A Day in the Life of…Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

Assistant Curator, Natasha Bennett talks climbing in cases, eccentric colleagues, being alone with the collection and why she loves her job, as we speak to her about her role as part of #MuseumWeek.

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator - Oriental Collections

Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

My primary function as Assistant Curator is to help safeguard, present and develop specialist knowledge about the Royal Armouries’ Oriental Collection. My role is very varied! It involves researching, writing and delivering publications, exhibition content, seminars and talks; answering enquiries from the public and other organisations and institutions; supervising visitors who need access to the study collections or help with identifying objects; assisting with filming projects; helping with various collections management duties such as auditing or couriering loan objects, and participating in the acquisitions process which allows the Royal Armouries to bring new pieces into the collection.

When I left school, I did a history degree at the University of Durham, before taking jobs first as a librarian and then as an editorial/publishing assistant. I didn’t feel suited to either of those careers, so I ultimately took the plunge, returned to university and pursued an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at Leeds, with the aim of improving my qualifications for the field in which I really wanted to work. Three years ago my dream job of working for the Oriental section of the curatorial department here at the Royal Armouries appeared on the website. I never dreamed that I would be successful with my application, but here I am, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate because I can genuinely say that I love my job.

There is no normal day for me. The ability to work flexibly is a key part of this job, in more ways than one. I usually start the day at my desk by working through emails and enquiries that have come through, but by home time I can be anywhere; up a stepladder with the elephant armour in the Oriental Gallery or climbing into a case to replace objects that have been temporarily removed for filming or research. One of the weirdest places I ended up was near the lofty ceiling of the loading bay while I was being trained to drive a ‘mobile elevated work platform’ – thankfully that was an abnormal day…

The Royal Armouries houses the national collection of arms and armour, which means that the objects we get to work with every day are literally priceless, and the events, experiences, skills and artistry connected with each piece are legion. Every time I touch one, I feel a frisson of excitement thinking about where it has been over time. Being in stores by yourself can feel quite peculiar, because the heritage that the collection carries with it, is almost a palpable presence. I am also very lucky to work with some fantastic (if slightly eccentric) colleagues – but an interesting collection will always attract interesting people!

For me, the main challenge of my role is packing in enough research about an enormously wide-ranging subject area. Here at the Royal Armouries, the Oriental Collection incorporates all non-European arms and armour, which obviously covers quite a lot of the world! But at the same time that is also the most exciting thing about my work, because there is always something new to learn or discover, and it never gets stale.

One of the main projects I am working on at the moment is a set of conference proceedings. I am currently gathering together all the material from eight papers that were given at our conference East Meets West: Diplomatic Gifts of Arms and Armour between Europe and Asia at the Tower of London last September. We are hoping to publish these proceedings in the near future.

17th century Mughal dagger  © Royal Armouries

17th century Mughal dagger
© Royal Armouries

I have a great number of favourite items within the collection, and they tend to change or increase in number, depending on what I’m working on at the time. One of my all-time favourites is our 17th century Mughal dagger with a watered-steel blade and a stunning hilt beautifully carved in the shape of a horse’s head. It is the only example that we know of with a hilt that is probably made out of serpentine.

Blogger: Natasha Bennett, Assistant Curator – Oriental Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.

A Day in the Life of…Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

Have you ever wondered what its like to work at a national museum? Spending everyday up close to one of the UK’s largest collections of arms and armour? As part of #Museumweek, we found out from Curatorial Assistant, Kathleen McIlvenna. 

Kathleen at the opening of exhibition Line of Kings

Kathleen at the opening of exhibition Line of Kings

My role is very varied and involves working with the collections and research, as well as working with the public – answering enquires, managing volunteer projects and some education work.

I started at the Royal Armouries in October 2012, having previously worked and volunteered in a number of museums including the Science Museum, National Maritime Museum and Hackney Museum. In addition to the experience of working within a museum I soon realised in order to pursue a curatorial career that worked with collections and included research, I probably needed an MA. I gained an MA in Historical Research in 2011. My first paid museum job working with collections was a part-time role as Museum Assistant at Enfield Museum Service during which I also started a part-time PhD. The PhD is one of the Collaborative Doctoral Awards with the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) looking at the nineteenth century Post Office. Subsequently I was in a good position with practical museum experience and strong research skills to get this role, and who could turn down a job at the Tower of London?

