The Wallace Collection


Collection Blog

Knights in shining armour: Books from the library of Claude Blair

Soon after the death of Claude Blair in February 2010, the Wallace Collection purchased a large section of the library of this eminent scholar in the field of arms and armour. This extraordinary collection effectively doubled the Wallace’s existing number of arms and armour related books and gave us an invaluable scholarly resource.


Claude Blair worked at the Tower of London Armouries and at the V&A, where he eventually rose to become keeper of metalwork. He also had a great interest in church monuments, especially from the medieval period, many of which of course depict men as warriors and knights. His expertise and knowledge on his chosen subject was immense and he appears to have been an avid book collector. He could be scathing in his criticism of ill-researched or ill-considered scholarship but was always ready to share his knowledge with those who had an interest in arms and armour and actively encouraged young researchers.


Tucked inside many of the books acquired by the Wallace Collection were letters and photographs sent by those who desired his help in identifying a particular weapon or piece of armour. His answers are always detailed, to the point, and above all, show a fascination with his subject that lasted from his youth to the end of his life. These letters and documents have now been collected up into folders for future archiving.


The books themselves are a real mixture in terms of age, size and content. Some are early guidebooks to museums, some huge scholarly tomes on particular subjects, some thin pamphlets or offprints on individual weapons. The subject range, though always focused on arms and armour, is also immense. In these books you can find everything from archery to artillery, from chivalry to cannons and swords to saddles.


My knowledge of arms and armour increased exponentially while I was cataloguing these works and I regularly amused colleagues, friends and family by coming up with a new ‘fact for the day’. Did you know, for example, that leather cannon were used in the 17th century? The cannon consisted of a thin metal tube tightly wrapped in heavy cords and then covered in leather. Unfortunately, the cords and the leather acted as excellent insulation materials which meant that the cannon became too hot to use after only a few shots had been fired. The metal tube easily deformed with the heat, so that the cannon were liable to burst, with disastrous and most probably lethal consequences for the loader. Ultimately, the design was scrapped because it was considered too unreliable, which must have been a disappointment but also a great relief to all concerned!


Most of the European languages are covered in these books. I soon learnt the words for ‘weapon’, ‘century’ and ‘exhibition’ in more languages than I would have considered to be possible. My transliteration skills were seriously put to the test by items in the Cyrillic alphabet and I soon found, to my dismay, that Serbian-Macedonian Cyrillic differs from that used inRussia… thank goodness for the official transliteration tables approved by the American Library Association and the Library of Congress. Items in Finnish and Hungarian left me completely baffled and very grateful for the wealth of online dictionaries and translation websites. I do not know how cataloguers managed before these resources existed!


In cataloguing these books, it soon became obvious to me that Claude Blair not only travelled widely to visit collections of arms and armour all over Europe and beyond, collecting books and pamphlets as he went, but that his fellow scholars held him in high regard and would, more often than not, send him a copy of their newly published works, hoping for the praise that was only bestowed where it was deserved and so was all the more worth having.

The following books are by necessity only a small selection of the works I catalogued but they are all special in one way or another. The first (pictured above) is a facsimile reproduction, with commentary, of The adventures of the Knight Theuerdank, an epic poem detailing in fictional form Emperor Maximilian’s journey to meet his bride, Mary of Burgundy. The book is large format, beautifully produced and filled with wonderful contemporary illustrations.




The second is a book with the title Der Helm, von seinem Ursprunge bis gegen die Mitte des siebzehnten Jahrhunderts, by Gustav von Suttner. It is a 19th century German publication, printed in Gothic type, with colour plates showing all kinds of different helmets through history (two of which are shown above).






An amusing publication is one fittingly entitled Firearms curiosa, by Lewis Winant, which describes all kinds of unusual firearms. From pistols with built in blades and knuckledusters to concealed weapons and even guns in sundials (set to fire punctually at noon, obviously), this books contains images of and information about the strangest firearms you are likely to see outside a James Bond film.






The final book is about weapons in medieval Serbia, Bosnia and Dubrovnik. Simply transliterating the title was quite a challenge! I have to admit that my heart sank a little when I read the word Beograd (=Belgrade) on the cover and realised that it was in the other Cyrillic alphabet…






I have now completed the cataloguing of Claude Blair’s books: 740 new titles have been added to our library and will hopefully be useful to many scholars in the future. I like to think that Claude Blair would have been pleased.

Helen Jones, library cataloguer

Comments are closed.