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My Passion: Treen

Nic McElhatton, Chairman of Christie’s South Kensington, on his love for the small, lovingly-crafted domestic wooden objects and drinking vessels that are prized by collectors

‘My passion for treen really came from when I started work here at Christie’s,’ says Nic McElhatton, Chairman of Christie’s South Kensington, discussing his love for these small domestic objects sculpted from wood. ‘The more I learned, the more I got into it — and eventually I started collecting treen myself.’ 

A pearwood goblet. England, late 16thearly 17th century. 7¼ in (8.4 cm) high. Estimate £3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in Seward Kennedys Cabinet of Curiosities and The Tony Robinson Collection of Treen Drinking Vessels on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

A pearwood goblet. England, late 16th/early 17th century. 7¼ in (8.4 cm) high. Estimate: £3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in Seward Kennedy's Cabinet of Curiosities and The Tony Robinson Collection of Treen Drinking Vessels on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

The term, McElhatton explains, ‘comes from an Old English word which actually means turned’, referring to the rotating lathe which craftsmen used to shape the objects. Surviving pieces, such as the pearwood goblet above, can date from as early as the Elizabethan period; for McElhatton, treen ‘evokes an enormous sense of history’.

Wooden goblets were used in Elizabethan drinking ceremonies. In one such ritual, participants took a wassail bowl, typically containing mulled cider, into an orchard to toast the apple trees — an act intended to ensure a good harvest. 

A cedarwood goblet and eleven dipper cups. England, late 17thearly 18th century. The goblet 10 in (25.4 cm) high, the dipper cups 4½ in (11.5 cm) to 1½ in (3.8 cm) diameter. Estimate £3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in Seward Kennedys Cabinet of Curiosities and The Tony Robinson Collection of Treen Drinking Vessels on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South

A cedarwood goblet and eleven dipper cups. England, late 17th/early 18th century. The goblet: 10 in (25.4 cm) high, the dipper cups: 4½ in (11.5 cm) to 1½ in (3.8 cm) diameter. Estimate: £3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in Seward Kennedy's Cabinet of Curiosities and The Tony Robinson Collection of Treen Drinking Vessels on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

A nest of cedarwood cups, pictured above, shows the skill of some of these early makers, having been turned from the same piece of wood. Other specimens prized by collectors, McElhatton continues, include decorated cups, or standing armorial cups. Often fashioned from fruit woods, such as plum or pear, many of these pieces come with a deep, glossy patina. 

A pearwood standing armorial cup. England, c. 1621. 16¼ in (42 cm) high. Estimate £7,000-10,000. This lot is offered in Seward Kennedys Cabinet of Curiosities and The Tony Robinson Collection of Treen Drinking Vessels on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

A pearwood standing 'armorial' cup. England, c. 1621. 16¼ in (42 cm) high. Estimate: £7,000-10,000. This lot is offered in Seward Kennedy's Cabinet of Curiosities and The Tony Robinson Collection of Treen Drinking Vessels on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

Put together over the course of 40 years, the carefully assembled collection offered at Christie’s on 22 November features a fantastic range of treen, some of which is centuries old. ‘If you think about the material it’s made from, it’s incredible that it’s survived for such a long time — in some cases up to four or five hundred years,’ says McElhatton. ‘That’s why it’s very special.’