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Plain Jane and her ugly sisters

PUBLISHED: 17:11 28 February 2013 | UPDATED: 17:11 28 February 2013

A pair of 12-bore sidelock ejector guns, built in 1915. Sold for £8,400 at a Stephen Grant & Sons auction

A pair of 12-bore sidelock ejector guns, built in 1915. Sold for £8,400 at a Stephen Grant & Sons auction

Archant

It’s not all about having a pretty exterior, as Diggory explains…

Trawling through my catalogues, I often find myself staring at portraits of refined ladies from good families, with perfect pedigrees, all remarkably well-preserved for their age. Unfortunately, their features are not to the prevailing taste of the gentlemen considering investing in their services nowadays, and they are all too often overlooked in favour of their gaudy bejewelled cousins.

Since the English settled on their restrained and unpretentious interpretation of good taste in the aesthetic of sporting guns some time in the early 1800s, their quiet and superior attitude to the influence of the popinjay and the macaroni and their spiritual successors from foreign shores has been something of a quietly fought and unsung rearguard action.

With successive nouveau riche clientele demanding their money be loudly evident in everything they spend it on, we have seen Indian princes, Greek shipping magnates, Texan oil barons and Russian oligarchs queue up to tax the sensibilities of the traditional London gunmaker. Much like the Savile Row tailor, the long-suffering representatives of the English gun trade must have secretly despaired at the gaudy vulgarity they were required to build into their lovely, functionally perfect and understatedly elegant masterpieces.

However, he who pays the piper has long called the tune, and generations of gunmakers have tried their best to interpret the dubious tastes of their customers and incorporate them into sporting guns of which they could be proud. The British have always somehow managed to interpret even the most questionable order with a distinct whiff of class. One example that comes to mind is the Minoudis Purdey. Mr Minoudis, a Greek with an immediately apparent fixation for one-upmanship, demanded that Purdey provide a letter with his gold-inlaid 12-bore declaring it was the best the firm had ever built. They complied but one can almost hear the discomfort between the lines of the statement.

Much of today’s output is dominated by the bold, chiselled relief and cross-hatched contrast exemplified by some of the famous Italian engraving schools. Matched with extravagantly figured wood and, often, gold-inlay of the maker’s name, gun buyers increasingly eschew the traditions which made British sporting guns the best in the world.

This may explain why auctions are so frequently populated with guns without engraving, with plain wood and lacking any obvious signs of quality to the un-tutored eye. In a recent conversation with an American client, he struggled to grasp my contention that ‘quality is where you find it’. The name ‘Boss’ on a gun does not make it a better gun than another. If the quality is the same, it is the same. But if you can’t see quality, the name can reassure you. Better in my book to be able to see the quality and buy the gun without paying for a name!

So many people, however, disagree. They think quality has to mean expensive wood, a famous name, gold inlay or complex engraving. The English aristocracy of old often had the very opposite idea. It seems that for a significant few, the application of engraving, fancy wood or other frippery distracted from the key things; build quality and mechanical precision handcrafted into the ultimate expression of sporting gunnery.

Two recent lots at Bonham’s exemplify such sensibilities. One lot was a pair of Purdey sidelocks, built in 1905 for Sir William Eden, 7th Baronet of West Auckland and something of a renaissance man. A soldier, hunter and horse breeder who boxed, rode, shot, painted and collected art, his guns reflect an independence of mind and inner confidence. He went to the best gunmaker of the day and ordered self-opening sidelocks ‘in the black’. The only engraving on the gun are the maker’s name and the numbers ‘1’ and ‘2’.

Another pair, made by Holland & Holland in 1930, also reflect a very unpretentious approach to ordering quality guns. The Dominion model, at the time known as the ‘Number 3’ is a back-action gun, built by W&C Scott on the Scott & Baker patent action. The wood is straight grained and plain compared with modern ideals, only the lock border engraved and the steel barrels 26½”, which was the Holland & Holland short-barrel preference, in response to Churchill’s then-fashionable XXV concept. H&H applied this length primarily to their Royal Brevis model.

When searching auctions for good value, dwell a little on these apparent ‘plain Janes’. Like the no-name best gun, they deserve to be examined and could just represent that beautiful quality, mechanically-perfect gun you always wanted.

Be secure in the knowledge that your distinguished lady performs delightfully in your hands and has hidden depths, rather than the obvious charms displayed by many less interesting and fulfilling models of poorer breeding.

By Diggory Hadoke

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