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| ||Whereas most
students of the 19th century are only too aware of the exhibitions
that were so much a feature of that period, arms and armour specialists
have usually tended to neglect the catalogues and their somewhat exotic
military wares. It has to be admitted that the swords, shields and
firearms illustrated in such periodicals as the Art Journal would
give the likes of Messrs Mortimer, Manton and Wogdon a fit of apoplexy.
1 Most of the arms illustrated provide a violent contrast to the plain,
austere but workmanlike firearms and swords made by English gunmakers
and swordmakers. The best quality English firearms were most restrained
in their decoration, limiting the ornament to simple elegant scroll-work
on the lock plate and chequering on the stock. The skills of the damascener,
chiseller and carver were very much kept at arms length. |
The arms most frequently represented are firearms, as they combine
technical innovations with very ornate decoration. It is worth remembering
that the primary function of exhibitions in the 19th century was to
show off skill and it is this that makes these exhibitions worth studying.
The best craftsmen were employed, working to the highest standards
to produce arms which could hold their own against the grand inlaid
furniture, highly decorated ceramics and silver which were so much
a feature of these exhibitions. The plain simple products of gunmakers
such as Purdey and Hollands must have looked absurd to continental
eyes used to the lavish productions of French gunmakers like Renette
and Gauvain.2 It is doubtful if any of the firearms shown in the exhibitions
were ever intended to be used. An examination of the cased sets of
pistols reveals barrels in pristine condition and locks that have
clearly never been fired. The centres of bullet moulds from these
sets have often not even been cut out to allow a ball to be cast.
They were intended purely for decoration, provided with finely made
cases of exotic woods mounted in engraved brass and lined with silk.
They were intended solely as an ornament for the gun-room made as
a decorative tour-de-force.
As one would expect the arms makers of continental Europe dominate
the scene. French gunmakers especially inherited a tradition of fine
craftsmanship going back to the 17th and 18th century. It is ironic
that the qualities for which British gunmaking was and still
is admired derive in fact from France. It was the influence
of Huguenot gunmakers in the late 17th century coming to England and
settling in London that produced the plain style of gunmaking which
is always thought of as characteristically English.
It is not the intention to discuss the high quality art skills of
Vechte and Morel Ladeuil which are in many ways the gems of the 19th
century armourers craft.3 They have been discussed elsewhere
and are well-known. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the large
flat areas of a shield provide ample scope for embossing and chasing
whereas the artist working on guns and swords has not only to deal
with an intractable material like steel but also is very much constrained
by the form of a firearm or sword.
The gothic revival style of the 1840s and 50s was successfully adapted
for furniture, silver and interior decoration but as far as firearms
are concerned it produced some real nightmares. By the mid 19th century
pistols were invariably produced in expensive cases complete with
accoutrements to service them. These comprised a variety of different
tools such as screwdrivers, ram-rods, oil-bottles, small hammers and
a bullet-mould all decorated en suite with the pistols, which
they were designed to serve. One extraordinary cased pair of target
pistols made in the 1850s by a Liège gunsmith, Charles Honoré,
a celebrated designer and engraver of firearms, looks like something
out of a Gothic horror film rather than a pair of working pistols
(fig. 1). The stocks are of ebony carved with gothic arches and quatrefoils,
the rifled barrels and lock plate are chiselled with gothic panels,
the hammers are chiselled with figures based on gargoyles. However
it is the rest of the mounts that are truly remarkable. These are
of carved and pierced ivory, and consist of knights in armour set
on gothic plinths and pillars, pierced gothic spires, and various
animal heads. The accessories are comparatively tame by contrast with
the handles of the various tools carved with gothic motifs, except
for the oil bottle which is carved in the form of a gothic font. The
pistols have never been fired as the resultant explosion would almost
certainly cause most of the knights to fall from their plinths and
the spires to crack and fall off. The pistols are signed by Honoré
and were reputedly made for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The maker
still remembered the main purpose of his profession, in spite of the
elaborate decoration, for the barrels are rifled and the locks are
made on the most up to date percussion system. Pistols of this general
form, but without this elaboration were designed for indoor target
shooting and were very fashionable on the continent in the 19th century.
This pair would additionally have been an ornament to any gunroom.
The swords and firearms that featured in the international exhibitions
were not always viewed as working weapons in the 19th century. A good
account of how they were judged is provided by the commentator on
the Armoury of the collector and designer William Bullock writing
in 1808. This is somewhat earlier than our period but bears repetition.
