Our 10th March Twentieth Century Design auction includes a selection of Robert 'Mouseman' Thompson furniture and bear his distinctive carved mouse signature.
Robert Thompson was born in 1876 in the North Yorkshire village of Kilburn. He was the son of the local jobbing carpenter and took over the family business after his father's death in 1895 (after completing an engineering apprenticeship which he hated). Over the next two decades he honed his skill and found inspiration in medieval ecclesiastical carving, particularly the work of 15th century woodcarver William Bromflet ("William Carver") at nearby Ripon Cathedral.
He received his first commission in 1919 from Headmaster Fr Paul Nevill to furnish the library of Ampleforth College. More commissions followed and Thompson expanded his business and workforce through the 1920s. It was around this time that the characteristic mouse made its first appearance, albeit on the back of a throwaway comment! A carver working alongside Thompson on a cornice for a church screen mentioned being "as poor as a church mouse", Thompson carved a little mouse on the piece and an iconic symbol was born. Despite taking approximately 45 minutes to carve, mice continued to make an appearance on his works and embodied the spirit of 'industry in quiet places' which Thompson heartily believed in. The mouse carving was later trademarked in 1931 after being modified by removing the front paws which regularly broke off.
Thompson's work was the epitome of the Arts & Crafts Movement which flourished around the turn of the century. The followers of this movement, such as William Morris and Liberty & Co, valued traditional craftsmanship over modern industrial techniques. Every piece of furniture is hand-made and is the sole responsibility of one craftsman - from the choosing of the timber through to the wax finish. Aside from the mouse, this furniture is distinctive for its adzed finish which gives a rippled effect to the surface of the oak.
As well as their aesthetic appeal, these items are beautifully made with an ethos which many of us admire. Thankfully the workshop created everything from large dining suites to small chopping boards, so it is possible to own an original Mouseman object without becoming as poor as a church mouse yourself.
Robert 'Mouseman' Thompson died in 1955, but the workshop, now known as Robert Thompson's Craftsmen Ltd, continues to flourish with Thompsons descendants at the helm, and still abides by the rule 'one man's work from start to finish'. It is also good to know that Ampleforth College continues to use the Mouseman workshop for new furniture to this day!