Luckily there is no such thing as a normal day in my job. Being part of a small team based at the Tower can involve travelling across London to inspect a loan or pick up an acquisition. Alternatively I could be based in the office doing research or overseeing volunteers. We have several offices and stores within the Tower, so on some days if I need to move objects or escort researchers I feel like I have walked miles!

I really enjoy the variety of the job and working with such an astounding collection in a spectacular location.

I’m passionate about history so I really enjoy being able to do research into the history of the Tower of London, those that worked here and the collection held here. The more challenging aspects are probably finding different ways to communicate that history with the public. Writing for a blog or an online exhibition requires different skills to working with colleagues to present a handling session or giving a formal paper, but I enjoy every opportunity to share my enthusiasm.

Benjamin Disraeli visiting the Tower of London in 1871

Benjamin Disraeli visiting the Tower of London in 1871

I have recently worked on a great volunteer project repackaging a collection of foreshore finds from a dig in 1986.  I worked with the Museum of London Archaeological Archive (formerly LAARC) to get advice on best practice for storing archaeological finds and also to recruit four volunteers to work on the collection.

The project has nearly finished, but it has been a real joy to work with these skilled people, sharing both experience and knowledge. The volunteers had experience of working with archaeological objects and had often done some archaeological mapping of the Thames foreshore. We were able to give them additional historical background on that section of the foreshore, as the material we were repackaging is evidence of Ordnance workshops, and we could share our expertise in identifying standard issue weapon parts.

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Tower Foreshore dig in 1986

Furthermore, working with groups and individuals with an active interest in the areas these collections touched on, has allowed us to discover new value to the material, as the photographic archive of the dig clearly demonstrates the amount of erosion that has occurred to the site. In light of current concerns about the speed and extent of foreshore erosion, our dig assumes new importance in recording an area now lost. You can read more about what the volunteers have been up to on their blog.

This probably sounds quite grim, but my favourite objects in the Royal Armouries collection are the block and axe. They are ubiquitous to the Tower of London and the biographies of these objects are fantastic representations of the history of the Tower as a prison and then tourist attraction. The block was used in the execution of Lord Lovat in 1747, and has two cuts on the upper surface, suggesting the axe man either had a trial cut or the block was possibly used for a beheading before Lovat. The axe is from the Tower stores, and although we don’t have anything to confirm its use, records suggest the Tower had four execution axes in store in the 17th century. Both these items have been on display together since the nineteenth century when Yeoman Warders of the time would take delight in asking visitors to lay their heads on the block.

Something people might not know is how old we are, the Royal Armouries’ collection originates from the Office of Ordnance stores that were based in and around the Tower of London and had objects on display for visitors to enjoy from the seventeenth century!

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

To find out more about #MuseumWeek visit the Culture Themes website.

The Curator goes to War – ffoulkes’ tales – February 1914

Mr ffoulkes’ second February in office, as the Armouries’ curator, was a quieter month than his first when the Tower had been subject to a Suffragette “outrage”.

The year 1914 saw him start to tackle an outstanding problem in the White Tower – the displays. He had continued Dillon’s work in re-organising the upper floor of the White Tower which had received the contents of the New Horse Armoury in 1881/2 before the latter’s demolition, but space was limited and he wanted to deliver a more didactic exhibit.

The New Horse Armoury constructed against the White Tower’s south side was a crenelated, single storey Gothic building housing the 19th century version of the Line of Kings display from 1826 – 1881. The building was less than universally popular and the displays although impressive were quite old fashioned for the new century.

An interior shot of the New horse Armoury from the 1870s. © Royal Armouries

An interior shot of the New Horse Armoury from the 1870s. © Royal Armouries

Initially, the displaced armours, horses and figures crowded onto the upper floor of the White Tower, replacing the Volunteer Armoury resident there since 1862. They progressed along the gallery from south to north, with an accompanying forest of staff weapons and munition armour bristling behind.

