Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Noble Art of the Sword - Study Day, Wallace Collection

On the 16th of June I attended a study day at the Wallace Collection. (http://www.wallacecollection.org/collections/event/4311 )  I arrived in good time to have my 3rd “view” of The Noble Art of the Sword exhibition.  ( http://www.wallacecollection.org/collections/exhibition/93 ) (Notes on my previous two visits can be found on: http://profwhitestick.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/noble-art-of-sword-exhibition-at.html )

Prof Whitestick at the entrance to
The Noble Art of the Sword exhibition
Wallace Collection
28 June 2012
© Prof Whitestick

One of the staff read out details of a Saxon silver sword with fine silversmith workings and I re-familiarised myself with a few more of the exhibits.  Sarah from the Wallace had sent me the information in text format used for the large print information booklet.  This was ideal and neatly complemented my first tour when my friend Jackie read out the captions on what I could make out or “see”.

There are a few specialist terms and foreign words and authors of fencing manuals which the exhibition explains.  Some of the terms can be checked for the correct spelling which makes further research easier.  I was able to work through items in advance of the study day so that I could follow the speakers.

Through my screenreader I had a virtual audio guide which provided a lot of information on the items in the exhibition.  My screenreader is set to American male voice (Jaws and you do get used to it) and when the cursor came across items in Italian, German and French the screenreader switched to the appropriate language though rather than revert back to my usual American chum it went to a rather plummy and sinister British English!

The programme was as follows and was linked in with the themes explored in the exhibition itself.  There were about 60 people in attendance.

“In the 16th-century it [the sword] became an essential part of civilian dress as well. This study day will examine the complex story of the sword in everyday life during the Renaissance, their role as weapons but also as status symbols, jewellery objects, and works of art. Topics will include the evolution of the rapier, its development, construction and decoration, and its use, which was illustrated in lavish fencing books published throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”

1.  Exhibition themes of The Noble Art of the Sword by Tobias Capwell

One of the most interesting aspects about coming to a subject about which one has had little knowledge is the enthusiasm and experience of listening to a curator of an exhibition or organiser of a conference.  Toby had been involved with the concept and preparation for this exhibition for several years (from 2006) so the insight into the subject and the fluency in the talk was stimulating.

The illustrations of the development of the rapier were suitable for my peripheral vision and the outline of a sword’s hilt and blade in a series of 8 was clear in my mind especially when combined with the descriptions and having just refreshed my memory of some of the swords.  Anecdotes are always worth hearing and I liked the story of when Toby was in Dresden and having picked his swords (he could pick 2), the Dresden authorities asked him if he would like the costume of Christian II, Elector of Saxony. It had been put away in 1942 and had rarely been uncovered since. This is one of the show stoppers for me.

Toby went through the design manuals by Orsoni (borrowed from V&A) which were followed by craftsmen.  The fencing manuals arose when an architect Camillo Agrippa wrote down some geometry with fencing.  Fight and Fencing Masters wrote, developed and rewrote manuals from mid 16th Century and characters such as Achille Marozzo, Camillo Palladini and Girard Thibault emerge.

Fencing according to Thibault
Wallace Collection
28 June 2012
© Prof Whitestick

The wider access of books on sword fighting allowed some type of Renaissance crowd sourcing to suggest that many masters were influenced by other fencing schools. Toby suggested some work on Camillo Palladini could be done.  For the exhibition the Wallace had gone through Milan archives tracking down the craftsmen involved in all aspects of swordsmithing, jewellery and trade.  Outside of the exhibition is a real-sized fight diagram from Girard Thibault and I positioned my cane on it during a break.

The issue of civilian sword and fashion accessory was raised.  Toby disliked the term accessory, as the rapier was an integral part of a gentleman or nobleman’s dress - as essential as underpants and shoes.  The hilt, dagger, belt, scabbard, doublet buttons and even shoe buckles were made to match.  Being fashionable items they had to match.  With unlimited budgets, the rapier set with costume said a lot.  The rapier then became a ceremonial or non fighting sword though there is much to be debated here.

The fencing manuals in the exhibition were difficult for me to discern and the large enlargements on the screen made the positions and the history of the collections of fencing manuals come alive.

2.  The De Walden Collection of Fight Manuals by Joshua Pendragon, Guest Assistant Curator, The Noble Art of the Sword

Toby and Joshua mentioned the difficulty in showing books in an exhibition as only 2 pages can be shown at once.

Joshua had old black and white film clips of fencing bouts and though far removed from Hollywood, there is still a mystique of the rituals employed.  Descriptions of the fight sketches can make these appear much as in a sketch by Picasso, a set with actors by Zoffany or the Furusiyya horse manuals as shown and described in the current British Museum exhibition.

