The History of Robert Thompson - Mouseman® of Kilburn
Robert 'Mouseman' Thompson of Kilburn, Yorkshire was a prolific maker of the 1930's producing traditional handcrafted english oak furniture. He used a mouse as his signature and trademark, hence the nickname. 'The Mouseman' has since become known as one of the best craftsmen of the 20th century and his family firm of Robert Thompson's Craftsmen Ltd still today manufactures the highest quality english oak furniture in Kilburn, using the same traditional techniques and skills. Examples of restored mouseman items are often available on their classic website .
The story of the master carver Robert Thompson
Robert Thompson was born in Kilburn in North Yorkshire on 7th May 1876, the son of John Thompson the village joiner, carpenter, and wheelwright.
After a period of engineering apprenticeship, which he felt was penal servitude, he returned to work alongside his father. Robert was influenced by the work of William Bromflet, a medieval woodcarver whose original plans and drawings of bench ends were later acquired and used by Robert himself.
In November 1895 John Thompson died, aged 62, leaving Robert responsible for the business of a jobbing carpenter. In 1905 Robert married and in 1906 had a daughter. During the next twenty years Robert developed his skills as a carpenter and stonemason.
In 1919 Robert accepted his first commission from Father Paul Neville of Ambleforth. More commsiions followed and by 1925 Robert had 6 men working for him. In 1928 he received his first commission from the USA for a dining table and four chairs and had expanded his workforce to 10 craftsmen. By 1934 the craftsmen had increased to 30 and the workshop enlarged.
Robert Thompson's trademark mouse first appeared around 1920, and was subsequently modified in 1930 to remove the front legs which were prone to breaking off. The mouse is an important identifier in assessing the age of a piece of furniture, as well as the degree of adzing, colour, and patina. Robert Thompson's did not necesarily put a mouse on every item they produced.
Each piece of furniture is entirely hand-made and is the sole responsibility of one craftsman from selection of timber (only naturally seasoned english oak is used) to the final coat of wax, including the individual mouse. The final colour is achieved by the fuming process and can vary from light to dark depending on the required colour.
Fuming wood is a technique used during the Arts & Crats movement in the early 1900's. Gustav Stickley, a maker of mission furniture, preferred fuming because it accentuates the medulary ray fleck pattern that quarter-sawn whit oak is known for.
The fuming process causes the ammonia fumes to react with the tannic acid in the seasoned oak and produce the characteristic colour. Initially the colour is grey like, but over time (many years) this develops to a rich golden brown. Exposure to sunlight will cause the rich colour to fade. Regular waxing is always needed to keep the wood nourished.
The seasoning, sawing, and adzing techniques make the medulary rays in the oak an attractive feature. With quartersawn oak, the attractive glassy ray-fleck cells are coloured by the fuming process, yet retain a muted contrast with the rest of the wood. Fuming tends to colour everything uniformly, leaving the wood more natural looking, whereas the use of stain on open porous wood like oak allows the pores to collect stain making them dark in contrast to the surrounding wood.
The actual assembly of a piece of furniture also follows a centuries old tradition in that all mortise and tenon joints are doweled for strength and stability using oak dowels, which each craftman makes himself as part of the production process. Older chairs often suffer from loose joints where the original glue has failed. Removal of the old dowels, in order to reglue the joints, can be very timeconsuming and hence expensive to effect repairs.
For upholstery the highest quality water resistant leather is now used, as older chairs using the traditional leather easily suffered staining from moisture.
Final finishing is normally a coat of wax, unless the surface is to be protected from moisture (eg table tops) when polyurethane varnish is used.
Robert Thompson - The Mouseman of Kilburn by James Thompson
The Mouseman of Kilburn - Ivor Hughes
The tale of the mouse - Patricia Lennon(click here to order from Amazon)