Here be Dragons

Today (Monday, January 23) sees the coming of the Year of the Dragon, and any Chinese Dragon stopping off to visit London’s sights might care to look up some of his occidental relatives among the exhibits in the Royal Armouries’ galleries at the Tower of London.

Henry Tudor – On entering the White Tower, Henry VIII’s silvered and engraved armour (II.5; VI.1-5) sports dragons on both the man’s and horse’s harness. Unfortunately both are being vanquished by St George – the one on the breast plate by George on foot; the other on the chest of the horse armour appropriately enough by the saint mounted.

Engraving of St George and the dragon

Engraving of St. George slaying the dragon on the horse armour of Henry VIII

Agincourt – Hurrying onwards, the first floor contains a veritable flight of dragons. Perhaps the most obvious – and certainly the oldest – are squeezed onto inlaid decorative plaques on the saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon (VI.95). Those joining the order founded by King Sigismund of Hungary in 1408, were presented with a sword and saddle. Indeed this may be the saddle given to Henry V of Agincourt fame in 1416.

Decorated saddle

Saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon possibly presented to King Henry V

Charles I – Continuing the Royal association, the case opposite the Gothic dragons of the 15th century holds the tiny 17th century armour (II.126) possibly associated with Charles I as a child. A spitting dragon crouches on top of the helmet, its tail curling down to the back of the neck. If you look carefully, the helmet surface is scaled, and a fearsome monster frames the wearer’s face, with growling companions adorning the pauldrons or shoulder pieces. At only 95 cm tall, this is still something of mystery armour. 18th century visitors were told that it had belonged to Richard, Duke of York – brother of the uncrowned Edward V persuaded into the Tower for security in 1485 and never seen alive again. By the 19th century, the armour was more accurately dated but attributed to Jeffrey Hudson, dwarf to the court of Charles I.

Dragon in steel on top of helmet

Dragon perched on the helmet of the armour possibly belonging to Charles I

More dragons – Darting back in time, the World Treasures’ case contains a roaring dragon’s head (VI.319). Made by the German armourer Kunz Lochner in about 1550, it was designed as part of a crupper fitting along the horse’s back, with the tail flowing from between its jaws. Today the rest of the dragon rests in Poland.

Dragon shaped decoration for a horses tail

Part of a horse’s armour for protecting the tail

Passing around the end of the case, and along the side of the main case to the displays of the Great Collectors, another dragon lurks, clinging to the side of a German horse muzzle dated 1569 (VI.400) . The fashion for such things was short-lived from the end of the 16th to the early 17th century, but they remain popular among collectors and this example was bequeathed to the museum by Dr Richard Williams in 1974.

Horse muzzle

Pierced steel horse muzzle decorated with dragons

The beasties decorating the sides of the wheellock pistols (XII.1250/1) slightly further along may be related to the wider dragon family, but only distantly.

pistol with dragon decoration

Detail of decoration which may be a stylised form of dragon

Power House – However, the most impressive of the White Tower dragons welcomes visitors to the Power House display on the top floor – a fitting reward for toiling up so many twisty stairs. Its body is formed from elements of all the Tower institutions celebrated in the wider gallery – from weapons of the Ordnance to coins from the Mint and much else between – it greets you with a dragon-like roar if you pass by its far side.

Dragon constructed from arms, armour, maps, coins and guns.

Impressive – 4m high, 3.5m long with a wing span of 5m and weighing 1200 Kg!

New displays – Finally on the way out, lurking in the shadows under the staircase in the Basement but moving to a more prominent position in the coming redisplay of the area, are a pair of Burmese dragons. Fabulously moustached, they sit atop a bronze bell (XVIII.19) dated 1797 and presented in 1874 by the Constable of the Tower Field Marshal Sir William Gomm, previously Commander-in Chief of British forces in India from 1850 – 1855.

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

The new displays open at the beginning of April, and this pair provides a fitting celebration of the Year of the Dragon.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Collections South, Tower of London

Keeper of the Tower

Royal Armouries Head of Creative Programmes, Karen Whitting dreamed up the idea for a mighty dragon, inspired by the small figures of a dragon and a hydra in the scale model of the Grand Storehouse at the Tower of London. Working with the creative team at Haley Sharpe Design a concept drawing was produced which York-based Paragon Creative have brought wonderfully to life.

Building on the tradition of trophies of arms and armour created at the Tower of London from the late 17th century, this new dragon has been constructed using objects and materials that represent nine institutions which were housed in the Tower and took 500 hours to design, assemble and install.

From concept to construction

From concept to construction

The spectacular 4.5m tall dragon forms the centrepiece of the Royal Armouries’ permanent new exhibition at the White Tower – Power House. We felt that such a magnificent beast deserved a befitting name. Thanks to all those who entered the Royal Armouries and History™ competition, we are delighted to reveal the dragon will be called Keeper.

The mighty mythical beast is 3.5m long and comprises over 2,672 items – all representing the great organisations of state that took refuge behind the mighty Tower’s walls.

Keeper of the Tower

Keeper of the Tower

The dragon, weighing 1,200kg, comprises the following:

  • Ordnance Office – armour, swords, firearms and cannon to create the back legs and body, including 22 antique pistols, four swords, four rifles, two bronze cannon and 20 bayonets
  • Menagerie – a cage for the ribcage
  • Prison – 30m of chain to create the tail
  • The Royal Mint – 2,000 gold and silver coins, representing the dragon’s fire
  • The Observatory – 26 telescopes
  • The Records Office and Ordnance Survey – parchments and maps for wings
  • The Jewel House – 400 glass rubies, plus a replica King Henry VIII collar.

Other items include eight breastplates, six muskets, 15 poleaxes, 10 mail vests, four shields and bucklers and 50 replica trial plates.

Blogger: Beckie Senior, Communications Officer

The Washing of the Lions

Found amongst the Royal Armouries archives at The Tower of London this fragile scrap of paper is a ticket for perhaps one of the most unusual April Fool’s Day stunts in British history – The Annual Ceremony of Washing the Lions.

Washing of the Lions Ticket

Washing of the Lions Ticket

The printed and wax sealed ticket admits Victorian visitors to the Tower via the White Gate, with strict instructions not give gratuities to any of the wardens on duty.

All in all, an entertaining spectacle appears to be promised – however all is not as it seems and the date of the event gives us a clue  – Monday, April The 1st, 1856.  We believe the ticket is part of an elaborate hoax – an elaborate April Fools’ joke.

As far as we know there wasn’t a Senior Warden by the name of Herbert de Grafsen, or an entrance to the Tower known as The White Gate, plus the Royal Menagerie within the Tower ceased to exist in 1835! What we don’t know is how successful the spoof was and how many gullible souls were taken in by it.

This fascinating story is featured in our new permanent exhibition Power House, which opens on Saturday 2 April 2011 at theTower of London.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant and Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Collections (South) & Tower History

Power House – Object Conservation 4

Object: Uniform Coat of the Duke of Wellington c.1835 (xvi.8)

Blogger: Suzanne Dalewicz-Kitto, Conservation Manager

This blue cloth uniform with white lining and scarlet facing was worn by the Duke of Wellington when he was Constable of the Tower of London. It has gilt buttons bearing a miniature of the White Tower in silver, and epaulettes made of gold and silver thread.  The coat is in reasonable condition with only a few small holes and surface grazing of the cloth, probably caused by moths.  The main area of interest to our Conservators were the tarnished metal threads and spangles (sequins) on the epaulettes.

Duke of Wellington's uniform

Duke of Wellington's uniform coat

Metal threads are fragile at the best of time.  Some are made from twisted fine metal wire and others are formed by twisting wire around a cotton or silk thread.  When applying treatments to remove the tarnish Conservators have to be careful not to leave residues behind that will ‘rot’ the thread over time.  On these epaulettes there are eight different types of thread design including: dull purl, pearl purl, bright check and Lizardine close.

Detail of the left epaulette before and after treatment

Detail of the left epaulette before and after treatment

The tarnish was removed by gently cleaning the surfaces with a damp swab using a mixture of carefully chosen chemicals.  This was carried out under a microscope to make sure no metal threads were being pulled away from the epaulette.  Residues where removed again by careful swabbing using deionised water – very pure water that has had any minerals filtered out of it.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at theTower of London which opens on Saturday 2nd April. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

Power House – Object Conservation 3

Object: Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Blogger: Nyssa Mildwaters, Conservation

This musket is one of several experimental firearms which are to be included in the Power House exhibition. The musket was designed and made by the gunmaker Richard Wolldridge who worked at the Tower from about 1704 until 1749. Although this particular pattern or design was not issued to the military its does show the general form which British military firearms were beginning to take in the early 18th century.

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

The musket was is a very good condition prior to entering the Conservation Lab with only a small amount of old yellowed oil visible on the lock. Even though the exterior of the musket didn’t need a great deal of remedial work the lock mechanism was carefully removed from the musket, after of course checking that the firearm wasn’t loaded.

When working with firearms we will always, where possible, remove the lock mechanism in order to check the condition of the lock’s interior as well as the underside of the barrel. Often the interior of a lock can look very different to its external appearance, with combinations of dirt, old oil or wax and corrosion all potentially present.

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Flintlock Land Service Musket (1715) XII.80

Luckily in this case the interior of the lock was in a very good condition with no further cleaning or disassembly needed. The musket was therefore reassembled, making sure that the screws were replaced in exactly the same order they were removed. This is good practise as particularly with older firearms the screws threads will have been hand cut so using the wrong screw can damage both the screw itself as well as the internal thread.

Once the old yellowed oil was cleaned from the musket’s lock using solvent swabs the metallic sections of the object were given a thin coating of Micro Crystalline wax providing a protective layer. Finally the object was photographed and packaged for transport to the Tower of London.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at theTower of London. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

Power House – Object Conservation 2

Object: Brass belt plate (mid 19th century) I.979 ii

Blogger: Nyssa Mildwaters, Conservation

It’s always nice to work on an object which can be related back to a particular person in history. This belt plate is one of a pair of objects relating to the Board of Ordnance’s only identified rat-catcher, Richard Dean.

The plate is the only surviving portion of Dean’s uniform and he can be seen wearing it in a portrait which is to be displayed alongside the plate. The brass belt plate is engraved with a rat shown sitting below the arms of the Board of Ordnance, whilst around the edge the inscription reads ‘Richard Dean, Chislehurst, Rat Destroyer to the Honorable Board of Ordnance’.

Belt Plate

Belt Plate

In order to make the letters and images engraved on the plate stand out a black enamel-like material was originally applied to the object. Unfortunately over time this material has cracked and in some areas has been lost. Where damage to the enamel had occurred traces of a powdery green corrosion could also be seen.  The powdery corrosion was carefully removed from the damaged lettering and other areas of decoration using a scalpel whilst under magnification. Once clean it was necessary to stabilise the enamel to prevent any further cracking or loss, this was done by running a thin adhesive solution into the damaged areas.

Before and after conservation

Before and after conservation

In addition to the problems with the lettering several finger and palm prints were clearly visible and spread across the plate. When we handle metal objects with our bare hands the sweat and oils on our fingers are transferred to the objects and if not swiftly removed can become etched into the objects’ surface. Sadly there is no way of removing finger prints once they are etched into a metal surface without removing the object’s top layer at the same time. Once fingerprints are imprinted they are generally there for good, which is why conservators always ask people to wear gloves when handling or moving objects.

This object will be featured in our forthcoming Power House exhibition at the Tower of London. Find out more about the work of our Conservation Team on our website.

Power House Installation: Week One

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Creative Programmes

Construction of the Power House exhibition at the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London began last week. Preparing the gallery for the installation has involved ripping out the old displays, which in an old building can be problematic if unanticipated issues are found.

Often all the pre-planning and preparation done prior to installation can be overturned in an instant – with new solutions and decisions needed immediately. However, with the right project team these moments feel more exciting and a challenge to be solved rather than finding them to be insurmountable problems.

 

Squeezing into the Tower of London

Squeezing into the Tower of London

On day three of the build a clear blue sky greeted the delivery of the crane – an excellent situation as snow or high winds would have meant potential schedule delays. The crane lorry squeezed its way under the Tower’s historic archways and over bridges to take up residence, allowing the removal of the old exhibition material and lift in of new build items.

Craning items in and out

Carefully craning items in and out

By day four it was apparent that the existing showcases had originally been screwed very firmly to the floor and each supporting foot had to be located and unscrewed before they could be moved to their new positions. However, as move after move took place and with a van and 2 builders skips of old material left the site, it was clear that a new exhibition was beginning to take shape.

As the first week drew to a close not only had all the cases been repositioned, they had also received a complete internal fit-out and one of our new cases was also finished. Everything was ready for graphic installation – and then objects…

More images of the installation at the Tower of London can be found on our Flickr page.