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In the City of Peterborough, close to the Cathedral, is a small museum, and in one room, crowded together with insufficient space for careful scrutiny, is a collection, the finest in England, of about a hundred and seventy pieces of straw marqueterie work, made at the great prison that stood near to Stilton at Norman Cross, and which lasted from 1796 to 1816. In this prison, specially built for its purpose, and wholly destroyed when that purpose was at an end, were confined, during the Napoleonic Wars, some six thousand prisoners.
Their allowances were very meagre, and they were allowed to increase them by their own handiwork. There was a market held in the prison yard, and people used to attend there, and purchase from the prisoners the exquisite straw marqueterie work, so-called, for which they were responsible. It was not strictly marqueterie, because, although pieces of straw, dyed in very clever fashion in many colours, formed exquisite designs, the straw-work was only attached to the wood and not inlaid as, strictly speaking, marqueterie should be ; but the result was delightful, and in this museum there are work-boxes and cabinets, desks, tea-caddies, dressing-cases, patchboxes, holders for needles, pins and knitting needles, hand fire-screens, snuff-boxes and watchstands, holders for silk, picture frames, cases for telescopes and domino boxes, and all kinds of pieces of joinery work, decorated in amazing fashion by these French prisoners, with the coloured straw which they arranged so cleverly.
In some instances, the purchasers themselves supplied the wood, or even the box or cabinet, and the straw-work was done by the prisoners, but the names of only six men out of the six thousand have been handed down. Fortunately, we know the name of the man who was responsible for the best of the marqueterie pictures, amongst which the view of Peterborough Cathedral itself stands out supreme, and is by far the finest example of straw-work in the museum. That was done by a man named Jean de la Porte, and five other pieces are signed by Grieg, Ribout, Corn, Godfrow and Jacques Courny.
It is said that sometimes at the market as much as two hundred pounds changed hands, so eager were the prisoners to sell and the people round about to buy, and so delightful was the work. The money, of course, was divided amongst the men who had done the work, and, in some instances, hoarded until the hoped-for day of release should come ; but very frequently it was sent over for safe keeping to France by accredited agents, and put away by the prisoner, hoping that it might be useful for his family or himself when he came back to his native country. Contemporary letters speak often of this market, especially in 1818, and sometimes it was held on a Sunday.
It will be remembered, of course, that the prisoners had large quantities of straw at their disposal, because their beds were made entirely of that material, and no doubt they could obtain finer straw by arrangement with their warders. How they got their dyes no one quite knows. The popular idea that the browns were stained with tea and coffee falls to the ground when we know from the records that neither of these beverages were served out to them. Probably there were bottles of dyes to be obtained, and perhaps some of the colours were made by the prisoners themselves from vegetables. At one time the prisoners also did a great deal of straw plait work, but eventually that was forbidden, because straw plait was taxed in 1802, and their work would have entered into competition with that of the plait-makers of Bedfordshire. Nevertheless, they did continue to do straw-plait work, and even to make hats and bonnets, but these had to be smuggled out, and there was quite a trade in this smuggling.
They were expressly forbidden to undersell the people round about, and hence, perhaps, the origin of this straw marqueterie work, which was not otherwise made in the neighbourhood, and consequently entered into no competition with local trade. The men used to make slippers and shoes, and were permitted to use list, but forbidden leather, for the same sort of reason.
We know very much what the prison was like, because in Paris, in Les Invalides, there is a wonderful model of it, made by one of the prisoners and there are various plans of it still remaining, not only in Peterborough, but in other places. A part of its wall still stands, but on the site it occupied there is now an important memorial to all the prisoners who died in this gaol, both French and Dutch, and the number was, unfortunately, a very large percentage. There were other similar prison-houses-one in Surrey, another in Falmouth, and others in various parts of the country-and in most of them straw marqueterie work seems to have been done, probably the result of the transfer of prisoners from one jail to another, when the details concerning such labour were carried on to other prisoners; and we, a hundred years after the prisoners and their prison have vanished from Norman Cross, can only marvel at the skill and patient perseverance which accomplished such exquisite work under such very difficult conditions. It was, of course, only a proportion of the prisoners who actually did the work, but it has been stated that sometimes there were several hundreds fitting together the pieces of this wonderful straw-work, and by far the largest proportion of the pieces of straw marqueterie came from this particular prison at Norman Cross, the number of pieces executed at the other provincial prisons being negligible, in comparison with that made near Peterborough.
Nowadays examples of French prisoners' straw marqueterie are precious; boxes, cabinets and pictures, whenever they come into the market, fetch substantial sums; but there are surely many persons in Huntingdonshire, Rutland, and thereabouts, who still have examples of this graceful work, to which, perchance, they have attached little importance. The Peterborough museum is the place in which to study it, but there are several collectors who are eager to acquire examples of the work, especially of the pictures, one of which is illustrated in Dr. Walker's important book on the prison, to which all who collect straw marqueterie have to go for information. He also illustrates a charming workbox and two fire-screens, objects of considerable beauty, and it is well to draw attention to a very distinctive kind of decoration, highly appreciated by collectors and, perhaps, not hitherto sufficiently well known.
One of the prisoners invented a method of splitting the straw, and devised a little wheel-like tool, with a spiked centre and four tiny knives, by which the straw was split up neatly and accurately into the sizes required. I have a distinct remembrance, as a child, of finding one of these straw splitters in the drawer of a cabinet decorated at Norman Cross, and testing it, with great admiration of its ingenuity. These same tools were made with two, three and even five and six knives. I have examples of them all, but there was a wooden tool resembling a clock case which had various sets of knives in it, and I have never yet been able to obtain one of these although I remember seeing it in use half a century ago.