Again should the warlike weapons arrest attention which have been
the instruments of carnage and bloodshed
he muses in silence,
as he blames the ambition that stirred up the fires of contention,
and regrets the enmity that subsists between man and man. But turning
from such painful remembrance, his thoughts will placidly dwell on
the progressive improvement of fire-arms from the first invention
in remote times to those of a later date.
These sentiments although expressed in Regency times in England catch
exactly the impression the makers of firearms shown in the exhibitions
wished to leave with their admirers.
That the Gothic style for firearms was still fashionable in the mid
1860s is demonstrated by a fine pair of Viennese pistols made for
the Paris Exhibition of 1867 (fig. 2). The ebony stocks are carved
in relief with Gothic tracery and foliage. The rifled barrels are
chiselled with long Gothic panels in the perpendicular style and the
steel mounts contain gargoyles and various architectural motifs. These
pistols clearly owe a debt to the Gothic pistols of earlier date described
above, and like them, the system of ignition is of the most modern
kind. They are fitted with back-action locks and break-down barrels
with extractors operated by pushing forward a lever in front of the
trigger guard. Although at first glance they appear to operate on
the percussion system they work in fact on the modern centre-fire
system with the hammer operating a firing-pin, protruding through
the centre of the breech, which strikes the centre of the cartridge
base. They also have adjustable rear sights. They are fitted into
a velvet lined case with all the usual accessories and the lid is
stamped in gold with an Imperial eagle and the title Joh. Springer
Gewehr Fabrikant + K.K. Kammer Lieferant Wien. Johann Springer
(1819-75) was a well-established Viennese gunsmith who exhibited at
most of the international exhibitions. The accessories include a bullet
mould with jaws that have been filled with copper plugs and have never
been cut out for a bullet so they were clearly intended for show rather
Although swords were used to a limited extent in the latter part of
the 19th century there was a cavalry action using swords during
the American Civil War the sword had by this time become a
weapon of ceremony. In continental Europe one which was very fashionable
type was the hunting-sword. Throughout the 19th century hunting was
very much in vogue and had its own distinctive costume and accoutrements.
Part of this ceremonial regalia was a short, usually single-edged
curved sword. Initially used to give the coup de grace to a wounded
animal it was, in earlier times, widely carried when travelling because
of its convenient short length. By the 19th century however, it had
also become solely an ornamental weapon. It is interesting to note
that far more hunting swords were made as exhibition pieces than military
and naval dress swords. Like the presentation firearms that feature
in the international exhibitions the hilts and scabbard mounts are
worked in the strangest and most curious designs. Although there are
examples based on the classical swords of Greece and Rome, 19th century
continental craftsmen turned much more to the Gothic and Renaissance
for their inspiration. The hilts and scabbards closely follow Gothic
revival architecture. This style with its pinnacles, crockets and
niches was ideal for a decorative sword hilt. Naturally, the patron
saint of hunting, St Hubert, figures extensively in the canon as do
medieval knights and their ladies. These figural hilts seem to have
been especially popular and included some extraordinary creations.
One of the most bizarre has a hilt in the form of a poacher in early
19th century costume with his right leg caught in a man-trap holding
his head in anguish, with a dead game-bird at his feet (fig. 3). This
was interesting enough to merit an illustration in the Official Catalogue
of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was made by the French silversmith
Jules Wiése to the designs of the French jeweller François
It should be said that gold and silver are frequently used for the
hilts and scabbard mounts of these swords. Most hilts are loosely
based on the cruciform swords of the middle ages but there the likeness
ends. The blades are often very plain, usually cut with two fullers.
Unlike the blades of the 18th century they are very rarely blued and
gilt but are very highly polished. It is as if the artist visualised
these swords as being shown only in their scabbards which are also
highly decorated en suite with the hilt.
A very remarkable exhibition hunting-sword (fig. 4) was on the international
art market recently. It is a tour-de-force in highly polished cut-steel,
with mounts of cast gilt bronze and silver. The hilt is formed of
fluted and beaded fillets of highly polished steel, the pommel formed
as an open-work crown, the silver grip is engraved with scrolling
foliage and is applied with stags heads in silver. Mounted on
the hilt are finely cast figures representing Virtue and Avarice,
fox-masks, boars heads and lion masks of gilt-bronze, the guard is
in open-work and consists of winged-dragons with gaping jaws, the
bodies finely engraved with feathers. The steel scabbard is engraved
with leaf-work and is decorated en suite with the hilt,
with mounts of gilt bronze. The blade is of flattened oval section,
cut with ridges and flutes and engraved adjacent to the hilt with
geometric panels and formalised leaves. The various elements of the
hilt are held together by screws and studs of engraved steel.