– The “Horse Armoury” as it first appeared in the upper or council chamber of the White Tower (west side). © Royal Armouries

– The Horse Armoury as it first appeared in the upper or council chamber of the White Tower (west side). © Royal Armouries

The space was lit naturally, by lights cut into the roof in 1812, when the area was under the control of the Record Office, and which were later enlarged by the architect, Anthony Salvin. In 1884, the Royal Engineers brought electric lighting into the gallery although ffoulkes found the hanging globes rather too harsh.

It was Salvin also who created the light wells in the floor in 1856 – the surrounding railing of Land Transport Corps’ swords dates from the same period.  It was these that ffoulkes attacked in the first instance.

In the foreground the hated “railings”; the figures have changed alignment, now riding out across the gallery.  The photograph was taken before May 1910 as the Yeoman Warder has the ER cypher (Edward VII 1901 – 1910). © Royal Armouries

In the foreground the hated “railings”; the figures have changed alignment, now riding out across the gallery. The photograph was taken before May 1910 as the Yeoman Warder has the ER cypher (Edward VII 1901 – 1910). © Royal Armouries

ffoulkes crowed in the Tower minute book (i.189) “13 Feb 1914 – After over 60 years the incongruous railings of Band [sic] swords round the well-holes in the upper Armouries were removed today” – and the diary (i.188) claims the holes were filled in.  Slowly but surely the Armouries was being propelled into the 20th century.

The shape of things that came. © Royal Armouries

The shape of things that came. © Royal Armouries

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

The Curator goes to War – Happy New Year! – January 1914

The year 1913 ended on a high for ffoulkes with the acquisition of a large volume of the Inventory and Remains of the Tower and Armouries on 18 December.  History fails to record what ffoulkes had actually been looking for in the Ordnance Office, but his discovery and subsequent annexation of this “1,000 pages” dealing with armour stores from 1675-8 was a weighty addition to the collection.

A weighty tome.  © Royal Armouries

A weighty tome.
© Royal Armouries

Other curatorial highlights had included the cleaning of the mask of the horned helmet, “which had been painted red since 1660”, to reveal the engraved decoration beneath. This grotesque helmet (IV.22) is all that remains of an armour gifted to the young King Henry VIII by the Emperor Maximilian I and remains a startling piece.

The Horned Helmet revealed. © Royal Armouries

The Horned Helmet revealed.
© Royal Armouries

Front of house, ffoulkes had continued the work re-organising the displays on the White Tower top floor that his predecessor and mentor, Lord Dillon, had begun.  Most spectacularly Henry VIII’s silver and engraved armour had been remounted on Mr Joubert’s noble, if not entirely life-like model horse, in May.

Joubert’s horse – and Henry © Royal Armouries

Joubert’s horse – and Henry
© Royal Armouries

January 1914 saw the Burgundian Bard shed its rider and move from balancing on the light well crossbeams to the central North side of the gallery.

The Burgundian Bard before its relocation in 1913.  Behind, the Curator’s office can be glimpsed through the southern arch. © Royal Armouries

The Burgundian Bard before its relocation in 1913. Behind, the Curator’s office can be glimpsed through the southern arch.
© Royal Armouries

Perhaps most importantly, ffoulkes addressed a number of basic collection issues. In July 1913, he tackled the “question of the military remains of the United Kingdom” involving the British Museum, the Rotunda Woolwich, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and of course the Tower Armouries.  Despite the Rotunda’s refusal to participate, and RUSI’s non-committal approach, a committee was formed, meeting at the Tower in December and their initial report produced in January.

In October 1913, he had contacted the Lords Lieutenant of various counties proposing the return of their militia colours currently held at the Tower, suggesting they be kept in a local church or public building thereafter. By 31 December 1913,  he had their consent, and so the New Year dawned with the prospect of numerous photo opportunities as ffoulkes personally made the returns.  His master stroke?  The counties footed the bill.

