Alfred Lord Tennyson, son of a Rector, grew up at Somersby Rectory, Lincolnshire, but was forced to leave in 1837, after the death of his father. On the occasion of his marriage 13 years later to Emily Sellwood, he received a majestic breadboard from Mrs Burton of Somersby Grange, wife of the lord of the Manor.
The renowned local carver, Thomas Wilkinson Wallis of Louth, “the Lincolnshire Grinling Gibbons”, writes in his diary early on in 1850 that he interrupted his carvings destined for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (see hunting trophies below) to carve a board for Tennyson: “It was carved out of a section of a sycamore tree, grown at Somersby, the poet’s native place; and was carved the end way of the grain – a difficult and laborious work. The design was of wheat, with a ribbon entwined; on which, in raised letters, the following inscription was carved:- ‘Sycamore from the lawn of Somersby Rectory.’ In the centre of the plain part was carved a wreath of laurel, and the poet’s initials.” He was paid three and a half guineas. The laurel wreath was prophetic in that he was nominated Poet Laureate seven months later.
The gift would have been an especially meaningful memento of his childhood as it derived from one of two sycamores which used to stand on the lawn. He even wrote of them in his poem, In Memoriam:
Witch-elms that counterchange the floor
Of this flat lawn with dusk and bright;
And thou, with all thy breadth and height
Of foliage, towering sycamore…
The board can be found on the window sill in the Curator’s office of the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln. It is rare to find a board cut across the grain (horizontally as the tree stands, with the rings running in circles), because the heartwood is full of sap, making for cracking and irregular shrinkage. It is magnificent carving, and clearly a presentation piece, as the cutting surface is carved in relief and lower than the border carving.
Tennyson also dabbled in woodcarving, and a fragment of his work survives in the TRC. In the index of his personal effects, item 320 reads: Woodcarving of ivy leaves made by Tennyson for casting in plaster. Casts from this can be seen on a pair of cottages built by Tennyson on the Farringford Estate in the Isle of Wight. The carving was made in 1856.
He even invested in a wood-carving machine enterprise, the initiative of a friend who ran a lunatic asylum, and saw the potential for giving the patients a useful occupation while generating income. It was a commercial failure, but such technology was developed by other companies..
Thanks to the generosity of the Tennyson Collection at the Lincolnshire Archives, I am able to reproduce the board here.
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