Firearms The Art of London

Pair of Flintlock Pistols

These pistols are among the finest known examples of English Neoclassical-style firearms. Each stock is inlaid with engraved sheet silver and embellished with heavy cast-silver mounts. This decoration was inspired by contemporary French Empire firearms, such as those by Boutet also in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection (acc. nos. 36.58a–c, 42.50.7a–n, and 1970.179.1). Several of the motifs are based on ancient Roman sources. On the sideplate, for example, the Nereid riding a sea-leopard derives from an engraving of 1762 depicting a wall painting in the recently found ruins of Herculaneum. On the trigger guard, the oval medallion representing Hercules with a defeated Amazon is copied from a well-known antique gem. The Medusa head on the butt also derives from Classical art, but here the idealized model has been transformed into a grimacing, almost humorous caricature of the legendary gorgon.

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Made by John Manton & Son (British, London 1815–1878). British, London, ca. 1815–34. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Collection of Giovanni P. Morosini, presented by his daughter Giulia, 1932 (32.75.138–.139)

Pair of Flintlock Pistols

The original owner of this remarkably decorated pair remains unknown, but the pistols’ opulence and French character suggests they may have belonged to George IV (1762–1830) or someone in his circle. Their gold-inlaid locks are the most lavish ever produced by John Manton’s firm during his lifetime. The carved eagle on the grip—a feature also found on a pair of the king’s pistols, made for him when he was Prince of Wales, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle (Acc. no. RCIN 6166)—is here further enhanced with gold-inlaid eyes. Similarly expressive lions may be found adorning the pommels of contemporary Parisian firearms, a possible source of inspiration for the accomplished steel chiseler Manton commissioned to create the mounts for this unique pair. The mounts, which include elaborate belt hooks chiseled with swirling acanthus leaves, are unsigned.

British gunmakers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries seldom deviated from the sober style that brought them fame throughout Europe and distinguished their work from that of the Continent. But for wealthy clients, particularly the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762–1830), they shed standard decorative patterns in favor of more ostentatious embellishments. The prince was the preeminent patron of contemporary London gunmakers from the late 1780s through the 1820s, and over his lifetime he commissioned dozens of superlative firearms for sporting, personal use, and presentation. Gunmakers enhanced select firearms and accessories for the prince by substituting silver mounts for traditional steel, adding engraved and gilt ornament to the locks and barrels, and personalizing the weapons with the royal arms and Prince of Wales feathers. But the prince’s affinity for all things French also sometimes guided the gunmakers’ decorative choices. Indeed, he built his palatial London home at Carlton House (demolished in 1827) with an eye to the French Neoclassical style and decorated it with artworks, furniture, and other accoutrements from France. The most elaborate works by royally favored gunmakers catered to this taste and achieved a graceful blend of French-inspired decoration with traditional British design and technology.

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Made by James Purdey the Elder (British, London 1784–1863 Margate). British, London, ca. 1831. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1935 (35.41.1–.15)

Pair of Four-Barreled Turnover Percussion Pistols of Henry Pelham Fiennes Pelham-Clinton, 4th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne (1785–1851), with Pair of Box-Lock Turn-Off Pocket Pistols, Case, and Accessories

Recent archival research revealed this lavish set to be one of the costliest pistol ensembles ever made by James Purdey, selling for £101 10s in 1831. Purdey made just ten four-barreled pistols in his career, and this pair is the only surviving set cased with pocket pistols. It is remarkable, too, for its exceptional state of preservation. The combination of vivid blueing, case-hardening, and finely finished wood looks much as it would have to the original owner, the fourth Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne.

One of the most famous British aristocrats of his era, the fourth Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne took delivery of this lavish pistol set from Purdey in April 1831. The duke purchased it for self-defense three months after being assaulted by a mob in the streets of Newark. The attack was prompted by his vigorous opposition to electoral reform, a contentious national issue that reached a boiling point in the early 1830s. Roughly six months after the duke acquired his pistols, the House of Lords rejected a new reform bill, resulting in widespread public violence. Several private residences were attacked, including the duke’s Nottingham mansion, which rioters burned to the ground on October 10, 1831. The duke was in London at the time. Weapons with a small customer base among the elite, Purdey’s four-barreled pistols show the great expense that members of the aristocracy lavished on firearms for personal protection.