Written by John Cooke, Mineral Enthusiast and Part-Time Curator; and Ros Westwood MBE FMA MA, Derbyshire Museums Manager at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery
Ros Westwood curates the Buxton Museum and Art Gallery’s large collection of Ashford Black Marble ornaments amongst a vast collection of geology and archaeology related to the Peak District Landscape.
On the 20th October 2020, the authors were alerted to an auction at Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia on the 21st October. Lot 101 was an inlaid Ashford Black Marble table made by Thomas Woodruff (see text below for auction details). Unfortunately, for both authors, time was not on their side and even if a purchase could be secured, the cost of transport was unquantifiable in such a short period of notice. With costs, the lot sold for about £7,500.
What attracted them was that the table is comparable to one on display in the Buxton Museum with inlays of clusters of grapes of varying colour and a man holding a large bunch of grapes. Even more appealing was that the underside was etched with “T. Woodruff / Buxton”. Although the condition suggested that the table had endured a hard life with many scratches, it would be worthy of restoration and merit place in a museum collection.
Principle of the tables in the Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is the Grapes table (see image below), a gift from Lady Stevenson of Hassop Hall in 1984, which had been on loan for many years previously. Visitors know its top, almost a metre diameter with a sinuous design of four stems of leaves and glistening grapes. The leaves are carefully made, maximising the natural colours of the stone (possibly Florentine Green Marble) to accentuate their folds and crinkles, and capturing the natural light. The thin tendrils curl and twist. From the topmost vine, two bunches of amber coloured grapes, possibly made of Siena Marble, hang above branches holding five bunches of fruit made of Blue John and one bunch of bright green marble, possibly from Connemara. It is, unusually in Ashford Black Marble, an asymmetric and naturalistic design. The top is finished with a reverse ogee edge. The table has a tripod stand making an inverted V shape and made of Black Marble, but the iron pegs now make the whole structure somewhat unsteady so the stand is kept in the store while the table top is now displayed vertically in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery. Underneath the stand is a printed label ‘T Woodruff, inlayer to the Queen, Devonshire Colonnade, Buxton,’ helping to date the table to around or after 1876, at the height of Woodruff’s career.
The design of the grapes on the Philadelphia table is similar, but in perhaps a less generous style. One assumes that it was made at about the same time, but which is older? The amber coloured bunches are a bit smaller, and one bunch of Blue John fruit has been replaced with leaves. This adjustment accommodates the image of the head and torso of a man holding a bunch of grapes, rising from a wave made of shell or cream coloured marble and lapis lazuli. The top edge of the table is the usual curve, and it stands on a traditional single pedestal and tripod foot, made in Black Marble. Underneath the top, in capital letters, is carved T. Woodruff / Buxton.
In a competitive trade, we might expect more of the work to bear signatures, but it is unusual. Buxton Museum has a few other tables and several smaller pieces which are marked, but with some of these we cannot be sure that this is not a retailers’ mark, rather than a maker’s. We know that Woodruff was buying in pieces from a cottage industry employing many people, so if a piece is marked as clearly as this table in Philadelphia, or the William Ardern table at the Museum, then we can be sure who made it. Most of the rest of the production could be down to many skilled but unnamed makers, working to a preferred maker’s patterns and style.
The inlaid Ashford Black Marble trade was a major industry in Buxton, Bakewell and Derby in the 19th century. Smart ‘museums’ through the county as well in London and Cheltenham offered a range of decorative bijouterie, jewellery, ornaments, vases and tables for sale. More work needs to be done about how much people paid to buy the goods, but a small paperweight made by Woodruff is marked as costing 6/-, and three tiny slips for jewellery are priced at 10/-. So, if the small items were not cheap, then we can expect the tables to be pricey, a souvenir for a discerning traveller. You could buy the table top separately and have your own joiner make a stand, but if you were splashing the cash, then you bought a compete table. Ashford Black Marble though, was not particularly practical for everyday furnishings: it is heavy, the surface scratches easily, and edges and decoration chip, and getting it wet means permanent damage as the high black polish fades to grey.
But what is the portrait on this table in Philadelphia about? Buxton Museum has one other portrait on a Black Marble socle (DERSB: 2011.15), a silhouette of (possibly) Canon Thomas Paget. But here on the Philadelphia table we have a full colour, detailed portrait. A man with a piercing eye and prominent beard wears a bandeau of cream coloured marble or shell holding back his hair, an image of a Greek hero, perhaps. His bright orange coat made of petal shapes of Siena Marble, with 10 buttons looks a bit old fashioned for 1876 – in style it is more 1800 – but it projects a man of confidence, who is holding a bunch of Blue John grapes.
