Supergun Moves into Place

In the Royal Armouries collection are sections of one of the most infamous pieces of 20th Century artillery – the Iraqi Supergun. We have two sections of the barrel, weighing 2.1 tonnes, which have been the next objects moving into The Voice of the Guns gallery at Fort Nelson.

Development of the Iraqi weapon remains shrouded in secrecy – along with the murder of its inventor – but if all the tubes had been fully assembled the Supergun would have stretched over 150 metres and would have been able to send projectiles into a low orbit.

Inside the Iraqi Supergun

Inside the Iraqi Supergun

British Customs’ officers seized eight sections of the gun in March 1990 at Teesport Docks – as part of a consignment en route to Iraq.  Allowing the Bahamas-registered vessel to sail with its consignment would have contravened a ban on arms sales to Saddam Hussein’s state. Investigations revealed the gun was part of Saddam’s  “Project Babylon”.

If assembled, the gun would have been the biggest gun in the modern world. The weapon was the brainchild of Canadian Dr Gerald Bull, who was assassinated shortly before the parts were discovered.

Mobilising the Guns

This week has seen more moblisisation of the guns at Fort Nelson. Beck and Pollitzer have now moved the first exhibits – two anti-aircraft guns – into the new gallery, The Voice of the Guns. A further 12 guns will be moved into position during the next two weeks.

Moving the guns

Moving the guns

The guns moved this week included:

  • British 3.7-inch Anti-Aircraft gun and Searchlight – During the grim nights of the Blitz, the guns’ skilled crews worked closely with the searchlight batteries. Fort Nelson had its own gun batteries and also supplied the ammunition for the other guns in the area.

Weight – 8,120 kg. Date – 1943. Fire rate – 8 rounds per minute.

  • Bofors 40 mm Anti-Aircraft Gun – With one of the most rapid rates of fire, this versatile light anti-aircraft gun was used by Britain on both land and sea for over 30 years and was particularly effective against low-flying, attack aircraft. Whether operating in the North African desert campaign, or on a convoy in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bofors’ firepower saved countless Allied lives.

Weight – 1,920 kg. Date – 1940. Fire rate – 120 rounds per minute.

It’s particularly fitting that we’re starting with anti-aircraft guns, because, in World War II, Fort Nelson supplied ammunition to the AA batteries that defended the south coast. These weapons gave the local civilian population hope and a sense of fighting back, as they suffered through the blitzes of 1940-41.

Other guns to be moved into the new gallery include a French cannon, captured at the Battle of Waterloo; a bronze Russian cannon from the Crimean War of the 1850s, and sections from the barrel of the infamous Iraqi Supergun.

More images of the re-development of Fort Nelson can be found on our Flickr page.

Blogger: Beckie Senior, Communications Officer

Moving the Guns

Project focus at the Royal Armouries has moved from the historic White Tower in London to the equally stunning Victorian Fort Nelson near Portsmouth. This project offers a new set of challenges, combining an historic site with a new build – including  exhibition installation.

Interestingly, work within the existing galleries has turned out to be more straightforward than in the new build. Mainly because the design team and installers are working with a known quantity. To date, progress has been made in ripping out the old exhibition content, making good the gallery spaces and prepping electrics. The new art gallery space has also received its display plinth – made to measure on site and painted up ready to receive its cannon.

Moving the guns into position

Moving the guns into position

Over recent weeks we have seen installation of gun moving equipment in the new gallery – the Voice of the Guns – by engineering company Beck and Pollitzer. They have extraordinary experience of moving historic artifacts – including cannon at Greenwich and fine art such as the ship in a bottle in Trafalgar Square and sculpture by Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy – so our collection should be in safe hands. The installation culminated in a test lift and move of the 88 German Anti-aircraft gun which was carried out successfully.

We are looking forward to moving the remaining guns to their permanent homes within the galleries, which is scheduled to take place in July.

Blogger: Karen Whitting, Head of Creative Programmes

Fake Spotting – Top Tips

Fakers and forgers have always sought to deceive collectors with cleverly constructed copies, but would you be able to tell the difference? Standard thickness plates and screw threads, and spots of metal and scratches from electric or gas welders and evidence of the use of grinding tools are all obvious signs of modern methods. If the clues are more difficult to spot, scientific analysis through x-rays and microscopes can help to reveal the underlying composition of an object.

Duck's Foot Pistol

Duck's Foot Pistol

Here are our top tips on how to spot a fake:

1. Does it work?

Do visors lift as they are supposed to, do hinges open and close, do gun mechanisms operate? Often, logic and common sense are lost in the fabrication of fakes!

2. Does it use the correct materials?

Bronze is often a good indicator; old bronze is yellower, whilst more modern bronze tends to have a reddish hue.

3. Is it like the real thing?

For example, Samuel Pratt’s fake helmets were often much bigger, heavier and more intractable than the genuine articles. It was often impossible to actually wear them due to their weight and shape, and the vision slits were often in the wrong places.

4. Is the style of decoration of the right period and the right subject matter?

Modern aesthetics often feature in later fabrications, particularly in the decoration, as ideas about what looks good change over time.

5. Does it exhibit the right amount of wear/damage?

For example, with Japanese swords, original scabbards are often discoloured/blackened inside from use over time. Modern reproductions are often convincing on the outside, but remain clean on the inside.

