Books in brief: arms and armour


Tony North. Arms and Armour: a Memorial Volume of His Collected Articles

David Williams and Eric Turner, eds

Arms and Armour Society in association with Ken Trotman Publishing, 115pp, £28.50 (hb)

A.R.E. North (1942-2012) was a remarkably self-effacing individual, given that he was one of the greatest modern scholars of arms, armour and metalwork. In a career spanning nearly four decades at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), North became a central figure not only in the museum community but also in the collecting world. He amassed an encyclopaedic hands-on expertise, not just in the area of historical weapons, but also of antique metalwork in general, unparalleled in its range and depth. North’s death was a hard blow to our collective cultural memory, since he only ever wrote down a small proportion of that knowledge. That is not to say, however, that his output as a scholar was small. Quite the opposite in fact.

This publication is a selection of 22 of his articles, published between 1971 and 2005. They are supported with biographical notes as well as the speech North delivered upon his retirement from the V&A in 2002. The inclusion of this extraordinary text makes this volume especially effective and indeed moving.

Right from the beginning, the reader is given an unusually strong sense of North’s personality, his world, and the deep passion he felt for his subjects and for the past in general. This strong personal voice then continues throughout the diverse scholarly pieces which follow, a testament not only to North’s knowledge as a curator and antiquary, but also to his skill as a writer of genuinely readable texts on quite specialised subjects. These include (but are by no means restricted to) royal French firearms, Islamic weapons, Japanese swords, English duelling pistols, and a gun-shield from the arsenal of King Henry VIII. Certain of North’s special interests shine through in the content of multiple articles—notably, English swordsmithing and metalworking in the 17th and 18th centuries, and in particular the products of the blade-making centre at Hounslow and the cut-steel work of Woodstock.

It was this last topic on which I had the pleasure of hearing North speak, in the early 2000s. It was an unforgettable lecture, begun with the declaration: “Only three people have ever shown any interest in English cut-steel: the Baron von Reitzenstein, Claude Blair, and myself. Reitzenstein is dead and Blair has gone mad, so I’m sorry but you’re left with me.” Only North could have pulled off such a statement. He had the status to get away with poking such wicked fun at his close friend and mentor Blair, who was still alive at the time (he died in 2010), while simultaneously radiating the extreme modesty of a true English connoisseur of the old school.

• Tobias Capwell is the curator of arms and armour at the Wallace Collection in London. He is the author of The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe 1520-1630. His book Armour of the English Knight 1400-50 has recently been published by Thomas Del Mar