Was this table a commission for a vintner or smart inn, managed by an immigrant from the Middle East? Is this a portrait from life, or a generic image for the name of the business? Similar images are registered at the National Archives, Kew (Copyright Office) for businesses such as The Bunch of Grapes, including intriguingly one for the Duke of Bedford for his Covent Garden Estate (who wears a similar beard?). If this table were to stand in a public room, it would certainly have made a positive statement of business confidence to the clientele. Such a personalised commission would have been an investment, although clearly it would suffer from knocks and scrapes over time.
Biography of Thomas Woodruff
Thomas Woodruff, a native of Derbyshire, was one of five children born to William and Anne Woodruff. His baptismal certificate (below)indicates he was baptised on the 1st January 1818 at St. Werbergh’s Church, Derby. The address of his parents is given as Summerhill, Derby, and his father’s occupation as painter.
When he was 22, he married Elizabeth Greaves on the 17th October 1840 at the Parish Church of Bakewell. The marriage certificate states his occupation as marble mason currently living in Ashford, whilst his bride resided in Bakewell. As a point of interest, it is suggested that her family ran a tea shop in Bakewell and that she invented the Bakewell Pudding.
They appear in the 1841 census living in Bakewell with their first child, Charles, aged 6 months. Thomas’ occupation is given as marble inlayer. The 1851 census see the family living in Matlock Street, Bakewell. He is head of the family, a marble inlayer and employing two men. His family is growing, Charles (10), Ann (8), Thomas (6) and Mary (4) and employs a household servant, Ann Housley.
By the 1861 census the family has moved to The Quadrant, Buxton, where Thomas is still described as an inlayer of marble. The family are now part of the business, the sons are marble inlayers and the daughters employed in the retail shop. The 1871 census see the family living in Broad Walk/Bath House, again with the family being employed within the business. They have moved again by the 1881 census and are living in Hardwick Square, Buxton (possibly Lowther House) and have one servant. These are all good addresses so it appears that the business is thriving.
They remain at the same address from details in both the 1891 and 1901 censuses. By 1901, the census describes Thomas Woodruff as widower, aged 82, his wife having died on the 14th August 1899 at Buxton. Thomas himself died on the 17th February 1903. His death was announced in the in the local press:
The Probate Register of 1903 gives the following details: “Woodruff, Thomas of Lowther-house, Buxton died 17/Feb/1903. Probate, London 11th August to Annie Woodruff and Mary Woodruff, spinsters and William Robert Woodruff, marble inlayer. Effects £269.11s”.
Thomas Woodruff’s Business Activities
In his book Derbyshire Black Marble, J.M.Tomlinson describes Thomas Woodruff as “the inlayer who brought the art to the highest perfection.” His work was of such exceptional standard that it was brought to the notice of the HRH Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, who commissioned Woodruff to manufacture and inlay 2 console tables, to the designs of Ludwig Gruner. These were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and are now in Osborne House.
Whites 1857 Directory records that Thomas Woodruff had moved to Buxton by that year, established in his own business at The Royal Museum, 4 Quadrant House. Combined with the census of 1861, this suggests the family were living over the shop. The 1864 Directory shows him running a second business, the Spar Museum at the Hot Bath Colonnade, just over the road. By 1871 his business activities include premises at number 7 Devonshire Colonnade, possibly a renaming of the Hot Bath Colonnade address. Neither was a museum in their modern form – these businesses were retail premises.
During the 1870s Thomas, while clearly still doing inlaying, appears to be transferring the reins of the business to his sons, William and Charles, themselves both marble inlayers, while the retail activities were transferred to his daughters.
Thomas Woodruff died in 1903. His obituary records that “he worked from Nature direct… imitating nature so closely that at a short distance you could apparently lift them from the Black Marble table in which they had been enshrined”
However, while we can try and identify his work through this excellence in observation of nature and by comparison with other pieces, Woodruff along with his fellow baublers, as they called themselves, rarely signed his work and left little paperwork. Which is another reason why this table sold in Philadelphia is so intriguing: why write your name so clearly on the underside when it is not usual practice? It would be interesting to speculate how and when this table reached America and subsequently became part of an estate in Philadelphia. It is known that examples of Black Marble (including tables) were exhibited in the New York Exhibition of 1853 by other makers such as John Tomlinson and John Vallance. However, Thomas Woodruff’s work is not mentioned in any of the exhibition catalogues.
The Moral of the Story
Museum quality items are still coming to the market. It is not necessary to purchase them to obtain their story, provided people interested in their stories know about them. This example of a specimen table adds to our knowledge of the productions of Thomas Woodruff and hints at a bespoke commission trade.
Unfortunately, in this instance time was not on our side to actually purchase an item of this merit. Setting up alerts on the various auction platforms would generate the necessary time to prepare!
But even so, the world-wide auction trade provides a challenge to museums with limited resources and reliant on public grants to purchase items. On this occasion, eagle eyes and good networking ensured we could capture the tale. But if you can help to fill in the gaps, do contact the authors, please.