In the spring of 2007 National Trust curator Christopher Rowell was told that an eighteenth-century cannon-barrelled pistol with a connection to Ham House was going to come up at auction at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh.
The pistol was dated to about 1750 and its silver Rococo escutcheon was engraved with the Tollemache crest surmounted with a Viscount’s coronet. This indicated that it had belonged to Lionel Tollemache, Viscount Huntingtower (1734-1799), who succeeded as the 5th Earl of Dysart, and inhertited Ham, in 1770.
The National Trust’s firearms adviser, Brian Godwin, argued in favour of bidding for it, as he judged it to be a superb example of eighteenth-century English gunmaking. Its maker, James Barbar, was the son and apprentice of the celebrated Huguenot craftsman Louis Barbar, whom he succeeded as Gentleman Armourer to the King.
The pistol’s silver mounts incorporate Rococo decorative elements such as shells and flowers and a trophy of arms. As it is numbered ‘2’ it must originally have been one of a pair. At the auction in June 2007 we managed to buy the pistol for £4,693, funded from gifts and bequests.
The pistol is also interesting in having belonged to the 5th Earl of Dysart, who is somewhat under-represented in the collection at Ham. In 1760 he secretly married Charlotte Walpole, the niece of Horace Walpole who lived across the Thames in his celebrated villa Strawberry Hill. The 4th Earl disapproved of the match and refused to make any settlement on the couple, providing them with an allowance of only £400 a year.
When the 5th Earl and his wife came into their inheritance Horace Walpole immediately popped over to have a look at Ham, but the atmosphere of time suspended was evidently a bit overwhelming, even for someone of his avid historical curiosity:
Close to the Thames in the centre of all rich and verdant beauty, it is so blocked up and barricaded with walls, vast trees, and gates, that you think of yourself an hundred miles off and an hundred years back. The old furniture is so magnificently ancient, dreary and decayed, that at every step one’s spirits sink, and all my passion for antiquity could not keep them up.
There is an old brown gallery full of Vandycks and Lelys, charming miniatures, delightful Wouvermans, and Polenburghs, china, Japan, bronzes, ivory cabinets, and silver dogs, pokers, bellows etc., without end. (…) In this state of pomp and tatters my nephew intends it shall remain (…).
The 5th Earl became increasingly miserly and reclusive as he grew older, even refusing entry to King George III. But it was partly due to this period of stasis and isolation (coupled with later campaigns of conscientious restoration) that the remarkable Baroque ambiance at Ham was preserved.