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Samuel Luke Pratt, 1805-1878

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 13-16 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0000

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This well-known antiquary and dealer wielded a pivotal influence in mid-Victorian London. Even today, curators and historians denote him as "the well-known forger" with regard to the suits of armour he provided for the Eglinton Tournament of 1839. He was also the focus of blame when the tournament disintegrated both literally and figuratively in heavy rain. Charles Beard, the editor of The Connoisseur in 1933, wrote that "in the history of faking, Samuel Pratt deserves a chapter to himself. His imitations of medieval armour, wildly improbable though they often were, came gratefully to a world awakened to the joys of antiquarian romance by the genius of Scott" (Beard 245). Of course Pratt's career was much broader and his character less questionable than such statements imply. If we consider Pratt not as a forger, but as a marketer, the story reads differently.

Pratt began his career working for his father, a trunk maker, at 3 Lower Grosvenor Street and 47 Bond Street. He succeeded Thomas Gwennap of the Oplotheca in Lower Brook Street and the Gothic Hall in Pall Mall (Cripps-Day xlviii). In 1837, Pratt organized an exhibition of armour in the Tower of London, all of which was for sale; this was quickly followed by the 1838 exhibition of armour, which was so large that it took up both addresses, the Grosvenor street shop having been modified by L.N. Cottingham for the occasion (Anstruther 128, 131). Quickly following was his involvement with the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, which he costumed, designed, and planned almost entirely. Immediately after this event, Pratt's genius for marketing became evident: he resold all of the material culture of the event at an 1840 sale. Some of it was purchased by the Tower Armoury (Anstruther 234; Cripps-Day lvii).

The 1838 exhibition had a full catalogue, containing 670 illustrated and described pieces. In this, Pratt's first catalogue, we see the model by which he would distinguish his wares throughout his career. The sale room at Pratt's showed all his pieces in a period interior and the catalogue illustrated the pieces in use, showing dramatic scenes of fighting knights (Anstruther 130). In this catalogue, Pratt wrote that "to gaze on the plumed casque of the Mailed Knight equipped for the Tournament, and to grasp the ponderous mace, yet encrusted with the accumulated rust of centuries, cannot fail to inspire admiration for the chivalrous deeds of our ancestors" (qtd. in Watts, "150 Years" 24).

But Pratt's dealings in armour were far more substantive and complicated than just those of the Eglinton Tournament. Between 1840 and 1847, at least twenty-three anonymous sales of his pieces took place at London auction houses (Cripps-Day lvi). His clients were elite and educated: they included the Tower of London, Viscount Dillon, the Russells of Brancepeth Castle, George Tennyson of Bayons Manor, the Lord Brougham and Vaux, and Robert Curzon, Lord Zouch.

Curzon bought many pieces from Pratt, and described and justified his collection in the Archaeological Journal. Seventy-five helmets purchased from Pratt were used to decorate the Baron's Hall, and although Watts today describes them as forgeries, Curzon himself did not think they were (Watts, "Samuel Pratt" 101). Pratt also sold a number of pieces from the Meyrick Collection to Lord Warwick during the 1870s and no doubt helped with the renovations of the Warwick's Great Hall following a fire in 1871 (AS250608 n.pag.).

Several examples of the armour used for the Eglinton Tournament show the common movement of pieces through Pratt's shop. Captain James Ogilvy Fairlie rode as Knight of the Golden Lion in gilt and emblazoned armour secured for him by Pratt. Pratt added black paint with gold scrolls, later removed in 1964. This armour was kept by his family until 1998, when it sold at Christie's for $56,363 ("A Composite" n.pag.). William Craven, second Earl of Craven, rode as the Knight of the Griffin in a suit of inlaid and engraved Milanese armour. Pratt purchased this armour from the Marchese Tassoni d'Estense, and Craven believed it to have been worn by his ancestor, Baron Hilton, at the field of...



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