Home aboard the Mary Rose: the fabulous oak furniture recovered from the sea bed

David Sexton finds Henry VIII's salvaged warship is a time capsule that reveals the elegant simplicity of ordinary early English oak furniture
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Mary Rose Museum
Docked: the £27 million Mary Rose Museum, resembling a wooden hull, stands beside gloriously elaborate HMS Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

* Timed tickets for the Mary Rose are £17 for adults, £12.50 for children. Visit historicdockyard.co.uk.

A lot of people think of early oak furniture as ornate, heavy and dark — not at all what you want to live with in a uncluttered modern interior. But that’s largely a misconception, formed because only the big trophy pieces were valued enough to survive.

Nothing makes it clearer that the real furniture of the past was not so pompous than seeing the wonderful time capsule that is the Mary Rose and her contents, which have just gone back on show in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, after the completion of a splendid new museum. As well as being an amazing glimpse into Tudor times, it’s a great aesthetic experience and design inspiration, too.

Drinking tankards
Wood drinking tankards were used by the crew to consume the gallon of ale a day they were each allocated. Ale was easier to store than fresh water
Designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects (they did the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the Olympics basketball arena), the £27 million building resembles the planked curving hull of a great boat, looking quite primitive next to the gloriously elaborate structure of HMS Victory, its neighbour.

'Every item is the real thing, magically transported to us from that day, July 19, 1545'

Inside lies the half-hull of the Mary Rose herself, no longer obscured with spray as before, but still inaccessible behind glass, as the timbers dry off for a few years more in a “hot box”. Nonetheless you now get a clear impression of her size, as well as of the sheer hugeness of the oak planks with which she was made between 1509 and 1511.

The museum’s internal structure cunningly echoes that of the ship, so that you pass through relatively small, enclosed and shady spaces on different gallery levels, forming a mirror image of the boat’s own decking. To add to the immersive ambience, there’s a soundtrack of gently splashing waves.

Pewter plates
A collection of handsome pewter plates, preserved in the mud off the south coast
There are some interactive screens for children but overall the captioning is kept to a minimum, to allow visitors to feel they are themselves exploring this extraordinary find, entering the world of the Mary Rose as a total experience.

There are no replicas in the museum. Every item is the real thing, magically transported to us from that day, July 19, 1545, when, beneath the gaze of Henry VIII standing on the shore of the Solent, the Mary Rose suddenly capsized and all but 35 or so of the 500 men on board drowned, many caught in the nets fitted to repel boarders, perhaps few of them able to swim in any case.

The new display (designed by Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will) brings that tragedy home to you almost overwhelmingly. Everybody with any feel for our history will want to go, whether maritime-minded or not.

For those of us who love the entire aesthetic of early oak furniture, though, with the benches, the boxes and the chests, all the treen and the pewter, the Mary Rose is exciting in a quite different way.

This sturdy boarded stool, roughly nailed together with its saw marks still clear
Astonishingly well-preserved by the mud is a vast array of pieces patinated by time and use, worn, restored and altered. Among them are many quite ordinary daily items — some constructed from more perishable timber, such as pine and poplar, almost none of which would have otherwise survived down the centuries.

There’s the very earliest known simple pegged stool, in elm, such a humble but eloquent object. There’s a lovely, sturdy little boarded stool, roughly nailed together — the saw marks, poignantly, still visible from the day it was made. I had previously seen it as an illustration and felt so touched by it that I made myself an approximate copy, just to get to know it better.

There’s such a handsome chest found in the surgeon’s cabin, containing his medical equipment, elegantly dovetailed, made from walnut, pine and poplar, with only the metal hinges and lock missing.

Sailor's boot
A sailor's boot survived more than four centuries in the mud
Another made from oak, found containing gold and silver coins, has decorative spandrels, one in oak but the other, visibly different in elm, perhaps an amateur repair or perhaps a sign that the chest was originally painted, says David Knell in his excellent book on English Country Furniture.

Altogether the remains of some 50 chests have been recovered from the Mary Rose, most similar to those used on land, though some are adapted to life on board.

For example, there’s an amazing survival of a large and thickly boarded pine seaman’s chest, wider at the bottom than at the top, with “tills” (little sub-compartments), at both ends, one of them found to have a secret false bottom for hiding valuables.

There are lots of wonderfully beautiful long and slender elm boxes which contained the great yew longbows, 40 of them in one, 50 in another: ravishing objects, to those who love such simple, vernacular work.

A purse containing a nit comb
As for the bows themselves, huge lengths of skilfully cleft and shaped fine-grained yew that look as though they might have been finished yesterday, they are at once completely purposeful as weapons and exquisite as objects. To me, they’re as good as a Brancusi.

I have always found that simple country furniture is best displayed in plain, minimal rooms (white walls, stripped boards). Seeing these items from the Mary Rose — they are Tudor furniture but they are not antiques, that’s the marvel — confirmed that, for me, so strongly, so movingly. Boxes and chests and stools are as useful now as they have always been. The Mary Rose is a revelation of how good the very simplest furniture still looks today.

* Timed tickets for the Mary Rose are £17 for adults, £12.50 for children. Visit historicdockyard.co.uk. Though simple elm boxes and the like can be found in small mixed auctions for £100 or less, serious oak buyers should head to Bonhams “The Oak Interior” auctions in Chester.

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