6. Is the corrosion/patination in the right place?

These processes tend to reflect how an object has been used and kept over time, showing evidence of where it has been resting, whether it has been exposed, or kept in something, or damaged. With real objects, corrosion and patination is often localized and can be quite severe in places, with areas rusting away to almost nothing. With fakes, corrosion and patination is often evenly spread and too regular. Also, it is very rarely anything other than superficial; fakers are generally loath to spoil their hard work!

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Fake, Forgery or Replica?

Ever wondered how sneaky forgers managed to dupe and deceive the experts with fake arms and armour? Our Curators Emeritus Ian Bottomley and Peter Smithurst in their Fakes, Forgeries and Replicas Seminar sought to uncover some of the forger’s duplicitous tactics.

Fakes and forgeries often become more prolific when the demand and prices are high; consequently, the gothic revival and the rise of romanticism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provided ideal conditions for the fakes market to thrive as the craze for medieval pieces grew.

Examples of Samuel Pratt's handiwork

Examples of Samuel Pratt's handiwork

One of the most infamous fabricators of fakes of the 19th century was Samuel Pratt of Bond Street. Pratt was originally a vendor of antique furniture, but he colluded with a metalworker called Grimshaw and began to deal in ‘antique’ arms and armour. Some of the armour that he sold was real, but much was fake, being either copies or ‘improved’ items, such as a fifteenth-century sallet which Pratt modified into a basinet in around 1850.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Gory Guests

Students from Leeds City College’s Theatrical and Media Makeup Diploma course visited the Royal Armouries with a rather gory mission this week. As part of their assessments the Royal Armouries asked the Leeds students to prepare and carry out special effects make-up for a medieval battle scene.

Leeds City College students prepare their 'victim'

Leeds City College students prepare their 'victim'

Prior to their visit to the Museum students had prepared by researching the historical period, costumes, props and wounds. On the day the students also received an introductory lecture from our Curator of Historic European Edged Weapons Bob Woosnam-Savage on Medieval Weapons and Wounds.

Students pose demonstrating their make-up

Students pose demonstrating their make-up

Some groups had evidently spent a lot of time researching their projects and produced some great work on the day, with some fabulously gruesome results!

Blogger: Beckie Senior, Communications Officer

Are they real?

Dotted around the galleries of our Leeds Museum are a number of life-sized dioramas depicting animals in war, sport and hunting poses. One of the most commonly asked questions the gallery staff hear is “Are they real?”

Horse models in the War Gallery

Horse models in the War Gallery

This is because the horses, elephants, tiger and rhinoceros are all incredibly lifelike, and do look like fine examples of taxidermy. However, the animals in question are not real, but are excellent examples of the model-maker’s art.

These photos were taken during the building phase of our Leeds Museum, which opened in 1996, and show the models under construction. The various models were made by several different workshops. Most of the animals were produced by Gerry Embleton and David Hayes.

Model rhinoceros being created

Model rhinoceros being created

The true craftsmanship is in the detail – every fold of skin on the elephant’s hide or hair of the horse’s mane is modeled perfectly. Sometimes it feels as if they might actually leap off their displays and gallop off into the distance!

Bloggers: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant and Chris Streek, Image Librarian

Collections Up Close Special

With Royal Wedding celebrations in full swing this month we’re exploring armours which relate to one of the most influential marriages in British history. The Royal Armouries at the Tower of London is home to ornate armours which belonged to King Henry VIII and commemorate his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

Henry was crowned and married Katherine in 1509 when he was 17 years old and she was 23. Katherine had previously been married to his elder brother, Prince Arthur who had died. However, Henry and Katherine’s union ended when after 24 years together Henry sought an annulment of their marriage in his quest for a male heir instigating one of the most turbulent periods in British history.

Henry VIII's armour and detail of tonlet decoration

Henry VIIIs armour and detail of tonlet decoration

The suit of armour is decorated with Katherine’s pomegranates and also has a border of intertwined letters H and K for Henry and Katherine. The armour also features scenes from the lives of the royal couple’s patron saints, St George and St Barbara.

Horse armour made for Henry VIII

Horse armour made for Henry VIII

This ornately engraved, gilded and embossed horse armour was a gift to Henry from Emperor Maximilian I, the ornamentation features both her badge, the pomegranate, and Henry’s Tudor Rose. The elaborately decorated suit of armour and this horse armour was partly imported from Flanders and some parts were probably made in Henry’s own armourer’s workshop at Greenwich in 1515.

The Tower of London also houses military uniform and polo kit belonging to Prince Charles, on display in the Power House exhibition in the White Tower.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Towton on Twitter

On 29 March 1461 the largest and bloodiest battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought about 12 miles southwest of York, between the villages of Towton and Saxton. According to the chroniclers more than 50,000 soldiers from the Houses of York & Lancaster fought in blizzard conditions on Palm Sunday 550 years ago.

Towton 1461

Towton 1461

On Saturday 9 April join us on Twitter from our Towton History In Your Hands Seminar to learn more about the arms and armour of the period, find out how the battle unfolded and see images of contemporary pieces from the Royal Armouries collections. We’ll be Tweeting the day’s events live as they happen from 10.30am.

To join simply follow @Royal_Armouries on Twitter or search for #RAseminars on Twitter to join in the action. We’d love to hear any questions you have about the Battle of Towton so please ask away, on the day or in advance – we’re waiting to hear from you!

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