The maker of this extraordinary sword is something of a mystery. The
hilt is signed on one side of the grip P. Jouhaud. The
sword comes with what appears to be its original case of veneered
maple with a silk lining.
Cut and polished steel was very popular for jewellery and for sword-hilts
from the 1770s onwards. To produce cut-steel wares demanded great
skill as most of the work had to be done by hand and polishing the
different elements was laborious and difficult. It reached its apogee
in the late 18th century especially in Woodstock5 and Paris but remained
fashionable until the middle of the 19th century especially for exhibition
pieces such as chatelaines and swords. The Jouhaud sword
as far is known, is unique. The maker is not recorded either as a
sword-smith, gunsmith or jeweller in either France or Belgium. The
form of the figures is similar to 19th century French bronziers work
and the likelihood is that the sword was made by a French maker. A
maker named Joyau is described as a sculpteur modeleur working for
the celebrated French jeweller Jean Valentin Morel (1794-1860) but
it is by no means certain that he is the manufacturer of this extraordinary
sword. Whoever he is, he is most unlikely to have been a sword-maker.
The open-work and chiselling are clearly the work of a craftsman more
at home with chatelaines and keys than swords. It does not appear
in any of the exhibition catalogues and the lack of a name within
the case may indicate that for some reason it was never exhibited.
The steelwork is of exceptional quality as are the animal masks
of gilt bronze, the two allegorical figures of gilt bronze are of
lesser quality and may be by a different hand. It dates from the 1860s
and the probability is that it was made either for the exhibitions
of 1862 or 1864 and never shown.
After the exhibitions closed most of the luxury arms were disposed
of either to museums or to private clients. It is in this latter group
that discoveries still remain to be made. Many of the hunting-swords,
sporting guns and luxurious mounted pistols illustrated in the various
exhibition catalogues are still extant, widely scattered certainly
but still awaiting identification.
The comments of the International Juries on these less than warlike
wares are worth repeating. They speak of beauty and variety
of design, excellence of workmanship, combined with moderation of
price, in swords presumably the price of luxury firearms
made even the most impressed juror, draw back from too lavish a compliment.
The jurors were not unaware of the practical possibilities of the
various products they were reviewing. Devisme was praised for
the beauty of his workmanship in guns, and for his explosive projectiles
for large guns.6
The jurors saw no incongruity of firearms being produced in earlier
styles. A comment on a percussion-target pistol shown at the Great
Exhibition of 1851 describes it as being as fine a specimen
of elaborate engraved work as we remember
the design of the decoration
is in the Romanesque style and is displayed with considerable taste.
What makes all these armes de luxe so fascinating and worth studying
is that the ornament is so divorced from their grim function.
Perhaps it was just as well that A. W. N. Pugin took up sailing as
a hobby and not shooting.
Anthony R. E. North A.MA. F.S.A. FRSA has been at the Victoria "&"
Albert Museum since 1964. He is a specialist on arms, armour and base-metalwork
and has published widely in these fields.Bibliography
Blair, C., General Editor Pollards History of Firearms, Country
Life Books 1983.
Blackmore, H.L.B., Hunting Weapons, London 1971.
1 These three are generally acknowledged to be the leading London
gunmakers of the late 18th century. They all worked in the characteristic
plain English style.
2 Waring, J.B. Masterpieces of Industrial Art and Sculpture at the
International Exhibition of 1862. London, 1863: plate 6; French ornamental
3 Wilson, G.M. Antoine Vechte- the 19th century Cellini. The First
Park Lane Arms Fair, Feb. 17/18th 1984
4 F.D. Froment-Meurice (1802-55) was the leading French jeweller and
goldsmith of the 19th century. Several of his designs were produced
by the goldsmith Jules Wiése. See Vever, H. French Jewellery
of the 19th century. Thames "&" Hudson, 2001.
5 Woodstock in Oxfordshire was the centre of a small but very expensive
luxury trade in cut-steel wares, which flourished in the second half
of the 18th century.
6 Devisme is recorded in Paris from 1854 to 1859. He exhibited armes
de luxe at all the exhibitions of his day. See Waring op.cit.; Plate