Photographing the European Arms and Armour photography was a huge and complicated project. Of my 8 years working at the Wallace Collection 5 of them involved working on this publication. Looking back on it now is interesting as so many things have changed. I didn’t have a studio at the time, I only had 3 lights, and I had never photographed Armour before. Now that the catalogue has been published I can look back on this period with great fondness, and happily we had the foresight to document the project as it went along, which I can now share. Welcome to the story of the European Arms and Armour project!
Considering the enormity of this project, we were a rather small team, with around 4 people working on it at a time. There are over 1300 objects in the European collection (not including separable parts…. but more of that later!) and all of them had to be cleaned, studied and photographed.
Photography for this project began in a small room on the 3rd floor of Hertford House. Space is hard to find in such a small building with such a large collection, and so finding somewhere to set up a studio was not an easy task. Back in 2006 you could find a shooting table and a couple of lights taking up all the space in our Conservation Technicians workshop. Working around us was an impressive feat! Sensibly the project started with the smaller objects.
The helmets began life in a makeshift house made of polystyrene, a way of creating a diffused and equal light on the curved and extremely shiny steel.
Arms and armour was made with a purpose; to be worn, held or used in battle, so plonking everything on a table was never an option. Anything that was made to be worn (like this horse muzzle) had to be shot as if it were being worn. In times like this you must never underestimate the usefulness of masking tape, fishing wire and a boom stand!
Shooting the increasingly large objects in such a small space eventually became impossible, and we soon found ourselves in European Armoury II. At this time the collection needed to work on the ceiling in Armoury III and so the objects from that gallery were being stored in our makeshift studio… a sight any arms and armour enthusiast would be very excited by!
This is the point the project really stepped up a notch. Conservation were cleaning the Armour, Toby was studying it, and I was shooting it. Having a larger space to set up studio made a huge difference to how we worked. The polystyrene was cast aside and replaced by a light diffusing tent, allowing me to go from shooting 3 helmets per day to shooting 10, with a much more uniform look.
When the standing armours were ready for photography I realised that I would need a quick and efficient way of lighting them. The 6 foot light cube was a life saver! It allowed me to create a soft and equal lighting on the armours using only 3 lights.
Some of the armours turned out to be quite large, rather dispelling the myth that everyone was short in ye olde times (sixteenth century in this case)! The pole on the left is holding up the roof of my cube, because our Otto Heinrich armour (A29) was too tall for it, making him over 6 foot when assembled.
Have you ever wondered why knights had squires? Armours are made of many pieces, and assembling them is a job for at least 2 people. Every piece is heavy and normally attached with leather ties, hooks or bolts. Assembling an armour is not an easy job!
Above you can see Toby and Leda assembling one of our incomplete armours.
There are many tricky things about photographing armour. Ignoring the fact that they are heavy, shiny and made of multiple separate pieces, they are also designed to be worn. As museum objects we didn’t have the option of putting them on a body (although I’m sure we would’ve had many volunteers to model them!), so we needed a sturdy stand. Stephen built us a bespoke wooden figure, and (as you may be able to tell from this picture) we were constantly asking him to file it down, chop bits off, make it taller or paint it black. This stand had to work for pretty much everything!
One of the biggest challenges involved with photographing Armour is just the sheer volume of images required. Some armours are made of over 20 separable pieces, each of which are treated as an object in their own right. That means every part (no matter how small) gets it own set of images. With some of the bigger armours, this resulted in 100′s of images. Our Buckhurst Armour (A62) above has precisely 132 images.
I won’t show you all of the stands made for this project, but I had to add this one…. a sword carrier on wheels with a mount for horse armour on the side. All credit to our conservation department, they always found a way to mount tricky objects with style!
One type of object that didn’t work on the wooden stand was the mail. We needed something more body-shaped for these heavy and flowing transparent pieces, so we went in search of a mannequin. We named the new member of our team ‘Butch’. He was the David Beckham of our project and is still used by conservation to hang mail.
This project was not only about photography and catalogue research, it was also an opportunity to re-display some of our most striking pieces. Our Equestrian armours are extremely popular and in order to clean and photograph them we had to remove them from their horses.
We were surprised to find out that our Gothic armour (A21) is also over 6ft tall! Toby was more keen than ever to see it mounted in a more life-like way when it went back on the horse.
A bespoke mount was made while the armour was cleaned and photographed.
A21 now looks resplendent on his horse, rearing up ready to charge into battle!
Shooting the equestrian armours marked the end of the European Arms and armour photography project. My makeshift studio was moved to a more permanent location, the objects were all put back in their cases and the armouries re-opened. Of course that wasn’t really the end of the project, it never is! The 17,000 plus images had to be edited and the catalogue had to be made.
Toby and I had very strong ideas about how our digital catalogue should look. It was to be the first of it’s kind and the subject matter was a world away from the more recognisable face of the Wallace Collection. It wasn’t colourful and whimsical like our famous Sèvres collection, or encrusted with jewels like our glittering gold boxes, it was dark and masculine. We wanted the armour publication to have a very recognisable personality of it’s own and we wanted it to be stylish, so we began to work on the design.
While I always create a comprehensive collection of full images for every object that I photograph, I also like to take detailed shots that could be used for postcards and advertising – fancy shots in other words, so when it came to our menus we had many to choose from.
I was very keen to have photographs used for every background, even the search pages. Subtle enough to not distract from the search results, but clear enough to be of interest.
It gave me a good excuse to use some of my more dramatic images!
The navigation was kept simple, using some of our favourite objects to represent each area of the collection.
Probably the most important element was ensuring that the images were zoomable, so users could get a close-up view of every object.
And then we really were finished. 5 years in the making and it all ended up on this tiny USB stick. It’s hard to believe really!
Along with it’s accompanying masterpieces hardback book, the European Arms and Armour complete digital catalogue went on to win Apollo Magazines ‘Book of the Year’ award and the A.C.E ‘Best Publication’ award 2012. A very proud achievement for everyone who worked on it. I hope that I managed to bring our armour to life in the images, it truly was exciting to be part of this groundbreaking project that celebrated and championed such an important collection! Now there’s just the Oriental Arms and Armour to get through…..
You can buy the digital catalogue here.