The Armouries “office” (1883 -1915) recorded by ffoulkes as 38 feet long x 4 foot 7.5 inches wide, housing 2 tables and 2 chairs for examination of the collection. © Royal Armouries

The Armouries “office” (1883 -1915) recorded by ffoulkes as 38 feet long x 4 foot 7.5 inches wide, housing 2 tables and 2 chairs for examination of the collection.
© Royal Armouries

Armed with the Treasury’s grant of £765 towards producing a large illustrated catalogue of the Armouries – roughly equivalent to £62,200 today – ffoulkes had a busy year in prospect.

There was still the outstanding question of accommodation.  The Armouries’ office consisted of a mural passage running along the south face of the White Tower top floor, behind the displays and inherited from the Storekeepers.  Dillon had chosen to conduct his extensive correspondence from his library in Ditchley, thriftily travelling up to London 3rd class to deal with the collections.  Meanwhile, foulkes was resolved to achieve better on site provision, but coming events would overshadow and delay such considerations.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries

King James, Japanese armour and the perils of collecting shunga…

Dr Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour at Royal Armouries, tells us about his upcoming lecture on Japanese Gift Armour and why 2013 is an important year…

2013 is the 400th anniversary of diplomatic contact between England and Japan. Not, you might think, one of the most exciting facts of the year, but it’s an important anniversary for Royal Armouries because we hold the only material remains of the first diplomatic meeting back in 1613, the two armours given by the Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Hidetada, to King James I of England. One is here in Leeds, the other at the Tower of London. In honour of this fact we themed our 2013 Tower conference East Meets West on the diplomatic giving of arms and armour between Asia and Europe, as part of J400 (see http://japan400.com/ if you would like to learn more). On Wednesday 27 November at 6.30pm I will be giving a lecture at the museum in Leeds about the gift armours.

Japanese armour presented by Tokugawa Hidetada to King James I in 1613, on display at the Tower by 1660. © Royal Armouries

Japanese armour presented by Tokugawa Hidetada to King James I in 1613, on display at the Tower of London by 1660. © Royal Armouries

Within 10 years of the gift of our armour, it had all ended: Japan became a closed country, isolated from the rest of the world for the next 225 years. In England, we forgot where the armours came from, and called the armour that was displayed in the Tower of London from 1660 the ‘armour of the Great Moghul’. The Royal Armouries’ armours weren’t the only ones, either. There is a whole herd of them in European collections, all traceable to gifts from the Japanese government to foreign powers within a 40-year period. You can make quite a nice holiday by visiting them all (in Madrid, Paris, Copenhagen, Innsbruck as well as Leeds and London) or you could just come to the lecture and find out more about them, and why collecting shunga can be perilous!

Blogger: Thom Richardson, Keeper of Armour at Royal Armouries

Lecture: Japanese Gift Armour, Wednesday 27 November, 6.30pm. For more information or to book tickets visit the website.

The Forgotten Dig…

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections -tells us about the new pilot volunteer project which works with Artefacts from the Tower’s foreshore.

In September 1986, Royal Armouries funded an excavation on the River Thames’ foreshore, in front of the Tower of London wharf to the east of Traitors’ Gate.

The dig on the Tower Foreshore in 1986, the report details the difficult working conditions as the tide flooded the trench twice a day. © Royal Armouries

The dig on the Tower Foreshore in 1986, the report details the difficult working conditions as the tide flooded the trench twice a day. © Royal Armouries

The excavation’s aim was to determine the depth and nature of archaeological deposits in the area with the hope of identifying stratified deposits and finding evidence of the Board of Ordnance’s foundries on the bank of the Thames.

The dig was deemed successful, identifying a series of compacted sloping foreshores dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries, and uncovering a large number of weapon parts – potential evidence of the Ordnance workshops.

A report was written, the artefacts bagged and that was the end of it. Until now…

I recently met some volunteers who are going to start to help repack these artefacts to today’s best practice standards. They are also going to help me start to catalogue them so we have a better, fuller idea of what this collection contains.

How the artefacts are stored today. They are in good condition but we hope the new standards will save space and make objects more accessible. © Royal Armouries

How the artefacts are stored today. They are in good condition but we hope the new standards will save space and make objects more accessible. © Royal Armouries

To get to this stage I have been working with the LAARC (London Archaeological and Archive Centre) which has been indispensable in giving guidelines as to how the collection should be stored. This involved a tour of their amazing store and they have some brilliant literature on their website. They have also sourced some experienced volunteers to help with our pilot project here at the Tower. These volunteers have a range of backgrounds and have experience of volunteering for LAARC or the Thames Discovery Project or sometimes both!

