Tucked into a darkened, first-floor gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, past the imposing field armor of an obese, gout-riddled Henry VIII, a small exhibition entitled “The Art of London Firearms” provides an uncommon look at gunmaking in Georgian England. While such an exhibition might be expected to feature the shotguns and hunting rifles of country sport, the Met’s display—the first of its kind in America, the museum notes—focuses instead on the flintlock pistol.
The close proximity of Henry’s armor suits the exhibition (on through January 29, 2020) nicely. Barely a century after the Battle of Agincourt, his reign saw the English army transition from the longbow, a powerful symbol of national identity, to the harquebus, a newly invented handgun. At the time of Henry’s death in 1547, an inventory of the Tower of London notes 360 bows and 6,500 handguns.
By the era covered by “The Art of London Firearms,” roughly 1760 to 1840, flintlock pistols had reached their technological and aesthetic peak. The fourteen guns on display were produced by a small number of London-based master craftsmen, whose unparalleled skill earned them the patronage of British royalty and aristocracy.
Among the collection are two sets of dueling pistols commissioned by the Prince of Wales, later George IV. While these sets were produced by two different gunmakers some seven years apart, both feature decorative inlays by the same silversmith, Michael Barnett. These pistols indulge the prince’s Francophile tastes with elongated trigger guards and rich neoclassical embellishments, details modeled after the contemporary French style. The later set, built by the gunmaker Samuel Brunn from 1800 to 1801, is drenched in intricate silverwork depicting Hercules, Amazon women, and sea-nymphs, with a gaping Gorgon sister on each pistol butt.
Dueling pistols of the day were most commonly left unadorned, so as not to distract from their intended use. While the elaborate decoration of the Prince of Wales’s pistols suggests a purpose more ornamental than practical, other guns in the collection were clearly constructed for self-defense. A somber pair of four-barreled pocket pistols, purchased by the Fourth Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne in 1831 after he was attacked by a mob, is displayed alongside its mahogany case and many accessories. Barely decorated, these weapons are nonetheless among the most expensive ever produced by James Purdey the Elder, who made only ten four-barreled pistols throughout his career.
Also featured is a repeating pistol twice engraved with the heraldic crest of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. Crafted by Harvey Walklate Mortimer, gunmaker to King George III, in 1798 or 1799, this pistol employed hundred-year-old Florentine technology to fire up to ten successive shots from a magazine hidden in its grip.
Other firearms on display reveal similar technical oddities and innovations. A pistol designed in 1813 by Joseph Egg (whose son Augustus Egg, the Victorian painter, was a favorite artist of Evelyn Waugh’s) has an inverted flintlock, which offered greater water resistance and a clearer line of sight, but ultimately proved unpopular with Egg’s customers. The five-shot revolver patented by Elisha Haydon Collier in 1820, a Bostonian living in London, looks similar to those guns produced by Samuel Colt in subsequent decades, but whereas Colt adopted percussion cap and later cartridge-based firing systems, Collier’s pistol remained tied to the rapidly obsolescing flintlock mechanism.
Two guns among the collection demonstrate the percussion cap system that replaced flintlocks (and was itself soon incorporated into metal cartridges, which began to resemble modern ammunition). The Scottish clergyman and amateur chemist Alexander Forsyth patented percussion lock technology in 1807; one of his pistols on display, from 1824, appears markedly more utilitarian than most of its counterparts. An 1835 shotgun designed by Joseph Egg seems to employ traditional percussion technology, but conceals an innovative self-priming mechanism behind its double-barrels.
“The Art of London Firearms,” housed in Gallery 380 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes a convincing case for the technological and artistic mastery achieved by London gunmakers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In a museum as expansive and all-encompassing as the Met, this compact exhibition offers a snapshot, not an encyclopedia. Compare these fourteen guns to the wheellock and flintlock pistols in nearby Gallery 375, “European Hunting and Sporting Weapons,” particularly those of Nicolas-Noël Boutet, a second-generation French royal gunmaker whose supreme craftsmanship heavily influenced the work of his counterparts across the English Channel.