Stuart Ivinson, Assistant Librarian at the Royal Armouries, Leeds, writes about an exciting new addition to our literary collection.
The library at the Royal Armouries in Leeds has recently acquired a rare and beautiful addition to it’s Special Collection of historical fencing manuals. The book in question is a first edition, published in 1765, of Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing, with a General Explanation of the Principal Attitudes and Positions Peculiar to the Art. (London: Printed for S. Hooper.)
The book was first published in England in 1763 under the French title L’Ecole d’armes avec l’explication generale des principales attitudes et positions concernant l’escrime. The 47 engravings that illustrate the work were produced from original drawings by the artist James Gwynn (Royal Academy). The illustrations were taken from life, and Angelo himself was the principal model. The 1765 edition is the first in English, and the only edition to have parallel English and French text on each page. It is also the only edition to be illustrated in colour; Gwynn’s illustrations being re-used and hand-coloured for the new edition.
Angelo (full name Domenico Angelo Malevolti Tremamondo) was born in Livorno, Italy in 1717, the son of a merchant. He probably began learning to fence in Italy, but later studied the French style under the fencing master Monsieur Teillagory in Paris, after being sent to study international trade by his father in about 1744. Whilst in Paris Angelo met and fell in love with the celebrated Irish Actress Margaret Woffington, who was then on tour, and travelled to London and then to Dublin with her in the early-1750s. After their affection came to an end Angelo moved back to London, where he met and married Elizabeth Johnson in 1755.
In London Angelo gained the patronage of the earl of Pembroke and quickly established a reputation as a fencing master and opened his own School of Arms in Carlisle House, Soho, in 1761. Such was his reputation that he numbered many wealthy gentlemen amongst his clientele, including several members of the Royal Family. With the great and good of the gentry as his pupils, Angelo’s place in society was assured. His school was also noted at the time for accepting female students, including actresses from the London theatres.
In 1763 he produced his great work L’Ecole d’armes. It was financed by subscriptions from over 200 of his wealthy clients, and dedicated to Princes William Henry and Henry Frederic (younger brothers to King George III), who were both pupils. The English translation, The School of Fencing, was produced in several editions, though none were as lavish as the first edition of 1765. It is thought that he was assisted in translating the text into English by his friend the famous French-English diplomat, spy, and transvestite the Chevalier d’Eon, another former pupil of Monsieur Teillagory.
The School of Fencing primarily teaches the use of the small-sword and fencing foil, with brief sections on the use of weapons for the off-hand, including dagger, cloak and lantern. There is also a section on the use of the small-sword against the military sabre (or broad sword, as Angelo terms it). In its day the book was recognized as a clear and concise guide to fencing, and the author was lauded for his emphasis on fencing being a gentlemanly exercise and accomplishment, as well as a skill of self defence. Indeed, so good was the work deemed to be, that Denis Diderot used it – in its entirety (with redrawn engravings in black and white) – as the fencing section of his famous Encyclopedie.
In 1780 Domenico Angelo handed over the running of his school to his eldest son Henry and retired to Eton, where he died in 1802. Our copy of his book was purchased From Peter Harrington’s Bookshop, Chelsea, London, and is now available to view in the library at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (alongside a copy of the second English edition of 1787). Considering its age, the book is in very good condition. The colours of the engravings are as bright as when they were made, although a couple of them have pencil marks added; suggesting that at least one reader in the past has thought that the postures depicted in some of the illustrations aren’t quite right!
Henk Pardoel’s work Fencing: a bibliography, (2005) cites only seven other known copies of the first English edition in public collections world-wide, with only one other in Great Britain (at the Bodlean Library, Oxford).
To book an appointment to visit the library in Leeds, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 0113 2201832.