The Great Cover Up

Over the next few weeks, as part of the Museum’s preventative conservation programme, work will be carried out in the Royal Armouries stores at our Leeds Museum to cover all the large objects that are not stored on shelves or racking, this includes horse saddles and whole mounted armours.

Individual Tyvek covers, a non-woven fabric consisting of spun-bond olefin fibre which is water-resistant yet breathable, will be made for each object to protect them, particularly from dust, and will help reduce the need for additional conservation work to be carried out on these objects in the future. Images of the objects and their accession numbers will be attached to the outside of each cover making it easier to identify the objects.

Conservation Assistant Emily Ironmonger at work placing protective covers on a jousting saddle

Conservation Assistant Emily Ironmonger at work placing protective covers on a jousting saddle

Work has started on making covers for some of the mounted armours. It is quite a challenge to make covers for some of the objects, such as a large German jousting saddle dating from around 1500, as it is such an irregular shape.

For some of the more fragile, or awkwardly shaped objects like the saddle, covers with ties at the front will be made, making them easier to remove when necessary and prevent damage to the objects when uncovering them.

A wide-range of skills is certainly needed to work in the Conservation Department.

Blogger: Emily Ironmonger, Conservation Assistant

Cuirassier Armour

As part of the the second year of my Conservation Masters at Durham University I will be undertaking a nine-month placement in the Conservation Department at Royal Armouries, Leeds.

The placement has begun with the cleaning and conserving of a 17th-century Dutch composite cuirassier armour in preparation for its loan to Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall, where it has previously been on display. Cuirassier armour was worn by the heavy cavalryman of the period and became prominent because of the more extensive use of firearms from the early 17th century.

The armour is often referred to as three-quarter armour covering the whole body to the knees and worn with long boots. The head was protected with a close helmet, the neck with a gorget, the shoulders and arms with pauldrons and vambraces, the body with a breastplate and backplate, the legs with tassets and the hands with gauntlets.

Over time this armour has at times been restored to an extent with features like new plates being added, new rivets to hold parts together and re-leathering. The ethical considerations of these restorations are also of paramount importance when studying the authenticity of previous work.

Armour previously on display in the Great Hall, Edinburgh Castle

Armour previously on display in the Great Hall, Edinburgh Castle

Previous conservation work took place on the armour in 2005 and presently the armour is receiving solvent and mild abrasive treatment to remove any surface dirt and corrosion. Fragile areas on the metal or on the leather straps used for attachment are either being consolidated or given additional support in order to prevent further deterioration. All of the armour is being given a protective wax coating after treatment.

Blogger: Philippa Beasley, Student Work Placement – Conservation Department

Collections Up Close – Remembrance Special

The Royal Armouries Archives contain a collection of letters between Jack and Gert Adam, written during the First World War. The letters poignantly show their loving and often humorous relationship, including letters from their three young children. However, in August 1918 Gert’s letters to Jack, posted overseas to France, began to be returned unopened and the remainder of the letters reveal Gert’s endeavours to find out exactly what happened her husband, who never returned. Official records of the war, photographs and War Office correspondence surrounding the events reveal the true impact of war on his wife and family back in Doncaster, an experience undoubtedly shared by thousands of families at this time.

Jack and Gert Adams

Jack and Gert Adams

The letters have their own remarkable story, after being purchased form a house sale by the Museum in 2006 they were written into a play performed at the Royal Armouries. One day an audience member recognised the names and it transpired the family were living in the area. Once in touch the family were relieved the letters had been found as they had been accidentally lost during a house move. Later, in 2009, the family found a further collection of letters between Jack and Gert and kindly donated them to the Museum to be kept with the rest of the collection.

A short film about these archives can be found here on YouTube, the film was previously shown by the BBC for Remembrance in Trafalgar Square.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Movember

In celebration of Movember, an increasingly popular annual celebration of gents growing moustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues, this is a fine opportunity to examine a very unusual moustached helmet in the Royal Armouries collection.

When given a chance to graffiti art, many people’s immediate reaction is to draw on a moustache, as the ultimate disrespectful gesture, however this 16th-century German helmet is already decorated with a marvellous twisted moustache. It is a virtuoso example of metal-working: the moustache and nose were not attached but made as one with the visor, using the art of embossing, or drawing and raising steel. Enough metal had to be allowed for the moustache to be drawn evenly out of a single plate, then twisted and folded back underneath the nose.

Moustached helmet

Moustached helmet

Slightly later in date than the famous horned helmet displayed nearby in the Tournament Gallery this helmet was also for use in the parade, as part of a costume for special occasions, and may represent a specific character from a play or masquerade. However the moustached helmet differs in also having a practical barred visor underneath the decorative outer visor for use in the tourney, when groups of mounted knights charged at each other. The moustached visor could have been easily removed or even replaced by another more conventional visor. It is also possible that combat may have also taken place whilst wearing the grotesque masks, to great comic effect.

