Items both old and new have shared the spotlight during recent auction activity, as vintage firearms expert Michael E. Haskew uncovers
Little detail exists concerning the life of Edward Newton of Grantham, Lincolnshire—beyond that he lived from 1692-1764 and that he left a will with the local lawmakers.
However, it is known that he made fine guns and that several of the best-known gunmakers of the 18th century owed their proficiency to time spent in his tutelage.
These include John Twigg, Robert Wogdon, and brothers Joseph and John Manton. According to many experts, Joseph Manton may well be the greatest of English gunsmiths and possibly the best the world has ever seen.
Before he died, Edward Newton bequeathed his gunmaking enterprise to his nephew, William, who apparently did not share his uncle’s ardor for the business. Guns made by William are scarce.
In fact, in their authoritative 1975 volume Great British Gunmakers 1740-1790, authors W. Keith Neal and D.H.L. Back state, “When Edward Newton died, he left his business to his nephew William, whose signature we have located on only one gun.”
Nevertheless, Edward Newton’s legacy of excellence is present in every gun made by his apprentices or those who were familiar with his techniques. These men took the knowledge imparted from the “shadowy figure” of Newton and carried it to London during the Georgian Era, establishing the city as a center of the world’s finest gunmaking.
At the Holt’s auction conducted at Wolferton, Norfolk, last September, the coronavirus pandemic compelled the company to adapt. No in-person activity took place; however, bidders were involved by telephone and internet, while a prototype Zoom option was unveiled.
And so, an air of excitement was present nonetheless when a 16-bore single barreled flintlock made by Edward Newton himself circa 1755 came up for bid. Selling for £7,200, well above the original estimate of £1,200-£1,600, the flintlock features a two-stage hardened steel slightly swamped 42-inch barrel, which retains much of its original blued finish, a carved and moulded band at the intersection with applied white metal foresight, a shallow narrow sighting groove to the engraved top-tang, and a touch hole lined in brass.
The flintlock’s octagonal breech bears the signature ‘E. NEWTON, GRANTHAM’ within a border engraved panel that is struck with Newton’s own barrel marks.
The border engraved, flat bevelled lock is signed in a ribbon below the rainproof pan. The weapon includes an engraved, stepped tail—its mainspring expertly replaced—and the figured walnut handrail full stock is possibly the original with takedown fore-end or has been expertly restored from half-stock.
The flintlock is carved in relief around the top-tang; engraved iron mounts include solid side-plate with bevel edges, and the top-spur of the heel-plate is engraved with a martial trophy.
Further adornments include the pierced and chiselled rococo escutcheon and three engraved iron ramrod-pipes with rolled ends and later horn-tipped ramrod.
The left side of the butt includes an old gummed paper label inscribed, ‘This gun was (made for) the Duke of Kingston, the barrel of peculiar composition to prevent Rust….’
Although part of the inscription is nearly illegible, the flintlock is complete with medallion number G297 from the famed collection of W. Keith Neal, of course the same gentleman of renown noted above as an author. Provenance includes a previous sale via Christies in October 2001.
The Duke of Kingston who commissioned the fine firearm was likely Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. An English landowner, nobleman and member of the House of Lords, the Duke was well known for a 10-year stay on the European continent during which he earned a reputation for gambling and high living.
He raised a regiment during the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and the command gained fame at the Battle of Culloden. Pierrepont attained the rank of general. He died in 1773, aged about 62.
William Keith Neal, who passed away in 1990 aged 84 years, remains an icon among enthusiasts, having amassed in his lifetime one of the most extensive collections of firearms in history.
Acknowledged as the leading authority on antique firearms in Britain, he wrote extensively on the subject along with his co-author, the aforementioned David Henry Lempriere Back. Neal’s collection is believed to have included more than 2,000 firearms at its zenith.
Neal’s first firearm, a Belgian .22-calibre Derringer was acquired while he was a student at the Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire. He traded it for a pocketknife and several months later shot himself in the thigh accidentally.
Doctors declined to remove the bullet, and it remained lodged there for the rest of his life. His first antique firearm, a percussion-cap pistol, was purchased for three shillings at a small shop in Broadstairs, Kent, and it remains in the collection to this day.
In his youth, Neal worked for a portrait photographer in Bath, spending his wages as he could to augment his collection. By 1930, he had begun to reassemble the Packington Old Hall gun cabinet that had originally been collected by Lord Guernsey.
These long arms dated from 1725 to 1795 and formed the basis for his unrivalled collection of antique English sporting guns. In 1937, he contributed to the British section of the International Hunting Exhibition in Berlin, and the display received a medal from Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, chief of the Luftwaffe, the air force of Nazi Germany.
During World War II, Neal was disqualified from military service due to a history of tuberculosis. He travelled to the United States on several occasions and sold antique firearms to raise money for Britain’s Ministry of Economic Warfare.
The proceeds were reportedly used to purchase weapons for the clandestine Special Operations Executive. During one voyage, his ship was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean by a German U-boat, and he survived 14 days adrift on the open sea.
After Neal moved to Bishopstrow House near Warminster Wiltshire, in 1950, the home became a locale noted for scholarship, learning, and display of the most extensive collection of British and European guns then held in a private collection.
A quarter century later, Neal relocated to Guernsey and spent the rest of his years there. During his lifetime, he served three terms as Master of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers.
Another firearm from Neal’s collection that caused a stir among bidders during the Holts September sale was a 16-bore, single-barrelled duck gun made by John Twigg in his London shop in 1773.
The gun was promoted in near perfect condition, silver mounted with a two-staged twisted barrel and walnut stock that has been reworked only slightly. The Twigg gun sold for £6,800, also well over its pre-sale estimate of £1,200-£1,600.
From the 18th century, a leap forward to the 21st brought some noted activity to Gavin Gardiner’s September auction in Hardham, Pulborough, West Sussex.
A pair of William & Son 20-bore, round body, single trigger, over and under ejector guns sold to a United Kingdom trade buyer for £30,000, the top end of their estimate.
The nitro-proof shotguns include 30-inch monobloc barrels with three-inch chambers, interchangeable Teague choke tubes, and solid file-cut ribs. Well-known engraver Peter Cusack worked his magic on the scroll-back rounded frames and top levers with stunning foliate work against a stippled ground.
Cusack’s signature is present, along with that of the maker signed in gold. The guns further include rolled edge trigger guards, 15 1/4-inch well figured stocks with pistol grips and engraved caps. They weigh 6.6 pounds each and were sold in the maker’s plastic case.
Cusack has risen to prominence as a consummate engraver. He spent a foundation year at the Sir John Cass School of Art and Craft, then five years apprenticed to W.R. Hoyle.
He joined Bradbury Wilkinson as a banknote engraver, and during more than 20 years with various banknote printers has produced 120 examples for more than 60 countries.
He engraved his first gun after 26 years with printing plates and first worked for E.J. Churchill, completing roughly 35 guns from 1997 to 2003.