Recreating a set of Elizabethan Trencher: Outlining the Process

Following the introduction to this project, it occurred to me that setting out a rough outline of the process I’ve been involved in would be helpful. It hasn’t been linear, of course – both the prints and the search for timber and other materials have been happening concurrently for most of 2014.

The set of trenchers I have chosen are held by the British Museum. I decided to use these because they are a complete set, well photographed and accessible, as well as aesthetically pleasing. They are approximately 136mm diameter and are painted and gilded. The thickness of the wood is not recorded, but I would have to surmise that they are quite slender to be able to fit into their box.

To look at the trenchers, it seems at first to be a reasonably straightforward process, and of course, in theory it is. In breaking down the projects into steps, I saw this as the coming together of three main elements – the print, the wood, and finally the assembly, colouring and sealing (these last three being potentially integrated). Each of these steps will be presented with more depth in separate posts.

 

trencher - white star flowers - cropped
Trencher
Wood, painted and gilded, with verse, diameter 136mm
England c1600

 

As far as I can surmise, the main method of producing printed roundels (in general, and not solely for the purpose of trenchers) was by intaglio. Engraving seems to have been the most common, with etching as a secondary method. This makes sense, as etching was still being developed and spreading slowly throughout the 16th century. It would eventually begin to surpass engraving as a more accessible method, but not until the 17th century. Given that I am trained in etching but not engraving, I decided to go with my strengths and produce the 12 trenchers by etching on copper plates.

 

trencher - pears - cropped
Trencher
Wood, painted and gilded, with verse, diameter 136mm
England c1600

 

The majority of the trenchers in collections mention that they are wooden, but few of the 30+ examples I have looked at across the internet name the species of wood used. The ones that are identified are either beech or sycamore, with one set in their original box being described as ‘oak with sycamore’, which I interpret to mean the box being made of oak, and the trenchers being sycamore. Many examples were also without dimensions, but out of those which did (around 16 or so, both printed and painted), the diameter of the trenchers ranged from 127mm to 150mm. None of the examples I have found included the thickness of the trencher, but four sets which included boxes had the complete box dimensions (some just had diameter of the box, but not the height). To get an approximation of the thickness of the trencher, I divided the height of the box by 14, to include the top and bottom of the box in a cursory way, although there is every reason to suppose that the box lid and bottom would be thicker than the trenchers. The possible thicknesses of the trenchers which resulted were – 2.2mm, 3.1mm, 3.7mm, and 4.5mm. The modern placemats we have in our house, which would be a modern equivalent of sorts, range from 3mm to 5mm, so it appears our Elizabethan trenchers were of a similar dimension, and finely crafted items indeed.

 

trencher - red pinks - cropped
Trencher
Wood, painted and gilded, with verse, diameter 136mm
England c1600

 

In approaching the assembly and colouring of the trenchers there are a number of issues regarding the materials to use. There is the sealing of the wood, the attachment of the print, and the colouring of the print, as well as the consideration of the order in which to do so, and how well the various substances used will layer, or marry together. In looking at extant examples, there is scant information with which to be guided, with some information regarding the painted surface (usually to refer to any gilding the trenchers may have) and little else. It would appear that this process is most likely to be more experimental than both the printing and the production of the wooden object.

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