The pilot project runs for six weeks and will hopefully give us an idea of how long it will take to complete the repacking, labelling and documentation for all the artefacts. Armed with this knowledge, we can look to completing the project and realise the full potential of this forgotten dig.

To keep up with the progress of the volunteers, follow one of their blogs.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

The Survival of the Biggest…

Keeper of Artillery, Nicholas Hall tells us how the British Army’s biggest gun survived from 1918 until today and why its arrival at Fort Nelson was the highlight of his career.

I heard about the existence of a British railway gun sometime in the late 1980s, whilst development of the Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson was underway. Luckily for me, the Ordnance Society arranged a visit to the artillery ranges at Shoeburyness, Essex, in 1989. A highlight was viewing the last British railway gun to survive – the mighty 18-inch Railway Howitzer. Although no longer used for trials, it was maintained in excellent order as an ‘asset’. Little did I know that one day it would come to Fort Nelson.

The gun arrives at Fort Nelson. © Royal Armouries

The gun arrives at Fort Nelson. © Royal Armouries

But after my trip to Shoeburyness, I never forgot about it and wondered what would happen to the 180-tonne gun when the New Ranges were rationalised. It was transferred to the Royal Artillery Historical Trust and displayed near the Royal Artillery Museum at the Rotunda, Woolwich. When the Artillery Museum moved into the old Royal Arsenal, the Railway Howitzer was taken to Larkhill, the Royal Artillery’s new HQ. It was safe at Larkhill but it was rather tucked away, even from those on site. Before travelling to Fort Nelson, it had formed the exhibition centrepiece at the Het Spoorwegmuseum (Dutch Railway Museum) in Utrecht.

The First World War ended before any 18-inch Howitzers were ready, but four were completed soon afterwards.

Some were used for testing purposes on artillery ranges and one had a new lease of life in the Second World War – serving on a railway line in Kent, in readiness to blast the beaches if a German invasion force landed. Each 18-inch shell weighed about a ton but the howitzer was never fired in anger as the feared invasion never occurred.

Seeing the gun’s arrival at Fort Nelson has to be one of the most exciting days of my career and I am thrilled that we have it here for the First World War Centenary next year.

Laying the track into the Artillery Hall at Fort Nelson with the help of 65 Works Group 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers [Railway Infrastructure]  [CN 1126.17] © Royal Armouries

Laying the track into the Artillery Hall at Fort Nelson with the help of members from the 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers (Railway Infrastructure) 
[CN 1126.17] © Royal Armouries

Blogger: Nicholas Hall, Keeper of Artillery, Fort Nelson

For more information about the arrival of the 18-inch Railway Howitzer at Fort Nelson, read the press release.

Equine Installion-ations – a continuing story of museum ffoulkes

Currently wooden horses and armour dominate Royal Armouries’ life at the Tower with the opening of the new exhibition celebrating the Line of Kings – our oldest on-site display and the longest-running visitor attraction in the world.

One hundred years ago, the Tower Curator Charles ffoulkes (who unusually spelled his surname without an initial capital letter) was similarly engaged as he turned his attention to one of the iconic pieces in the Royal Armouries collection and its mount.

Henry VIII’s silvered and engraved armour for man and horse (II.5 & VI 1-5) was believed to be a wedding gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian to the young king and his first bride, Catherine of Aragon. Today the armour is dated to about 1515 and attributed to Henry’s Greenwich workshops. It retains a touch of romance, with the couple’s initials decorating the skirt of the rider’s armour and background heraldry incorporating their personal and family badges.

© Royal Armouries

© Royal Armouries

The rearing horse that had carried this armour throughout the 19th into the early 20th century had fallen victim to the ongoing fight against woodworm raging in the White Tower. The gallant steed is shown displayed in the New Horse Armoury -  a crenellated Gothic addition to the south face of the White Tower built in the 1820s to accommodate the revamped 17th century Line of Kings – in Frank M Good’s stereoscopic card.

