The Oriental Armoury is the part of the Wallace Collection that I have always been most intrigued by, which makes my job as Research Assistant to the project of cataloguing it all the more satisfying. This particular area of the Collection was first catalogued in 1914 by Guy Francis Laking, the same man who catalogued our European collection of arms and armour. Although Laking was a well respected specialist during the nineteenth century, scholarship on arms and armour has moved on so much that the collection is in need of re-assessing. My main role in the cataloguing process is to liaise with the different departments involved in the project and ensure things run as smoothly as possible. As a result, I spend a great deal of time correlating all the information that we receive from specialists such as gemmologists, translators and hard animal tissue analysts to build up a clearer picture of which materials and techniques have been employed to create such fabulous pieces, be it a richly jewelled dagger or a more modest fighting Shamshir sabre.
Although my job title is ‘Research Assistant’, my working day could involve anything from provenance research with the curatorial department to object moving and handling with conservation, or liaising with specialists on materials analysis. It is wonderful to be able to have such close contact with so many of the objects by handling them; some swords are heavy and have their weight concentrated in the curve of the blade, whereas others are deceptively light and beautifully balanced. Handling the objects gives you a feel for their function in a way that it is difficult to appreciate when looking at them through the glass of a case.
Working with the conservation department we have been focusing on materials analysis of all the objects to see what they are made of. I have been correlating all the information that we acquire from consultant specialists so that we can piece together a colourful picture of the objects’ creation. This sometimes brings surprising results; for example, the hilt of this Sumatran Bugis is carved from the single canine of a hippopotamus!
We also discovered that although many of the weapons in our collection are of Indo-Persian origin, most of the ivory used on the hilts of swords and daggers is made from walrus, not elephant, tusks.It was a surprise to find how little elephant ivory there actually was and in fact, one of the Shamshirs had an elephant ivory hilt that had been pecked and roughened to make it look like walrus!
Working with the curatorial department has led me to assist with tracking down the provenance of these objects. Although we hold the original receipts for some of the objects in the archives, for many others we do not know where they came from or even whether it was Sir Richard Wallace or the Fourth Marquess who bought them. I have travelled around various London libraries and gained a very ‘select’ French vocabulary in order to read the nineteenth century French sale catalogues that contain lots of oriental arms and armour around the time Sir Richard and the Fourth Marquess might have been buying.
As a Research Assistant I am based down in the library which means I have easy access to all the Oriental arms and armour books as well as many modern day sale catalogues that we have acquired over the years. Part of my job has been to look through these old catalogues and find any objects within them that are directly comparable to our own. This helps us to gain an idea of the popularity of such objects, sale prices and provenances that may be similar to those of our own objects.
Being in the library also means that I am on hand whenever our librarians make any exciting discoveries, as they did not too long ago when they found a curiously large wooden box hidden in a book case in a curatorial office. On closer inspection it was found that the box contained a beautifully illustrated catalogue of the Moser Collection. The Moser Collection was brought together by Henri Moser, who was born 1844 (26 years after Wallace). Moser led an exceptionally interesting life and was, amongst other things, a soldier, a baker, self taught irrigation expert, breaker of Turcoman racehorses and smuggler of silkworm eggs. He was an adventurer and, unlike Wallace who bought his Oriental arms and armour from sales in Paris and London, Moser travelled to central Asia and picked up Oriental arms and armour first hand, at the same time acquiring a deep and abiding interest and respect for Indian and Persian culture. Moser’s personal motto reflects his knowledge of Persian and Islamic culture. It is derived from the thirteenth century poet Sheik Sadi:
‘it is our goal in life to accomplish something that will survive us’.
This particular line of poetry I found especially interesting as it is one found as an inscription on many of our own objects! He certainly acted upon this motto for he gave his sizeable collection to the Bernisches Historisches Museum in Bern several years before his death, also paying for the construction of a new wing to house and display it. His collection still forms one of the centre-pieces of the museum.
The catalogue itself, published in Leipzig in 1912, is contained within a large turquoise portfolio decorated with gold Persian script. It has an introductory text but is mostly full of large, lavish, hand coloured plates of oriental arms and armour. It was probably designed to be referenced by other collectors such as Wallace and may be regarded as the most lavish of ‘coffee-table’ books. It had a small print run of only 75 copies in English and would have been very costly to produce. The discovery of the Moser collection catalogue was most exciting for me however because it contains some pieces that are directly comparable to our own.
The cataloguing of the Oriental Arms and Armoury is part of a long running project and, with each new find and discovery, sheds new light on this fantastic part of the Collection.
By Francesca Levey, Research Assistant