Helmet with moustached visor removed

Helmet with moustached visor removed

A third grotesque parade helmet, which currently resides in our stores, has a comical feline face, with pierced fan-shaped steel wings attached by the visor pivots. Metallurgic analysis found the steel to be very low in carbon and to be very soft, so of little use in a combat situation.

Feline armet

Feline armet

So like platform trainers or costumed marathon-runners today, the boundaries are blurred between fashion, practicality and entertainment. Those who could afford it would commission spectacular creations to show their individuality, or questionable generosity when giving diplomatic gifts. I just wish we could rediscover the original sources for these fantastic characters, and see if the jokes are still funny today. I think they probably would be.

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant

Conservation, Museums and Blacksmithing

As part of the National Heritage Ironwork Group’s Heritage Blacksmiths Bursary, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Skills for the Future Programme’, I have had the pleasure of spending three weeks working in the Conservation Department of the Royal Armouries. Coming from a background in blacksmithing, where often the delicate work simply requires the use of a slightly smaller hammer, it was a bit of a change swapping to cotton wool buds!

The craftsmanship and skill of the weaponsmiths and armourers that made the Museum’s objects is unbelievable. The time and care that has been spent on some of the pieces is so impressive you can see why a suit of armour could have cost as much as a small farm.

Matthew working on removing corrosion from a breastplate

Matthew working on removing corrosion from a breastplate

While working here I have been lucky enough to get involved in behind the scenes aspects of the Museum, from putting objects on display to cleaning and conserving items in the collection. The conservation of the brass nipple-studded breast plate, pictured above, required removing corrosion without disturbing the original patina in unaffected areas. This can be quite challenging and the conservation work that the department does is vital in maintaining the collection for future generations.

I will be using the skills and conservation techniques which I have learned at the Royal Armouries to protect and maintain the heritage ironwork I hope to be working on in the future.

Blogger: Matthew Boultwood, Student Work Placement – Conservation Department

Feuerwerkbuch – Book of Fireworks

With bonfire night approaching a topical object in the Royal Armouries collections is a 15th-century  German manuscript called Feuerwerkbuch, or the Book of Fireworks, a reference book for gunpowder manufacturers and those who work with making fire or explosions.

Detail from folio 84r – Two besiegers bravely hold early handguns, while barrels of incendiary material fall around them.

Detail from folio 84r – Two besiegers bravely hold early handguns, while barrels of incendiary material fall around them.

Our manuscript is one of about 50 existing versions, probably copied by apprentices from their master’s original document, each adding their own recipes and observations throughout their working lives.

The oldest section of the text (c.1380) is structured in 12 questions and answers about how a stone ball is fired from a Steinbüchse gun using a new type of gunpowder manually compressed into pellets. This is followed by a mythologised account of the invention of gunpowder by the (probably legendary) alchemist, Berthold Schwarz.

A list of the qualities and abilities of a good master gunner includes: God fearing, restrained and reliable, always calm, and never intoxicated. Literate, numerate, knowledgeable about weights and measures. Familiar with siege warfare against fortresses and walled places, including knowledge of ‘fire cats, fire shields, fire eyes.’

folio 86r The Master gunner (identified by his red leggings and feathered cap) calmly directs a canon and fire-arrows towards a besieged town or fortification.

Folio 86r The Master gunner (identified by his red leggings and feathered cap) calmly directs a canon and fire-arrows towards a besieged town or fortification.

The manuscript includes instructions on growing and purifying saltpetre, and the various proportions of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal needed to create gunpowder with different strengths of explosion. Using pre-scientific alchemical techniques and beliefs, concepts such as gases, crystals, precipitate and temperature were as yet undefined. Instead there are references to vapours, frost, and boiling ‘to the same extent that one cooks fish’.

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant

Weird and Wonderful Halloween

This rather gruesome painted iron mask is from the 17th/18th centuries. It is made of three plates, roughly constructed with openings for the eyes, nostrils and mouth. In the nineteenth century, it was displayed at the Tower alongside a block and axe as an executioner’s mask. However, it is unlikely that an executioner would have worn an iron mask like this.

Executioner's Mask

'Executioner's' Mask

The more probable explanation is that it was once part of a ‘scold’s bridle’ or brank, which were devices used in the punishment of men and women for minor offences. Their most popular use is said to have been to punish scolds or gossips. They usually consisted of a form of muzzle in a metal framework, designed to effectively and painfully prevent the wearer from talking, and shame them in public by making them conspicuous. The 18th-century example shown here came from England or Scotland. It comprises an iron frame for the head which was padlocked in place at the back, and a serrated iron tongue for insertion into the mouth.

Scald's bridle

Scold's bridle

It is doubtful that branks were used at the Tower as instruments of torture and punishment; it seems more likely that they were acquired to augment and enhance the historic collection.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant