In this monthly blog series, our collections team write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. In this month’s blog, Lisa Traynor, Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum, explores the history of the elaborately decorated Tula Garniture.
A show of wealth
Prior to the 15th century, weapons of the hunt were largely the same as those used in warfare. However, as the techniques of hunting became more specialised and the grandest weaponry more elaborate, the use of highly decorated equipment in the hunting field became an important way to demonstrate wealth and status.
Hunting garnitures usually consist of a selection of matching firearms and accessories, sometimes including edged weapons. They were produced in some numbers in the eighteenth century, especially in Germany and Russia. The firearms of this sporting garniture held at the Royal Armouries are a product of the state-run smalls-arms factory at Tula, Russia, established in 1712. Principally intended for the production of military arms, the factory began producing luxury weapons for monarchs and nobles in the middle of the 18th century.
This garniture consists of a shotgun and a pair of pistols dated 1752, together with a powder flask and a pair of stirrups, probably added to the garniture later that century. All three firearms bear the monogram of Empress Elizabeth of Russia (reigned 1741 to 1762), daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I, a reminder that such items were prized by the highest echelons of society.
Their exquisite decoration reflects not only the taste and fashion of the period but also Empress Elizabeth’s passion for art and hunting. Like many Russian hunting arms of the time, they are decorated in the French style closely associated with the designs of De Lacollombe and Nicholas Guérard.
The inlaid silver decoration of a sporting scene on the butt of the shotgun is an almost exact copy of one of Guérard’s engravings. The barrels of all three firearms are decorated in their entirety with rococo scrollwork on a gold background, en-suite with their locks and side plates. Near the breech is the crowned monogram of Empress Elizabeth, and halfway down its length, the inscription TULA 1752.
There is a sliding safety-catch to the rear of the cock and the frizzle incorporates an additional pan cover operated by a lever in the back of the steel, which may be closed separately to act as a further safety device. This ingenious feature was not confined to arms produced in Tula, and may also be found on a number of other guns in the Royal Armouries collection, notably a sporting gun signed LORENZONI FIRENZE dating from around 1695.
The steel furniture is decorated to match the lock and barrel. The silver-gilt escutcheon is formed as the Imperial Russian Eagle and, in the centre, a cartouche decorated with the figure of a horseman.
An Intriguing History
Acquired by the Royal Armouries in 1950, this group of firearms and accoutrements is shrouded in historical intrigue. The history of the garniture’s journey to Britain is uncertain. Letters dating from 1814 held in the Royal Armouries’ archive suggest that it may have been brought back from Moscow in 1812 by the Chevalier Louis Guérin de Bruslart, a man of colourful character and by all accounts, a Bourbon agent, who had been entrusted by a Russian noble to deliver it to a member of the French nobility.
The archive suggests that the owner of the garniture was the Vicomtesse de Richemont. It is possible that the lady in question was, in fact, “Mrs Desbassayns”, the French plantation and slave owner notorious in history, fiction and Creole folklore.
Shortly after Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 Bruslart deposited the garniture with William Vardon, an ironmonger of Gracechurch Street, as security for a loan. He didn’t retrieve the garniture and it remained in the possession of Vardon’s descendants until its sale in 1950.