© Royal Armouries

© Royal Armouries

In 1882 the New Horse Armoury was emptied prior to demolition. Henry and his horse found themselves relocated to the White Tower top floor west, balanced  precariously on the exposed beams crossing the mid 19th century light wells.

© Royal Armouries

© Royal Armouries

The Tower Diary (I.188) notes  “a new horse of papier maché made by M.Felix Joubert of Chelsea” arriving in the Tower on May 6,  1913. Monsieur Joubert was more famed as a cabinet maker, and during the Great War produced a trench knife, but his new horse proved popular, if rather unrealistic, in its arrested stance, and its relatives appeared in supporting roles at Windsor Castle and the Wallace Collection.

It was hoisted up to the top floor of the White Tower as this contemporary photograph shows.

© Royal Armouries

© Royal Armouries

In October, 1914, the original deal horse “formerly used for the engraved suit” and “marked 1824, Graher and Wooton carpenters” was “cut by order”.  This was another historic link severed, as 1824 was the time that Sir Samuel Meyrick was re-organising the Line of Kings display in a more scholarly fashion and buying in new horses.

In 2009, Joubert’s horse was itself retired, returning to Leeds, and Henry found himself astride a flocked 21st century horse commissioned from David Hayes as part of the Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill exhibition celebrating the quincentenary of Henry’s accession (1509).  You are invited to trot along to view the pair and their companions on the White Tower entrance floor.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries.

Line of Kings: The Haunting of Richard III, part 2

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections, continues her investigations into why Richard III wasn’t included in the Line of Kings…

As discussed in my previous blog, Richard III was not present in the historic displays of the Line of Kings in the Tower, as at the time he was not an acceptable symbol of monarchy. However, his presence was felt through the association with other figures represented in the displays. These included the two ‘lost princes’, the nephews Richard is said to have murdered in the Tower.

In this Ink drawing of the Line of Kings, you can just about see the crown floating above Edward V’s head. © Royal Armouries

In this Ink drawing of the Line of Kings, you can just about see the crown floating above Edward V’s head. © Royal Armouries

We have descriptions of Edward V from Tower of London guidebooks from the 1750s, when he was displayed in a child’s armour sitting on a horse with a crown floating above his head – this is explained in the guidebook to signify the fact that Edward was declared king but never crowned. He is also displayed with a lance, which I believe is used to emphasise his small size compared to the large figures of Edward IV and Henry VII on either side.

Though not in the line; his brother, the other ‘lost prince’, Richard, Duke of York, was also represented in 18th century displays at the Tower. As legend has it, Richard would have been approximately 10 years old when his uncle ordered his death within the walls of the Tower. In these displays, Richard is portrayed wearing a tiny suit of armour, too small for a 10-year-old, and holding a miniature lance.

The Dwarf Armour II.126, stands at 37.5in tall. © Royal Armouries

The Dwarf Armour II.126, stands at 37.5in tall. © Royal Armouries

The miniature size of the armour and lance would have worked well to convey the vulnerability of a child. I also think the use of armour would contribute to that look of vulnerability. Armour, unlike clothing, is able to give a true impression of body size and stature as it was tailored to fit the individual. So the appearance of this ‘second skin’ as something that is made to protect but so small and delicate would have emphasised the fragility of the person it was supposed to represent. The miniature lance, in contrast to his brother’s giant lance, works to emphasise this child-like quality, looking more like a toy than a serious tool of sport.

It is also worth remembering that in 1674 the discovery of the bones of two boys, thought to be 10 and 13-years-old, during the demolition of the forebuilding set against the south face of the White Tower, appeared to confirm the legend of Richard III’s murderous deeds.

This is obviously not conclusive, but ties the Richard III and the two boys closely to Tower history only strengthened through these historic displays. Though Richard doesn’t appear in our new exhibition, it seems guaranteed that whatever one thinks of him, he will continue to lurk in the shadows of Tower history!

The Line of Kings opens on 10 July 2013. Read more blogs in the Line of Kings Series.

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).