Part of the appeal of collecting antique Purdey firearms is the opportunity for research.
The handwritten ledgers in the Long Room at Audley House, Mayfair, where an international brand has resided since 1882, connect many beautifully made guns to their first owners.
For Chris Wynne – the son of a gun collector who was brought up around black powder weapons – it was the firearms made by James Purdey and his son James the Younger that were of most interest.
His focus was the rare guns that survive from 1814, when the shop opened at 4 Princes’ Street, through to the 1870s when the firm was trading from John Manton’s former premises at 314½ Oxford Street.
The collection of early Purdey longarms, pistols, accessories and ephemera offered in 121 lots by Bonhams (27.5/25% buyer’s premium) in Knightsbridge on November 9 was the result of a lifetime’s dedication.
Many of these guns had been featured in the collecting literature including Patrick Unsworth’s definitive book on antique Purdey firearms, The Early Purdeys, published in 1996, and Donald Dallas’ factory history James Purdey & Sons: Two Hundred Years of Excellence (2013).
For example, Wynn owned three guns from the celebrated stand-of-arms commissioned by the 5th Earl of Tankerville (1776-1859) of Chillingham Castle to arm a body of Northumberland yeomanry. Purdey completed the order consisting of 35 weapons, each with bayonets and other accessories, between February 1832 and June 1833.
The first 33 guns – 16-bore percussion rifled muskets with folding-leaf sights numbered 1-33 – were virtually identical and supplied at a cost of £10 each including bayonets.
In terms of condition the best of these was a gun retaining nearly all its original finish and its socket bayonet in a black leather scabbard. It sold accordingly at £6500 – more than three times the price paid for a similar gun with a replacement lock that was missing its bayonet (£2000).
A Chillingham officer’s gun of much the same specification but fitted with a safety-catch to the lock (albeit missing its bayonet but retaining a scabbard) sold at £4800.
Numbers 34 and 35 from the Chillingham set were guns of higher quality intended for use by Lord Tankerville and his son, Lord Ossulston, and had been priced by Purdey at £15 15s each.
The young Lord Ossulston was also the recipient of a bespoke 16-bore percussion sporting rifle in 1833.
Priced at a hefty £73.10s, this gun was technically innovative (it was the first rifle to have Purdey’s upright style of hammer). It was also profusely engraved: to the butt-plate with a stag’s head and to the patch-box cover with a scene depicting Lord Ossulston shooting a Chillingham bull from horseback.
This story was the inspiration for the Sir Edwin Landseer portrait Death of the Wild Bull exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836. Estimated at £800- 12,000 this cased gun (like many of the guns in the sale it had been rebrowned) sold at £16,000 – the most expensive longarm in the sale.
A 16-bore percussion sporting rifle with the serial number 2293 for 1832 was made for Henry de la Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1811-59). It is recorded as sold on December 18, 1832, for £39.18.0.
Waterford was famously the man who gave the English language the expression ‘paint the town red’ after an incident in April 1837 when he and his drunken fox hunting friend threw pots of paint over a toll keeper, a local constable and the toll house in Melton Mowbray. Next morning a contrite Waterford paid for all the damage and he and his fellow rioters were fined £100 each at Derby Assize Court.
Frequently in the news in the late 1830s for drunken brawling, in 1842 ‘the Mad Marquess’ married Louisa Stuart, daughter of the 1st Baron Stuart de Rothesay. He settled in Curraghmore House where he reportedly led an exemplary life until he died in a riding accident in 1859.
His gun, estimated at £3500-4500, sold at £4800.
A cased 40-bore ‘black powder express’ sporting rifle was recorded as sold to ‘Col. Farquharson of Invercauld’ on August 9, 1861, for £168. After he was seriously wounded at Sebastopol in the Crimean War, Col James Ross Farquharson (1834-88) had retired his commission in the Scots Fusilier Guards and returned to Braemar Castle, the family seat in Aberdeenshire.
In 1862 he became 13th Laird of Invercauld and – after the royal family leased land to extend the Balmoral estate – assumed to the title of ‘The Queen’s Landlord’. The gun, pictured in The Early Purdeys and once part of the Patrick Unsworth collection, was offered in its original oak case with accessories including a japanned powder magazine painted in gilt Improved Rifle Powder.
The pair to this gun (number 6027) was sold for £8000 as part of the Thomas Prudente collection at Christie’s South Kensington in 2015. This one took £10,000.
Express guns with a higher muzzle velocity for big game shooting emerged in the 1860s; Purdey himself coining the phrase with the launch of his Express Train rifle in 1856.
Wynn had owned several examples including one he later returned to the descendants of Lord Henry Bentinck for whom, records showed, it had been made.
The collector had agreed to the sale on one condition: a full practical demonstration of the Victorian gun’s capabilities at the Bentinck family’s Welbeck estate in Nottinghamshire.
Pistols pack a punch
Pistols are the most desirable form of collectable firearm and Wynn owned several Purdey examples – all with the percussion ignition system. Built for a Mr Thistlethwayte, c.1825, a 16-bore travelling pistol numbered 846 appears to be the earliest known cased percussion pistol by Purdey. Cased with accessories, it sold at £16,000.
The same sum was bid for a pair of duellers with the serial numbers 968 and 969. These were sold by Purdey in June 1826 for £42 to Sir Richard Bulkeley Phillips, later Baron Milford of Phaim Lodge, Alton, Hampshire.
They are the earliest pistols mentioned in the Audley House ledgers and carry the latest serial numbers for guns sold from the founding Princes Street premises.
Duelling was never really legal in the UK (theoretically it had been banned by act of Parliament in 1737) but attitudes of society and those in positions of power had begun to turn firmly against the desire for ‘satisfaction’ in the early 19th century.
Selling pairs of rifled pistols for ‘target shooting’ was more socially acceptable. A pair of 50-bore target pistols recorded as sold in 1827 for £52 10s to a Captain Robert Innes, 2nd Dragoons, sold at £14,000.