Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Noble Art of the Sword: exhibition at Wallace Collection

***Update 7/10/2012

Noble art of the sword – conclusion

The Wallace Collection held an event called Swordplay Saturday on 15th September 2012.  This concluded the Noble Art of the Sword exhibition and continued Renaissance themes with talks on items from the Wallace Collection featuring Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda, Italian Renaissance Painting, The Renaissance in France and Colourful crockery and Glorious glasses: high end entertaining in the Renaissance. 

I liked this exhibition very much and had attended a curator talk earlier in the week as I expected the exhibition to be busy by the weekend.  The day had many events running in parallel and with a little planning it was possible to join the programme and follow the various themes. 

 Historical Fencing Demonstration by The Sussex Sword Academy
at Wallace Collection
15th September 2012

There were two demonstrations of fencing which were provided by The Sussex Sword Academy in the morning and by The School of the Sword in the afternoon.  I found these demonstrations fascinating as the actions of the fencers mimicked many of the diagrams in the fencing manuals which I had heard been discussed during the sword study day which I attended, and the collection from the De Walden Library, now under the care of the Wallace Collection. 

It was also a chance to have a last look round the sword exhibition and it was possible to take a few good photographs of some of the items including: the sword of the future Maximillian II;

Rapier of the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II

the rapier and parade costume of Christian II, Elector of Saxony;

Rapier and Parade costume of Christian II, Elector of Saxony

and a beautiful sword and dagger example of silver craftsmanship, where the silver has been cut as if it had been made from wax or even cheese – according to Tobias Capwell, the curator.

Rapier (detail) , Saxon, Dresden c1608

In the Great Hall upstairs there were performances of Work for Cutlers, or a Merry Dialogue between Sword, Rapier and Dagger.  This was performed by three actors taking the part dressed in costume of the time.   There was a lot of word play and even examples of wordsmithing at its finest.  In England, George Silver has spoken disparagingly of the rapier as a bird spit.  In the play, much was made of the reference to capons being roasted, presumably on a spit.  
I had noted in the demonstrations outside how much sword and duelling language is used, especially in debates.  For example, parry and riposte.  I had even heard the term contretemps, which is probably derived from the Italian.  In the fencing demonstrations, much was made of the assessment of time and distance regarding fencing, but also taking the measure.  I hadn’t realised that this was a fencing term.

Regarding the other items it was fascinating to hear how the Wallace conserved a fresco by Foppa, and a panel of a triptych by Cimma.  In the Renaissance crockery talk, Suzanne Higgot discussed the colour and glazes used in maiolica.  The Wallace has a large collection of interesting pieces and I was intrigued by the colours and the use of tin and some lead glazes.  I had bought a piece of Wemyss ware in Ceres in Scotland.  This was noted for its bright colours, though the original pieces had crazed.  Suzanne Higgot also showed us examples of Venetian glass and again I was intrigued when she mentioned the discolouration of some glassware due to a process known as solarisation.  Manganese dioxide had been used to remove other colours but through time a pink colour usually shows on exposure to sunlight. 

On a previous trip to the Wallace Collection, I had bought up old copies of the catalogues which, with black and white photographs, allow my peripheral vision to detect some of the patterns and engravings combined with the full description of the item in question.   This allows me to ask a sighted person to look up such items in the catalogues and together we found the ceramic and glassware from my description of the items I had heard. 

These themed days allow access to curators on the spot and an increased access to what may be a closed book to visually impaired people.

*** end of update

Update: 10/6/2012

For exhibitions, the Wallace Collection has large print guides for those with some vision for reading purposes.  If you would like an electronic version of this, you should contact the Education Department (020 7563 9549 or 020 7563 9527), who may be able to assist in advance of your visit.  The staff in attendance will happily read out a caption, if there is anything particular in the exhibition or in the permanent collection you want read.

*** end of update

Update: 7/6/2012

On 7th June, 2012 the Wallace Collection had a lunchtime talk about Elizabethan armour by Dr Tobias Capwell who curates the Noble Art of the Sword exhibition currently on.  These talks are on a first come first served basis and having arrived early I had time to go round the exhibition myself before being taken to the armour gallery. 

Toby explained that Elizabeth of England had not gone to war and had created an image of herself as both Gloriana and the Virgin Queen. Her father Henry VIII was a competent knight as had been his father. It was expected that an English King would lead an army into battle. As a woman Queen Elizabeth had to transmit her power through her courtiers and they were expected to fight. 

The suit of Sir Thomas Sackville is unique in being complete.  Suits of armour could be made on a bespoke basis by first getting a royal licence and then commissioning the Royal Workshops at Greenwich to make up a set. (http://wallacelive.wallacecollection.org/eMuseumPlus?service=ExternalInterface&module=collection&objectId=60553) At today’s prices, this could be £500,000 – a status symbol. Though much of the courtly love and medieval trappings had gone from the practical side of armour, the suit of armour nevertheless represented the status of the wearer. Metallurgical discoveries were still being made and the craftsmanship in a suit of armour was highly skilled even if the steel was of low quality when compared with today’s alloys.  Using microscopy it is possible to identify the workshop of a maker.  Tempering of steel can give a blue colour and some suits could be described as resembling peacocks. 

