseman” workshop can make as much as £20,000 in a specialist auction.

The type of furniture Robert “Mouseman” Thompson (1876 –1955) makes bucked the trend of the nation at the time when the country was embracing the machine age and the miracle of mass production. Robert Thompson went in the opposite direction and worked in the manner of the Medieval crafts men and wood carvers. The story really starts with the advent of the Arts & Crafts movement and the influence of William Morris.

Even these small Robert “Mouseman” Thompson ashtray’s branded with the trade mark mouse make £100 to £120 at auction.

The Arts and Crafts movement was an international movement in the decorative and fine arts that began in Britain and flourished between 1880 and 1910. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, and often used medieval or folksy styles of decoration. It also advocated economic and social reform and was essentially anti-industrial. Its influence continued until it was displaced by Modernism in the 1930s however its ethos continued among some craftsmen and designers.The Arts and Crafts was inspired by the ideas of architect Augustus Pugin and writer John Ruskin and the artist William Morris. The Arts and Crafts style emerged from the attempt to reform design and decoration in mid 19th century in Britain. It was a reaction against a decline in standards that the reformers associated with machinery and factory production, and was in part a response to items shown in The Great Exhibition in 1851 that were overly ornate, artificial and ignored the qualities of the materials used. But it was as much a movement of social reform as design reform and its leading practitioners did not separate the two.

The dislike of excessive ornament and badly made things was not exclusive to the Arts and Crafts movement and the architect and design theorist Owen Jones, declared that "Ornament ... must be secondary to the thing decorated", that there must be "fitness in the ornament to the thing ornamented". William Morris (1834–1896) advocated production by traditional craft methods but was inconsistent in his view of what place machinery should play. At one point he said that production by machinery was "altogether an evil"! Except, of course, where it suited him and he was willing to use manufacturers able to work to his standards with the aid of machinery. Charles Ashbee a central figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, shared Morris's ambivalence, at the time of his Guild of Handicraft, initiated in 1888, he said, "We do not reject the machine, we welcome it. But we would desire to see it mastered." After unsuccessfully pitting his Guild and School of Handicraft guild against modern methods of manufacture, he acknowledged that "Modern civilization rests on machinery".

During the time spanning the Arts and Crafts period Robert (Mouseman) Thompson established a workshop in Kilburn, North Yorkshire, where he set up business manufacturing oak furniture, which featured a carved mouse on almost every piece.

It is claimed that the mouse motif came about accidentally following a conversation about "being as poor as a church mouse", which took place between Thompson and one of his colleagues, this chance remark led to him carving a mouse on the screen they were working on and this remained part of his work from this point onwards. The workshop is now being run by his descendants, however such is the popularity of “Mouseman” pieces that even the recently produced pieces from the workshop will sell extremely well at auction, although it is the earlier Robert Thompson pieces that will make a premium.

Other craftsmen who continue in this style working in traditional oak, have adopted similar identifying marks and nicknames, for example Thomas "Gnomeman" Whittaker (1910-1991), Wilf "Squirrelman" Hutchinson and Malcolm "Foxman" Pipes.

Later on during the 1970’s and 1980’s the Crafts Revival Movement was established with such designers as John Makepeace who’s emphasis is on craftsmanship and fine materials and he produces beautifully crafted exclusive furniture. Such furniture obviously has little impact on the mass market and therefore the need for affordable stylish furniture is still met today by firms such as Habitat and Ikea. Our own Derbyshire craftsmen working in the Arts and Crafts style include Andrew Lawton, whose immaculate hand crafted pieces are produced in Grindleford, Hope Valley.

This Arts & Crafts copper mounted magazine rack has an embossed panel, inscribed with the homely maxim “A Place for Everything” and it made £280 in a recent specialist auction.

This dynamic Art Deco pottery table lamp by the ceramicist Robert Lallemant (1902-1954) and painted on both sides with figures rowing, entitled 'L'Aviron', was discovered after a valuation event at Hassop Hall, near Bakewell and made £830 (inc.BP)) despite been only 22cms high.

This Robert Thompson of Kilburn oak blanket chest with its hinged lid and six panel front and carved mouse signature is 104cm long it is to be included in a specialist auction for items that cover the Arts & Crafts period to the modern day. It is expected to make £800 to £1,200.

Collection goes for £15,250 – to Canada

THE important collection of Chesterfield Nobel Prize winner Sir Robert Robinson’s medals and awards, which we featured in our November edition, and which included a George VI Order of Merit, sold for £15,250 (including the buyer’s premium) at a specialist auction in early December. They were purchased by an internet bidder in Canada. In a separate lot was the Freedom of the City of Chesterfield casket and scroll, which went to a local buyer for £1,350 (including buyer’s premium).

Perhaps you have items of value? If so, it is always worth getting the advice of an Independent Antiques Valuer to assess your works of art and antiques.

For further information please contact Vivienne Milburn on Bakewell 01629 640210 or Sheffield 0114 2830292 or Mobile 07870 238788

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