Hermaphrodite Gargoyles, Sir?
Rose and scroll, elegant foliate scrolls, bouquets of flowers, perhaps a pointer or a pheasant, even oak leaves. They all fit comfortably into British engraving patterns and each admirer of the top British makers will have his own preference. I have commissioned engraving for new guns and am familiar with the sort of requests clients make and the options engraves offer; “Would you like carved fences? Perhaps a pheasant on the trigger guard or a gold inlay of the maker’s name?”.
I wonder if, back in 1912, someone was asking his customer: “Would sir like his gargoyles to have male or female genitalia? Can’t decide sir, well, might I suggest both?”
One can only ponder such improbable conversations but a gun that arrived in a box from Australia last month certainly had some mythical beasts of questionable gender adorning its surfaces!
For those who have not seen one before, this is an example the Holland & Holland ‘Modelle de Luxe’. The style was something of a departure from traditional English under-statement. In the 1890s, Holland & Holland moved in a bolder direction than most London makers, with their William Morris influenced deep foliate scroll, commonly seen on the ‘Royal’. It marked out the firm’s guns as distinct from the far subtler house styles of their competitors, who favoured tight, small scrolls and/or bouquets of roses.
The 1900 Paris Exhibition seems to have been the catalyst. Holland & Holland sent a Modelle de Luxe as a representation of the best that British gun-making could achieve. Perhaps it also provided the French model designation and the inspiration for the baroque engraving style. It was certainly a bold statement. I can only imagine that it was as controversial then as it is today.
A quick poll of my client base showed how neatly it split opinion. Interestingly, most American clients expressed strong disapproval, some even questioned the quality, being unable to tell stylistic variation from precision. Others were very struck by the bold, challenging direction in which the de Luxe takes the traditional London side lock and were keen to see it.
This gun was made in 1912. Then, when a ‘Royal’ cost 75 guineas, the ‘de Luxe’ cost 100 guineas. The extra cost was applied to every aspect of gun making, a little more effort going into every stage, better wood and, of course, that engraving!
The example in question is interesting. Of pigeon gun weight and with very tightly choked 30” Whitworth steel barrels, it was almost certainly made for use in the ring, though it lacks side-clips, flat rib or pistol grip stock; features which often point to pigeon gun style. However, many competition shooters used guns resembling heavy game guns. Be careful not to assume a gun is not a pigeon gun simply because it lacks the classic tell-tale signs.
Fortunately, it has seen very little use and no gun-smithing. The barrels measure well in the walls and the 2 3/4” chambers are original. The Silver’s pad is perished and needs replacing like-for-like. The barrels need re-blacking, the action stripping and cleaning and the woodwork is in need of re-finishing and re-chequering. It will come up like new.
This is a very rare gun to find in this condition It will be a long time before I am likely to see another. In the modern context, a gun like this will attract the collector, who really needs to have an example of the very best Holland & Holland made before the Second World War, with a little adjustment, it will also work very nicely as a high pheasant gun.
However, the venue I’d especially like to see the de Luxe grace would be the ZZ ring. I shot recently as a guest of the England ZZ team and what a wonderful sport it proved to be. I have shot live pigeons in the traditional setting, in North Carolina, where it is still legal. ZZ is designed to be as close to this as possible and I found it far more interesting than any other clay shooting discipline.
Able to handle heavier loads and deliver strong down-range hits, the set up of the de Luxe would complement its outstanding quality and aesthetics. It deserves a place at the World Championships, unfortunately it will need to find a more competent handler than the one currently bashing the keyboard.
We sold the gun photographed in this article to a regular client. He needs a stock length of 16 1/2″ so we re-stocked it for him, with a new forend to match and fitted the gun into a vintage best quality oak and leather case, with snap caps, rods and tools. The outcome is fantastic, unusual and constitutes an ideal renovation project. The heart is a very best quality, rare and beautiful gun, now renovated to the bespoke requirements of an individual. The final invoice amounted to a little over £22,000. Go and ask Holland & Holland to make you one now and see how much change you get from £100,000.