Questions from the audience were answered. One had asked if armour could protect from firearms at the time. Another asked about the imagery of Queen Elizabeth as a Joan of Arc character. Toby mentioned that the armour could offer protection against some of the firearms of the time but that mobility and protection had to be balanced in those times (1588) in the same way as modern tanks now have to consider. There was no evidence that Elizabeth ever wore any armour or that she was near an actual battle. The danger always lay at the hands of an assassin.

I mentioned to Toby that I had heard him on BBC Radio3 In Tune.  There was some renaissance battle music.  Toby also mentioned that he was doing a Midweek show on BBC Radio4. I was encouraged to attend a Study Day at the Wallace Collection and on checking in at the front desk with Michael I went back to the Dutch Galleries (It was raining cats and dogs!)  One of the staff described one of her favourite paintings to me and I could make out my Albert Cuyp painting.  Outside it was still raining so having been given more details about the Study Day by Michael I went to the gift shop and bought a few cards.  The rain had stopped and I decided to make for the bus stop in Portman Square. 

A very pleasant afternoon taking in a talk, the exhibition again and a viewing of the 17th Century Dutch Pictures. Many thanks to all and also to Sonia who recognised me from last summer!

Reports of the study day can be found on: http://profwhitestick.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/noble-art-of-sword-study-day-wallace.html 

*** end of update

I have just started walking again without a crutch, albeit only for a short time, but I felt it was appropriate to visit a museum or gallery.  My friend Jackie had thought the new exhibition at the Wallace Collection was suitable. It was a short bus run away and my cane and crutch would complement the ornate swords and accessories on show. 

Having viewed a display of weaponry in Edinburgh Castle, I was prepared for seeing how much my peripheral vision could make out of the Noble Art of the Sword.  For this exhibition the Wallace’s own collection of renaissance swords was supplemented by exhibits on loan from collections in the Staatliche Kunstsammlunger in Dresden (http://www.skd.museum/en/) and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Hofjagd und Rustkammer) in Vienna (http://www.khm.at/en/collections/collection-of-arms-and-armour/) . 

I had been round the Dresden Albertinum and Grunes Gewolbe in the past and had seen many of the glories of Saxony in the 1980s. I had also been to the Hofburg in Vienna and seen many of the Holy Roman Emperor accessories on visits. There is a fascinating exhibit of the sword  of Christian II Elector of Saxony (c1605-7).  The costume of the Elector (c1601-9) is also on display and though I could not make out the colours, Jackie read out the captions. Both exhibits are on loan from the in Dresden ()

Fine silks coloured in Lapis Lazuli were used in doublet and breeches.  I could make out the silhouette of said monarch and commented that he was a bit well padded in the hip department!  The Wallace Collection and guest exhibits have objects with swords, accessories, fencing manuals and illustrations of fencing in the form of drawings and there is a portrait of Robert Dudley with rapier attached. 

There is a rapier of the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II when the empire was in control of the Hapsburg dynasty. The Holy Roman Empire has cropped up before in this blog when the Elector Palatine was mentioned.  Indeed the costume of Elizabeeth Stuart is described with her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London.  One can imagine the artistry in making such objects. Gold and silver were used in clothing as well as in the intricate ornamentation of the rapiers themselves. 

We found many examples of swords, daggers and even a scimitar. I could recognise this by its crescent shape.  Some of the displays show a selection of rapiers with intricate blade shapes and one even seemed to resemble a saw with teeth.  Much of the vocabulary was new and though I knew the word hilt, I had never heard the word pommel used in relation to swords.  Pommel and cantle had been known from my pony trekking days. 

The swords are exhibited in glass cases and though the room is quite darkly lit I could make out the swords and the designs of the pommels and hilts.  Duelling, though forbidden, was not uncommon and fencing lessons and rules of engagement were made.  Gauntlets and bucklers are also on display.

On exiting the exhibition area which is in the basement there is also an interpretation centre with lots of imaginative objects to handle and even wear. There is a tunic and collar of chain mail. This is very heavy and I resisted putting on this for now but I did put on a breastplate and a helmet with 2 slits acting as a visor. 

Knight in shining armour!
Wallace Collection

Having the helmet on produced a strange effect on my ears.  Though the origin of the sound is of the sea shell variety, it was very tinny and I felt as if I were wearing a dustbin and probably resembled a Dalek more than ever.  I could not see anything through the visor and this probably illustrates my lack of central vision. 
Assuming the rapier was used in right hand the free hand had to be protected in a different way from the sword hand.  There is also a mystery object which can be felt and I won’t disclose what it is.

There are exhibits of the craftsmanship involved in sword making.  The same skills in handling gold and silver would have been employed in those artisan workshops in the manufacture of illuminated manuscripts and reliquaries. Milan seems to have been a centre of excellence for sword making and Bruges is also mentioned.

The Wallace Collection has another interesting exhibition which brings some life to Shakespeares dramas such as Romeo and Juliet.  Christopher Marlow came up in discussion - he was killed in a brawl in Deptford. During the summer the Wallace Museum is organising events and more details can be found on :

BBC Radio3 In Tune (Tuesday 22nd May 2012) featured the Wallace Collection and music by Monteverdi ‘Tancredi and Clarinda’.  Monteverdi had set a battle scene to music and the exhibition came up in the discussion about the piece.


For the time being, many buses have returned to familiar routes in the Portman Square area, though there is still some construction work in Baker Street.  Diversions along Wigmore Street seem to have stopped.