I discovered Robert The Mouseman Thompson quite by accident. One of our customers, a young doctor and his wife, bought a piece of furniture from the arts and crafts movement and asked us to keep on the lookout for any furniture made by this Robert The Mouseman Thompson, also known as the Mouseman of Kilburn. So we got on the internet and starting doing research on “the Mouseman” to see what the story was all about. I might add it was quite an interesting story, the reason for this article.
A Book on Robert The Mouseman Thompson
Besides doing research on the internet, we bought a book titled, “The Tale of the Mouse” and much of the research for this article came from this book. I would also like to say that my search ended up being quite expensive. One of the photos on this page shows one of the results of that search, a wonderful oak table lamp made by one of the students of Robert The Mouseman Thompson. I have not rewired it to help show its age, with its cloth wiring and plastic or Bakelite fitting. It is presently for sale, as you can see from the above link, but I may end up keeping it. I spent five years looking for an old piece like this and may never find another one. They are still making furniture and other pieces at the workshop in Kilburn doing it the same way The Mouseman taught them many years a go. The table that is in the photo shows a piece from about 1970 from his workshop and is presently for sale for 6,090 pounds. Notice the uneven surface of the table top. Older pieces of course bring higher prices than the newer ones, so be careful what you buy, and know whether it is an older piece or newer one. Original pieces made by Thompson himself are fetching extremely high prices now.
Brief History of Robert The Mouseman Thompson
Thompson was quite an interesting chap, and we were quite fascinated by his story. Before I go any further with the story, if you don’t know the answer already, Thompson got his name from the signature he left on each piece. As you can see on the photo of the table lamp, it has a mouse carved on it. That was Thompson’s signature. Although it is very prominent on this lamp, on some very large pieces of antique furniture, it was much less obvious.
Robert Thompson was born in 1876 in Kilburn, a small village in Northern Yorkshire. His father was a joiner by trade. He grew up in a small cottage in the village, and it also became his own home and eventually the center for his furniture company. For a few years after his schooling, young Robert worked for some engineers after his father insisted. But at age 20 he went to work for his father. But on his travels to and from work at the engineering firm, he passed through the town of Ripon and was fascinated by the architecture at the cathedral there. He mainly worked on barns and mending fences, but he still remembered the craftsmanship he saw in the mediaeval carvings of the cathedral.
The inspiration he got from this workmanship formed the basis of what Thompson wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. English oak was his wood of choice and he wanted to go back to much earlier times and one of his main tools was an adze. The combination of the hard oak and the adze, with the slight ripples produced by the tool, gave the mouseman’s work an identifying look even without his signature mouse. He also like to season his wood naturally, a much slower process than the kiln drying that everyone else used. Some of the wood would season up to five years stacked in the open air before it met his expectations. But Robert was a perfectionist and was convinced that this was the only way to get the results that he wanted. Who can argue with the results that he produced.
He was totally against the mass produced furniture of the time, and would often remind those he was trainig that these pieces would still be in use hundreds of years from now. Others obviously appreciated this detail and use of what many considered antiquated methods. But the workshop that is still in existence today, using all of the same methods that Robert The Mouseman Thompson used many years ago, has custom orders booked for at least a year.
A turning point in his career was taking on a job for a large crucifix to be erected in the cemetery of Ampleforth College. No one knows for sure when the signature first mouse was carved. But in a letter Thompson wrote that another carpenter mentioned that he was poor as a church mouse. Thompson thought it would be humorous to carve a mouse in the piece. The furniture made in the early years can be dated roughly by the mouse on a piece or the lack of a mouse. Before roughly 1920 there was not a mouse found on these early pieces. Between 1920-1930 the mice were carved with front paws. These were dropped after 1930 because they were too easily damaged. Over the next 35 years until his death in 1955.
Here is the link to the Robert Thompson’s company that is still in existence today and you can still order something done the same way as Robert The Mouseman Thompson did it those many years ago.