A Curator and his times – the continuing story of museum ffoulkes

Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries continues with her tale of Charles John ffoulkes…

When I embarked on this blog, armed with the Minute book and best of intentions, I hoped that it would unfold month by month providing a unique “then and now” experience.  Unfortunately, the book and I have got somewhat out of sync.

However, in true Pollyanna tradition, it is too good a chance to miss, so I’ll play catch-up and take this opportunity to look back to January 1913 and how it all started for the curator, ffoulkes (who, unusually, spelled his surname without an initial capital letter).

Charles ffoulkes and Viscount Dillon at St. James' Palace  - 1913. © Royal Armouries

Charles ffoulkes and Viscount Lord Dillon at St. James Palace on 13 February 1913
© Royal Armouries

“1913 : Jan 1 Curator took over the Armouries on appointment (dated 21 Nov 1912) in succession to Viscount Dillon, Curator 1895 -1913.  Annual inventory checked and completed.” So Charles John ffoulkes, aged 44 1/2, recorded his first day in office in the Tower Armouries Day book (I.189).

Dillon was the pre-eminent arms and armour scholar of his day, and when he announced his impending retirement from the Tower, he recommended ffoulkes as his successor.  These were the days of the gentleman curator, and ffoulkes learned of the forthcoming vacancy while walking in the woods at Ditchley with Dillon.  Mr ffoulkes recounted the event in his autobiography. Dillon abruptly asked, “Will you take over the Tower?” and when ffoulkes expressed reservations, urged him, “I want you to keep the flag flying – don’t let me down”.  Mr ffoulkes noted later, “It was rather an unusual appointment with a nominal salary, no age limit and no fixed hours of duty”.

Viscount Lord Dillon, Curator Tower Armouries 1895 – 1913.  ffoulkes predecessor and champion, complete with White Tower cravat pin.

Viscount Lord Dillon, Curator Tower Armouries 1895 – 1913. ffoulkes predecessor and champion, complete with White Tower cravat pin. © Royal Armouries Museum

How unlike the modern curatorial post openly advertised with fixed terms and conditions, and measurable objectives to be achieved. No woodland handovers with the unqualified endorsement of the incumbent today.

Now 21st century curators, bristling with qualifications and bulging portfolios, battle in open (often global) competition for diminishing numbers of public service jobs. Today there is a pay structure and pension on offer – 30 years ago when I joined the profession on the lowest rung, great emphasis was placed on the fact that even the most junior Museum Assistant received a salary, not a weekly wage (little comfort for the first impoverished month!) – and the idea of nominated succession has no place in the modern world of equal opportunity and inclusion. They even let gals in nowadays!

Mr ffoulkes had come to Dillon’s attention through his studies and interest in armour fabrication, a relatively unexplored field at the time.  Leaving Oxford where he admitted his principal interest had lain in rowing, ffoulkes dabbled in painting, the Arts and Craft Movement and theatrical pageants before concentrating his energies on metalwork, specifically arms and armour. From 1907, he researched the collections of the Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean museums, and in 1912 published a major study “The Armourer and his Craft from the  XIth – XVIth century”.

The tableau of Queen Elizabeth, page and horse was originally displayed in the White Tower crypt (modern entrance floor) but moved to join material from the New Horse Armoury on the top floor of the White Tower after 1882.  This photograph gives a sense of the exuberant displays that Dillon and then ffoulkes tamed and refined to produce a more modern,  glassed exhibition. Elizabeth and company wandered about the White tower galleries before being loaned to the Museum of London in 1916, and falling victim to enemy action in WWII. Today only the queen’s head survives.

This photograph gives a sense of the exuberant displays that Dillon and then ffoulkes tamed and refined to produce a more modern, glassed exhibition. Queen Elizabeth and company wandered about the White tower galleries before being loaned to the Museum of London in 1916, and falling victim to enemy action in WWII. Today only the queen’s head survives. © Royal Armouries Museum

His introduction to the Tower Armouries was relatively gentle – touring dignitaries and a little light armour movement.  On 10 January, he recorded the visit of “Delegates from the Turko-Bulgarian War” peace conference which London was hosting (even without the benefit of hindsight, it would seem a doomed enterprise).  29 January saw a half armour moved “from the centre to the upper end of the top room on the left side” in the White Tower.

However February was far more feisty offering ffoulkes an introduction to the iconic nature of the site and all that brings with it. As I said, the book and I have slipped out of sync, so if you haven’t already, please do look back at February’s blog (Suffragette outrage at Tower – read all about it!), and I’ll hope to be catching up by June!

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

Further reading: ‘Arms & the Tower ‘ C J ffoulkes (John Murray, 1939).