Research at the Wallace Collection

It’s been two weeks since I was offered a job and I’m still trying to effectively refocus from job hunting to writing. I have been doing writing related activities – reading and researching and planning and a bit of tinkering – however not much actual writing. I also have my age-old problem of getting distracted by different projects.

This week I have been reading ‘My Dear I Wanted to Tell You’, an excellent novel set during the First World War. I’ve avoided reading modern WW1 novels since I’ve been writing one in case I get unduly influenced or discouraged (because someone else has got to my plot first!). Although there are some similarities it is still quite different (in tone and content) and I’ve actually found it very inspiring – hence the tinkering with my WW1 novel, when I’m supposed to be working on the fantasy novel

Last weekend in the interests of kick starting enthusiasm with my fantasy novel I took myself out for a field trip to the Wallace Collection. I hadn’t actually heard of the Wallace Collection, a medium-sized, national museum tucked away behind Oxford Street, until I started working in museums. They have an excellent fine and decorative arts collection but the reason I went was for the Middle Eastern arms and armour.

After a detour to the restaurant I spent my time in the arms and armour galleries sketching and making notes about the objects, checking materials and dimensions in the old-fashioned catalogues – hardbound books on wooden plinths – dotted around the galleries.

It’s a treasure trove of scimitars and tulwars, sabres and salapas. Helmets, small round shields, fine mail and plate armour, battle axes, maces, spears and sharpened quoits. Polished steel, serrated steel, blades and metalwork engraved and inset with gold, gems or brightly coloured enamel. Grips made from jade, ivory, buffalo horn or pink coral. Scabbards of red and green velvet, shark skin, gold thread and embossed leather.

Bladed weapons and armour are a staple of fantasy novels. It’s a challenge to avoid formulaic descriptions of these and fighting scenes and to come up with something realistic and original. Looking at examples of these beautiful, yet practical and deadly tools makes it easier to evoke what it’s like to live in a world where they are commonplace. The weapons have a physicality and a malevolence. These were tools designed first and foremost to kill and main other human beings.

At the museum you could also try on some replica armour. The velvet jerkin reinforced with small steel plates was quite comfy. I took one look at the plate armour (back and chest pieces, plus skirts) and decided there was no way I was getting into that on my own.  Similarly, I could barely lift the full coat of mail and I know from trying it on in the past that you end up with oil everywhere. I don’t think I would have lasted very long on the battlefield.

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