Lord Huntingtower’s pistol

Pistol by James Barbar at Ham House. ©NTPL/John Hammond

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.

Portrait of Viscount Huntingtower, later the 5th Earl of Dysart, c. 1750. ©National Trust /Christopher Warleigh-Lack

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.

©NTPL/John Hammond

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.

Enfilade at Ham House. ©NTPL/John Hammond

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.

The Long Gallery, described by Horace Walpole as: "... an old brown gallery full of Vandycks and Lelys..." ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

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.

Some of the "Lelys, ... china, japan" glimpsed by Walpole ©NTPL/John Hammond

He continued:

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 (…).

"... ivory cabinets, and silver dogs, pokers, bellows etc, without end." ©NTPL/John Hammond

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.  

2 Responses to “Lord Huntingtower’s pistol”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    Horace Walpole is the most amazing participant in and commentator on 18th century England. I can see why he might have been overwhelmed at Ham House. Walpole liked his antiquities more as a stage set; at Strawberry Hill, or in his novel The Castle of Otranto, the elements were under his control and the Gothic/antique flavor could be regulated to his taste, yielding just the right frisson.

    Your quote from him, “furniture is so magnificently ancient, dreary and decayed, that at every step one’s spirits sink” perfectly captures the spirit of all subsequent Gothic writing, and this line alone illustrates the debt of Mrs. Radcliffe, Edgar Allan Poe, etc. to Horace Walpole.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, yes Walpole’s comments are always vivid and entertaining, arent’ they? One can sense his charm and intelligence and perspicacity.

    But of course the very fact that he was such a charming gossip means that his comments can never be taken entirely at face value; his views are always thoroughly subjective and personality-driven – a bit like the utterances of a celebrity on one of those TV chat shows that were so popular in the seventies and eighties 🙂

    The sentence you quote is indeed a wonderful example of the emotional roller-coaster of his style, going from ‘magnificent’ to ‘dreary’ in just a couple of words.

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