It’s hard to find a pair of duelling pistols these days, says antiques dealer Dominic Strickland. They were often split between inheriting siblings, with considerable consequences, as one of the audience at Strickland’s talk at Michael German Antiques recalls: two ancestral brothers fought a duel over a woman with their late father’s firearms. She never inherited the pistols, ‘just a portrait of the survivor’.
This is an uncommon conversation for a Wednesday afternoon but apt given that it is taking place inside the Kensington ‘Harry Potter wand shop’ that is Michael German Antiques. The occasion is ‘From Warrior to Dandy’, one of a number of ‘masterclasses’ run throughout the year by the Friends of the British Antique Dealers Association, typically taking place in the UK’s hidden antique hoards.
The amiable Strickland is the proprietor, having taken over from his father-in-law in providing arms, armour, walking canes and whaling memorabilia to discerning clients (‘We don’t advertise, we don’t do fairs’).
Strickland treats the enthralled gathering to a guided tour of his stock starting with the craftsmanship behind sixteenth-century armour. He explains how, at 55 pounds, a suit of quality armour was actually 32 pounds lighter than a modern squaddie’s Bergen rucksack. He also says that apart from crossbow bolts and lances, there were other occupational hazards such as overheating or, as one legend has it, a lightning strike.
Strickland’s encyclopaedic knowledge is impressive and it’s no wonder his talk overruns by an hour as guests bombard him with questions and queries about the artefacts he hands round. Soon each audience-member is hoovering up a litany of anecdotes and pub quiz answers: Wellington introduced the sabre to the British cavalry following his Indian campaigns; ‘flash in the pan’, ‘gone off half-cocked’ and ‘lock, stock and barrel’ all refer to pistols; cutlasses appear black not with blood but with tar to avoid rust at sea; the French requested the withdrawal of the British 1796 patent sword because it was so devastating; and he explains the evolutionary difference between wheel lock, flint lock, percussion cap and muff pistols.
Pictured above: Dominic Strickland
Following the arms and armour, we begin a tour of walking canes – very different to walking sticks, which are more for support than display. Although they seem pedestrian by comparison to the blood and guts of the blunderbusses and flick knife pistols we’ve just seen, they’re no less fascinating.
Strickland has a collection ranging from Faberge sticks to albatross skin canes, though sadly none from the time of Tutankhamun, when he says canes really began. However, he does have phrenology head canes, a carved Prometheus cane, automaton duck canes, violin canes, Napoleon’s cane, Cromwell’s cane, the obligatory sword stick and Oscar Wilde’s cane (‘because he really was the king of the dandies’)
Finally we are treated to the coup de grâce of this wonderful odyssey of oddity: whaling memorabilia. The majority of the pieces resemble folk art, paintings and carvings on whale bone from the nineteenth century.
They feature names of ships and sweethearts as well as more practical pieces such as net pickers, a whale-gum bodice and a double-wheeled pastry cutter made from a single tooth. The most confounding curio keeps the audience guessing for some time: resembling a colourful, solid shell, it turns out to be a portrait of a sailor painted on a whale’s eardrum.
Adding to the cultured nature of the seminar is the abundance of champagne at the end and the absence of price-tags, although Strickland does concede some of the items he has let us handle and examine are worth several thousands.
A Friends of BADA’s masterclass is an excellent starting place for learning about niche antiques… or buying a harpoon. More importantly than that, though, it is an opportunity to indulge the curious awe of your inner child, which is itself a treasure.