Serendipity plays an important part in collections and the uncovering of the Howard de Walden Library was explained by Joshua.  George Silver was a writer in England in the 16th Century and had been critical of the craze for Italian fencing masters and some of their habits.  Joshua and Toby had worked on a collection of fencing manuals held in Glasgow forming part of a collection of the RL Scott Bequest.  Tracking down books and documents is part of an historian’s stock in trade and I found it interesting how this Howard de Walden Library is gradually being opened up.

3.  The Rapier and its Relation to Military Swords of the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries by Keith Dowen, The Wallace Collection

Nomenclature is an area ripe for pedants and the distinction between a military sword and a fashion accessory was explained by Keith.  The definition of sword and rapier has been a cause of much discussion and Keith offered examples of rapiers which had been used in the field; but as battles had ceased being decided by the knights, the role of the sword/rapier gradually changed.  During questions, some members of the audience told of examples of their own.  One cited a Scottish clan chief taking his rapier to defend himself but as it was mainly a fashion item, it had little functionality!

James IV of Scotland has a mention of rapier in an inventory including Wallace swords.  The function of the sword was also discussed, whether to cut and slash or thrust.  The arms and armour go together and the protection afforded by the hilt, guards and gauntlets can give a clue to the precise use of the sword.  The theme of form, function and evolution during the Renaissance echoed the presentations.

4.  The Construction and Conservation of Renaissance Swords by David Edge, Head of Conservation, The Wallace Collection

Conservation topics were discussed by David who liaised with his opposite numbers in Vienna for the sword of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II- a stand had to be made for the showing of this very richly decorated object.  With so much gold content and being purely for show, it was interesting when David put on enlargements of parts of the hilt decorations and they were held together much in the way of a Meccano set, with iron nuts and bolts.  The enlargements coupled with my being in the front allowed me to appreciate the fine filigree work on the gold pieces.

Issues of polishing and burnishing of Renaissance objects were discussed.  There were a lot of “Caveat Emptors” for any collector and the subject of forgery and the sword equivalent of Grangerism was not lost.  It is not uncommon for pieces of a rapier to be reassembled with newly fashioned pieces.

It was interesting to hear curators and the audience mentioning X-Ray Fluorescence as if it was routine, which it is.  David pointed out that XRF would just confirm that the sword blade was 99% iron (Fe).  Traces of mercury (Hg) and gold (Au) could be detected, proving that the hilt had some gilding in the past, though this had been lost through time, fashion and misuse.

Mercury had been used in the process, so other techniques had to be explored.  The Wallace has a microscopy section which can scan surfaces but the construction and internal sword details can only be used with fragments.  Many collectors in Victorian times had added brass embellishments and with a specified copper-zinc ratio investigation these could usually be detected.

Polishing and burnishing techniques were also discussed though these are no longer in use as nowadays a lacquer is applied rather than a continued removal of the surface.  David had investigated sword manufacture processes in Jodhpur, India and had visited a cache of unused blades which had been uncovered in Graz.  Many swords had steel plate applied to an iron core and these were prone to breaking as the welding gave way.  I could not believe it when David mentioned that they had access to neutron diffraction facilities!

5.  The Rapier – product of an advanced metallurgy by Alan Williams, Metallurgist, The Wallace Collection

Alan continued with some technical aspects from metallurgy.  Although I could talk a lot about some of the chemistry of iron, the properties of steel are quite vague in my mind.  Alan carefully went through measurable properties such as hardness and qualities such as being ductile.  Steel making in the 16th Century was a bit hit or miss as far as tempering and quenching steel with varying slag content. While it was possible to do some “destructive” testing on a few broken pieces of rapiers, for other pieces a non destructive method has to be found.  Step forward Neutron Diffraction!  The facilities at Didcot are being used and in discussion I found out that about 3 days is allocated to some Arts projects in a Charisma programme.  However, funding for large science facilities might also be at risk in government cutbacks.  Some twitter exchanges resulted and I was sent a link about this.

Prof Whitestick's cane meets ancestor at the Wallace Collection
28 June 2012
© Prof Whitestick

This Study Day was a wonderful experience.  At the Wallace Collection Anne and Sarah had made every facility accessible to me.  I had a front row seat and a recording of the lectures was made for me using my own recorder.  This shows that many subjects, even the more esoteric ones, can be made both interesting and accessible to visually impaired people.  I am lucky to have so many wonderful facilities within a short bus ride or train ride away.  Accessible education, leisure and transport give us all a chance to explore.

PS Within a few days I was talking to a silversmith, having a “copper” coin converted to silver, my cane was too big for the XRF facility, a photogram using silver technology was taken of my cane and I handled a solid belled saxophone.  Another collection at the Wellcome this time!   For more on gold, silver and bronze see my post: