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“Something that remains after we are gone”: the life and collection of Henri Moser

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 Oriental arms and armour: Collection Henri Moser, Charlottenfels (1912)  

This mysterious and, apart from its size, inconspicuous wooden box houses one of our most attractive items: a portfolio of plates showing the collection of oriental arms and armour of Henri Moser (1844-1923). When I first found the wooden box in a cupboard in one of the curator’s offices several years ago, I was very surprised when I opened it and saw what it contained. I see the same reaction whenever I open the box to show the portfolio to any of our visitors – most people actually say “Wow!” It just goes to show that you should (quite literally in this case!) never judge a book by its cover…

???????????????????????????????Henri Moser was a Swiss national, born in Russia, where his father had a clock making business. He returned to Switzerland as a child, where he lived at the family home of Charlottenfels, an extensive neo-classical villa near Schaffhausen. His father wanted him to take over the family business in Russia, but after an argument, Henri instead decided to spend the next few decades periodically travelling all over Central Asia, collecting art objects and arms and armour as he went. He led a very adventurous life, taking on many different roles to finance his travels; soldier, baker, master of Turkish baths, in one post in Zerafshan, Uzbekistan, he even acted as an advisor on irrigation! On his permanent return to Europe, none the richer though doubtless wiser for all this travels, he exhibited his collection in several cities and wrote accounts of his voyages. He finally made his fortune speculating in copper from Kazakhstan and by 1907, was a rich man. When he eventually decided to settle back in Switzerland, he repurchased Charlottenfels, which by that point had left his family’s estate, and displayed his collections there. In 1914, he gave his collection to the Historisches Museum in Bern and funded the building of a new wing of the museum, where the collection is still kept, though only part of it is currently on display.

Images of ArmourOur copy of this catalogue is one of only 75 English copies issued; the entire print run (German, French and English) only consisted of 300 copies in total. It is unclear when the portfolio was acquired or given to the Wallace Collection but a visiting curator from the Bernisches Historisches Museum told us that it is likely that Henri Moser would have given a copy to the Wallace Collection when he or his secretary visited to see our own collection of Oriental arms and armour. The boxes were apparently given with the portfolios, as the curator knew of other copies with the same wooden covers. This cleared up a mystery that I had been wondering about since I found the portfolio: was the box original or was it made here? It was obviously made specifically for this item as the portfolio fits the box so well. As I was examining the box to photograph it for this blog post, I also noticed something I had never seen before: the remnants of a label on which you can just make out the words “Collection Moser” and the publisher in very faded print – another piece of evidence that the box was custom made for the catalogue.

The portfolio contains hardly any text; just an introductory booklet of 18 pages with a few details on each item depicted on the plates. The majority of the work is made up of black and white plates showing photographs of items in Henri Moser’s collection. Some of the plates, however, are in colour and are really beautifully printed. The printing process used was probably chromolithography, where each colour has to be printed separately and in perfect alignment to get a complete image. When the images are imperfectly aligned the effect is similar to looking at a 3-D image without the requisite glasses – it seems fuzzy and out of focus. The human eye is very good at detecting even (or perhaps particularly) very minor mistakes in such images so perfection in the printing process was not just desirable but necessary. The work was published in Leipzig, Germany, but the plates were printed in Vienna, and it is obvious that Moser was very pleased with the results: “By my express wish the plates have been printed by the imperial printing press in Vienna; the reputation of this establishment is no longer in its initial stage, and I cannot express too highly my appreciation of my pleasing relations with the manager and artists of this firm.”

???????????????????????????????The portfolio is made of buckram over card, intricately tooled in gold on the cover in the manner of a decorated Islamic leather book binding. The inside of the portfolio is covered with a pattern reminiscent of Persian weaving or carpets. It is obvious that no expense was spared in the production of this magnificent publication as even the smallest of details has been considered; between each layer of plates is a sheet of tissue paper to prevent them sticking together or rubbing.

The collection itself is magnificent and in many ways comparable to the Wallace Collection’s. Many of the swords and daggers have similar jade or enamelled hilts and the helmets with mail are also like those in our Oriental Armoury. The reproduction of the watercolour at the beginning shows an impression of the arrangement of Moser’s collection at Charlottenfels.

Moser was an enthusiastic Orientalist and is obvious from the preface that he wanted to contribute to scholarship on the subject and that he was in contact with other European experts on arms and armour, such as Charles Buttin. The quote on the title page “Our aim is to perform something that remains after we are gone” appears to have been a genuine motto for him, as shown in the publication of this catalogue, the presentation of his collection to the city of Bern and, on his death, the gift of Charlottenfels itself to the Canton of Schaffhausen.

Further more detailed catalogues of the Moser collection at the Bernisches Historisches Museum have since been published, but none are as beautiful or as lavish as this one. Portfolios often suffer greatly from the passage of time; card and cloth breaks at the folds, the plates slip around and become damaged and the paper disintegrates. All of these problems have been avoided in this case, because of the high quality of the materials, but mostly because of the humble wooden box that has kept this wonderful item safe and secure since it was first published.

By Helen Jones, Library Cataloguer

Sources:

I am indebted to Svetlana Gorshenina’s Explorateurs en Asie centrale : voyageurs et aventuriers de Marco Polo à Ella Maillart (Genève : Olizane, 2003) for information Henri Moser’s life and travels.



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