The finest guns of Britain – New York Met’s unique exhibition to the history of arms

Words by Joe Minihane

29 June 2020

Marrying an intricate and ornate style with cutting-edge technology, London gun makers Durs Egg, Joseph Manton, and Samuel Brunn were at the forefront of a firearms revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Now, the works of these three fierce rivals are the subject of a fascinating exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Art of London Firearms.

Running until January 2020, the show brings together 14 different firearms made by Egg, Manton, and Brunn. Many of the weapons, which are drawn from the Met’s own extensive collection, have never or rarely been displayed before.

“Their restrained yet stately aesthetic and high level of craftsmanship, combined with their ingenious implementations of a great range of new technologies make these works interesting and rewarding on multiple different levels,” says John Byck, Assistant Curator of the Department of Arms and Armor at The Met.

Through their competition for business, the trio pushed each other to new heights, helping to refine and innovate flintlock pistols. Ditching the florid and overly embellished look that had become de rigueur in previous decades, their guns placed accuracy and handling to the fore.

“The best London firearms from this period are supremely elegant, and they are remarkable, too, because they are so distinct in appearance from most fine firearms being made contemporaneously on the Continent, which, by contrast, were usually highly embellished,” adds Byck.

That’s not, however, to suggest they were without decoration. The exhibition showcases a pair of gorgeously inlaid flintlock pistols made by Brunn between 1800 and 1801, replete with a gargoyle at the base of each handle. Less frivolous, but equally beautiful, is the simple flintlock weapon made by Brunn for the Prince of Wales, later King George IV.

Even the briefest look at these guns reveals a simple design that remains recognisable to this day - a testament to the fact that Egg, Manton, and Brunn changed the way weapons were perceived and used during their careers.

Today, their influence can be seen in the work of numerous major names, not least Boss & Co. William Boss worked alongside Joseph Manton and his son, Thomas Boss, went on to serve as Manton’s apprentice, going on to form the company that to this day has a reputation for spectacular craftsmanship.

The ornate finishes and simple yet classic designs of that period can also be seen reflected in the products of Holland & Holland and Purdey, whose founder, the eponymous James, also worked with Manton in his Oxford Street shop.

The Art of London Firearms is on at The Met Fifth Avenue, New York City until 29th January 2020.

On Thursday 16th May, Quintessentially members are invited to Englefield Estate for a day of shooting hosted by Quintessentially Foundation aand The Churchill Foundation. The annual event aims to raise awareness of James’ Place, that provides suicide crisis support for men. Thirty teams take part in a competitive morning of clay shooting, followed by lunch, a prize-giving and an afternoon of entertainment, including a live auction. Please contact your lifestyle manager for more information.

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