Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Dealers, collectors, the kitchen-dwelling middle class parents of tearaway young children who buy his sturdy yet stylish tables and chairs, they all prick up their ears at the mention of Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson, the cabinetmaker from Kilburn whose motif is a carved rodent.

Gnomeman is not, perhaps, a sobriquet that commands such respect, but then it belongs to a cabinetmaker who is not nearly as widely known. Was he a misshapen old man who lived underground and guarded treasure? Unlikely, but Thomas Whittaker certainly was a Yorkshireman who is understood to have worked for many years as a cabinetmaker for the Mouseman before leaving Kilburn sometime in the 1940s or 50s to set up his own workshops at Littlebeck, near Whitby. As can be seen from the form and style of these chairs, part of a dining room suite which turned up at Phillips Exeter on March 29, the Gnomeman had decided that there was little point in abandoning the folk aesthetic that had made Mouseman so popular. “There were lots of imitators of Thompson’s work; I have seen lizards, even fish, carved to the legs of similar furniture,” said Adam Barrett, a regional furniture historian in Yorkshire, “but I have to admit that I have never seen a gnome.”

Despite resemblances to Mouseman, and the obvious commercial benefits that brings, Gnomeman’s work does have some distinguishing features, and not just the trademark carving of a bearded and bonneted little man that is found on the legs of his furniture. “Whittaker appears to have concentrated on adzed carving to a far greater degree than Thompson, producing a heavily stylised, honeycomb effect,” said Phillips auctioneer Martin Dance.

Individual merits aside, it would be difficult for Gnomeman to escape from the commercial shadow of Mouseman. In fact, the spiralling cost of Mouseman furniture is probably the best reason for hunting down the technically proficient work of his followers. As Mr Dance observed, “Why should you pay £4000-5000 for the Mouseman name when you can buy an equivalent piece at half the price by one of Mouseman’s cabinetmakers?” Indeed. This oak dining room suite, comprising six single chairs and two carvers with a refectory table measuring 7ft (2.14m) long, cost Apollo Antiques of Warwick £2000 (plus 15 per cent premium and VAT).