The Wallace Collection


Collection Blog

The Angelos – an Italian-English fencing dynasty

One of the most exciting parts of my job as library cataloguer is being the first to see and handle recent acquisitions, especially if they are rare books.

Last year, the Wallace Collection acquired, with the help of the Friends of the National Libraries, a two-volume set of books entitled The Reminiscences of Henry Angelo, published in London, 1828-1830. The volumes are handsomely bound in marbled leather and buckram, with gold tooling on the spines. The Reminiscences are a collection of anecdotes loosely connected with the author. They detail life in London society and include passages on everything from travel and  the Royal Family to art, artists, musicians and actors. No doubt they were specially selected to be as amusing or informative as possible for the reader.

Reminiscences of Henry Angelo (London : Henry Colburn, 1828-1830)

Reminiscences of Henry Angelo (London :          Henry          Colburn, 1828-1830)

Beyond the somewhat superficial information provided by the books themselves, I knew nothing about Henry Angelo, so to be able to provide an adequate catalogue record, I had to do some further research. It turns out that the Angelo family were famous fencing masters in London over four generations and were significant enough to have their own entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which describes the Reminiscences as “entertaining, if often unreliable.”

When I began my research I surmised that the surname Angelo denoted a person of Italian descent and this proved to be correct. In fact the first member of the Angelo family to come to England was Domenico Angelo in 1755. Domenico was an Italian riding and fencing master who had perfected his skills in Paris. Once established in England he gained several noble and even royal patrons, proving his great proficiency to London society in a fencing match against Dr. Keynes, the best amateur fencer in Ireland. He went on to cement his reputation by becoming riding and fencing master to younger members of the Royal Family. Now well established, he started an academy for the instruction of riding and fencing that was also recognised as a place that promoted fine manners.

Domenico wrote and had illustrated a well-received book on the art of fencing entitled “L’école d’armes”, which his son Henry later translated and reissued in two different editions. Copies of all three editions are here at the Wallace Collection, on loan from the Trustees of the Howard de Walden estate.


Portrait of Henry Angelo

Portrait of Henry Angelo


Domenico married an Englishwoman and, in time, passed the academy into the hands of his son Henry (1756-1835), the author of the Reminiscences. Henry had been educated at Eton, where  his father taught fencing, and had then refined his skills with a fencing master in Paris. He was an expert swordsman and teacher and, like his father, had many illustrious pupils, including members of the Royal Family. He moved the academy from his fathers’ residence in Carlisle House, first to the Royal Opera House in Haymarket and then, after a fire in 1789, to Bond Street, where he shared premises with the famous pugilist ‘Gentleman Jackson’. Young men of means went to both Henry and Jackson for lessons, chiefly as a way of keeping fit while in the city, away from more strenuous country pursuits. The fencing lessons also prepared young men for duels, which, though of dubious legality, were still often fought in the nineteenth century.

In addition, Henry gave lessons to actors who needed to learn stage-fighting for historical plays. His father Domenico and David Garrick were good friends and this connection to the world of London’s theatres was continued by Henry. He could now count among his friends the the Keans, the Kembles and the Sheridans. In fact, he only gave up teaching after being injured while fencing with Edmund Kean in 1813. Disappointingly, the story of the injury is far less exciting than one might think (Vol. 2, pp. 357-358):

At my return to town [after my vacation], I did not find my health so good as it had been whilst exercise kept me employed. […] On my first visit to Mr. Kean, we both complained of having increased in size, when laughingly I observed, that we were losing our genteel comedy shapes, and added, “Suppose we have a good bout of fencing every day before breakfast?” […] The next morning I was punctual […] In the very first lounge I made, I so strained the tendons of the back part of my left thigh, as to cause a sudden check and pain, so that it was with difficulty I could remain on my legs. From that time (after above forty years’ labour, the greater part sans chemise), I have bade adieu to the practical exertions of the science, depriving myself of that health and flow of spirits I had before been accustomed to. This disaster, for such I consider it, I attributed entirely to that lack of bodily exercise which kept the limbs in continual action.

It was presumably after this incident that he began to write his memoirs, although very little of the narrative is devoted to complaining of his enforced inactivity. In fact, this passage is the only one in which it is referred to at all.


Titlepage of the Reminiscences

         Title page of the                       Reminiscences


Henry was obviously very grateful for the patronage of the Royal Family and writes of several of its members with real respect and affection. (Vol. 1, pp. 33-34 + 197)

 The grandfather of his present majesty, Frederick, Prince of Wales […] honoured my father with his royal countenance, and used frequently to talk with him on the subject of the manège. I remember seeing him when a boy, at the house of his royal nephews, in Leicester-square; and distinctly recollect his weighing the carriage on one side, as he raised his ponderous body upon the step. The young princes, who were lively youths, laughed at the thought of what would have been the damage of a complete upset, when Mr. George and Mr. Le Grand, the two preceptors, ventured to admonish them for their levity. “Would not you have laughed at such a joke, Harry?” said Prince William, “Yes, your royal highness”, said I ; “That’s hearty”, exclaimed their highnesses ; “give me your hand”: and I got an order on the housekeeper for some sweetmeats for my honesty.

The localities of the late king’s [George III's] memory are said to have such, as almost to exceed belief. […] Garrick told my father that, once having the honour of conversing with his majesty on the state of the old English drama, he was astonished at the king’s knowledge of the earliest plays, and more so at his memory of their respective authors, and the dates of their first appearance. “A species of knowledge”, said Garrick, “of which few literary men knew any thing”.

Interestingly, our copy of the Reminiscences has a letter from the author to an unknown recipient pasted into the front of vol. 1. The letter is tantalizing as it raises much speculation but gives few answers.

Dear Sir, I take the opportunity to tell you, that I can not allow your Brothers any longer to receive Instructions at my Fencing Rooms, – when I explain my Reasons to you, I trust you can not be displeased at my sudden Refusal. In hopes of having the pleasure of seeing you very soon, I remain, Dear Sir, Yours truly, Henry Angelo.

Frustratingly, no names are mentioned in the letter so it is impossible to work out who is meant in this rather cryptic note. A later hand has added “Oct. 4th 1822, Tiverton” to the bottom left-hand corner of the note but this does not solve the mystery. Question after question arises to remain unanswered: Who were the brothers? How old were they? Was their brother their guardian? And, most importantly: What on earth had they done to be so excluded? Bad behaviour? Duelling? Brawling in the fencing rooms? The possibilities are endless but sadly we will never know what those unruly brothers did, or indeed how many of them there may have been. As it was usually considered a great privilege to have lessons from an acknowledged master such as Angelo, one imagines that, whoever they were, the exclusion must have been a bitter blow.


A rather cryptic letter

             A rather cryptic letter


Henry’s son and grandson,  two more Henrys, continued the academy at new premises in St James’ Street. After the death of the third Henry, the academy was sold and, although it remained a centre of fencing until the last years of the nineteenth century, there were no more fencing masters from the Angelo family.

I hope you have enjoyed this insight into our work at the Collection. For more information regarding the library and archives please click here.

by Helen Jones, library cataloguer

Comments are closed.