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Armour mon amour

The Wallace Collection’s library holds a number of rare books, which our visitors can view on request. In this blog by Helen Jones, Library Cataloguer, she explores Engraved illustrations of antient arms and armour, from the collection of Llewellyn Meyrick, at Goodrich Court, Herefordshire, after the drawings, and with the descriptions of Dr. Meyrick (London, 1830).

My colleague Carys Lewis has previously written about the material relating to Samuel Rush Meyrick in the Archive, so I will concentrate mainly on our printed books. We have several copies of Meyrick’s three-volume work on European arms and armour (A critical inquiry into antient armourand various of his smaller publications but I’m focusing on the 1830 catalogue of his son’s, later his own, collection, housed at Goodrich Court, his Gothic revival home in rural Herefordshire.

Samuel Rush Meyrick (1783-1848) was a keen antiquarian, an interest he had inherited from his father John Meyrick. Sadly, father and son argued over Samuel’s choice of wife and never reconciled, even after the birth of Samuel’s only son Llewellyn. Samuel was disinherited and on John’s death, the estate and all his possessions, including his collection of antiquities, went to Llewellyn. Samuel and his son were very close; they shared a passion for antiquities and often travelled together. Llewellyn’s collection of arms and armour was even displayed in his father’s property of Goodrich Court, as shown in this catalogue. Unfortunately, Llewellyn predeceased his father while in his early thirties. He had made no will and so his entire property went to Samuel, including the inheritance that had previously been denied him. After Samuel’s death, the collections were sold and a large proportion can now be seen here at the Wallace Collection, as it was purchased first by Frederic Spitzer and then in turn by Richard Wallace.

Samuel’s interest in arms and armour was above all a didactic one; he wanted his collection to be instructive, rather than a jumbled display of all styles and ages. He arranged his collection chronologically and his Critical Inquiry was an attempt to disentangle the various styles of armour that had existed over the centuries. Indeed, it becomes clear in the preface to this catalogue that Meyrick viewed the two works as complementary of each other: “… this work … may be regarded as a glossary explained by figures, and with the “Critical Inquiry” forms a complete body of information on this subject.”  It appears that Samuel refused to view medieval items through the cloud of romanticism that surrounded them for much of the nineteenth century; he favoured an analytical approach. Interestingly, it was Sir Walter Scott himself who suggested that a catalogue of the Meyrick collection would be desirable.

The arrangement of the collection at Goodrich took precedence over other concerns; it seems that the architecture was fitted around the collections rather than the other way around. When this catalogue was published in 1830, Goodrich stood as yet unfinished; some of the rooms depicted in the catalogue had not even been built yet. However, later images and descriptions show that Meyrick stuck exactly to his plans and the rooms were laid out just as they were shown in the drawings.

The catalogue itself consists of detailed black and white plates with explanatory text accompanying them. Many of the plates have been annotated by later curators of arms and armour at the Wallace Collection to show which items now reside here. As a librarian, I must say I disapprove of the actions of those past curators but the knowledge is useful and at least they used pencil! They obviously regarded this catalogue as a type of textbook rather than a rare book and a treasure in its own right.

To engrave his work Meryick employed Joseph John Skelton (1783-1871), an engraver who specialised in topographical and antiquarian subjects. He, like Meyrick, was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. It appears that Meyrick was dissatisfied with the illustrations in his Critical Inquiry as time and money constraints meant the images had not achieved the standard he desired. This work, engraved by Skelton, on the other hand found his full approval: “Some consolation is derived from the hope that in the present undertaking, I have proved that I know a little more about drawing than would be inferred from the Plates in the Critical Inquiry; and I readily pay the tribute of gratitude to Mr. Skelton for the neatness with which my lines have been improved, their accuracy strictly preserved, and the cheerfulness with which he had encountered every difficulty.” Skelton’s work is, certainly to the lay person, what makes this work so beautiful and so interesting.

Inside the front cover of our copy of the catalogue are bookplates that bear the name of Sir Thomas Gage, Bart., Hengrave Hall, Suffolk. The Hall is a Tudor house near Bury St. Edmunds and was in the ownership of the Gage family from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century. Sir Thomas (1810-1866) was the 8th baronet Gage. His father, the 7th baronet, was a notable antiquary and it is likely that his son inherited this interest from him. After Sir Thomas’ death, much of his library was dispersed in two sales by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge on the 25 June 1867 and the 5 February 1890. These books were purchased for the Wallace Collection around 1914 (the accessions in the Library accessions register were not clearly dated at that point), so their whereabouts in the intervening years is uncertain.

The state of the catalogues at the time of purchase is unknown but by 2003, they were in urgent need of rebinding and were in fact completely rebound, with new boards, spine and endpapers, as the old bindings could not be saved. Usually the aim is always to preserve as much of the original binding as possible but in this case that was obviously not a viable option. The books are now bound beautifully, with red leather spines and corners and marbled boards and endpapers in a way that echoes the style of the original binding. The only part of the original binding that was preserved was Thomas Gage’s bookplate, now reattached to the inside of the front board.

We have a third volume to this set, though from a different provenance, that is part of the Meyrick archive. It contains sketches and pieces of manuscript text for a projected third catalogue volume that was never published. The reasons why are not known, though it is possible that other tasks, such as reorganising the armour in the Tower of London and at Windsor kept him too busy. This volume is bound in a similar style to these catalogues; a manuscript note inside the front cover states that it was bound in 1927, three years after it had been presented to the Wallace Collection by Hal Furmage, a London antique arms and armour dealer. The drawings are wonderful and it is a great shame that this third volume never made to the publishers.

Arms and armour is one of the main subject areas in both the Wallace Collection and its Library, so that I have learnt a great deal about the subject since I began working here. It attracts perhaps the most varied range of readers of any of our subject areas and seeing this beautiful work it is not hard to see why. Looking at the wonderful images drawn by Meyrick and improved and engraved by Skelton has certainly made me want to go and take a closer look at the armour in real life – many of the pieces depicted are just upstairs in the Armouries after all…

By Helen Jones

 

I am indebted to Rosalind Lowe’s Sir Samuel Meyrick and Goodrich Court (Logaston Press, 2003) for much of the information on Meyrick’slife.

 



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