Peter Finer

A Pair of Horseman’s Flintlock Holster Pistols with Ivory Stocks and Warriors’ Head Pommels Carved in High Relief, in the Exotic Fashion Unique to the Gunmakers of Maastricht in the Province of Overmass, the Locks Signed L. Van Mersen a Maestrich, c. 1675

Item Ref: 2232 Price on application

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The Netherlands, Maastricht. Ivory, iron.


Robert Napier, Esq. in 1868

Almost certainly included in the National Exhibition of Works of Art at Leeds, 1868, Gallery J, Section O, p. 243, cat. no. 1539: “Pair of Pistols with ivory mounts in the form of a helmeted head pommel, the lock signed L. Van Mersen á Maestricht” (Contributed by Robert Napier, Esq.) 

This is a previously unrecorded pair of Maastricht ivory stocked pistols and as such can be said to be a fresh discovery belonging to the renowned Maastricht school of ivory working, one which is universally acknowledged to be a unique school within Europe and spanning the period circa 1650-90. Surviving examples are limited to approximately 100 pistols, the majority of which are preserved in institutional collections. The aptly celebrated collection of Netherlandish firearms assembled by the late H.L. (Henk) Visser included no less than 18 pairs of ivory stocked flintlock pistols, together with other Maastricht pistols with carved ivory pommels only. The more elaborate of these included pommels carved either with the wreathed head of Caesar, the turbaned head of a Turk or, such as ours, that of a warrior, alla Antica Romana; all of the Visser ivory pistols are now owned by the Nationaal Militar Museum in Soest.  

The stocks of the present pistols are evidently the work of two craftsmen working contemporaneously within one workshop. In common with all of the 17th century stocks, powder-flasks and hilts attributable to Maastricht, the present stocks are unmarked by their maker. In fact, no named individual ivory carver can be associated with any certainty to the known works of the period, but stylistic details and differing levels of workmanship clearly indicate the distinction of a small number of master carvers employed within the city. In this way, while the pommels of our pistols are strongly characteristic of the Maastricht school in general, they specifically compare very closely with those on a pair of pistols of the same date and with locks signed by the leading Maastricht gun-maker Jean Louroux*; the two pairs of stocks therefore are almost certainly from the same workshop but clearly purchased for “setting-up” with barrels, locks and mounts by differing retailers (*formerly in the Visser collection HV.489/90). 

These pistols would also appear to be the only known Maastricht ivory stocked pistols bearing the signature of L. van Mersen but are firmly dateable on the basis of the style of their barrels, locks and the decorative treatment of the stocks. One N.N. van Mersen (Merssen) is recorded in the city Municipal Archives as a gun stock-maker working in Maastricht in circa 1667, most likely a related family member. One Lenart van Mersen worked in Maastricht circa 1661-1714, he is recorded as a pike-maker and merchant. The first of these two enterprises gives a link with the local arms trade, the second indicates his very probable involvement as a dealer and retailer of arms. For these reasons, together with the co-existence of a probable relation employed in the firearms industry within the city, we consider this a compelling case for Lenhart as the retailer whose signature is engraved on the locks of our pistols.

The Dutch and Portuguese navigation of the trade routes to Africa and the Far East enabled the 17th century merchantmen of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, established 1602) to fuel the new European market for luxurious ivory wares. The Company brought abundant supplies of the finest elephant ivory and wealthy sportsmen in turn brought about the Dutch and German fashion for the decoration of their best-quality arms with this new and highly distinctive material, at the same time beautiful and durable. Whereas small flasks for gunpowder and the hilts of dress swords were ideally sized to be constructed from solid pieces of ivory carved in exquisite detail, the working in ivory of the larger sized stocks of both crossbows and firearms was almost entirely limited to its use as veneered panels or small segments inlaid to contrast with the natural wood colours. The shape of an elephant tusk naturally precluded their use in stocking the longer sporting guns and rifles of the period, but, subject to significant expense, pistol-length stocks could be worked in solid ivory. It is almost certainly for reasons of the expense of these stocks that their production was both very limited and confined to one small locality in Europe, one well served with a ready supply of raw material and in very close proximity to the well-established gun-making centre of Liège. 

The barrels formed in two stages with moulded girdles between, and with further raised moulded bands over the breeches and encircling the muzzles. The breech sections octagonal and each cut with a decorative alternating pattern of flutes and raised very slender ribs, and the barrel tangs decorated with engraved scrolls and beaded ornament. The locks with bevelled edges and engraved double linear borders, each signed by the retailer L VAN MERSEN after the Parisian fashion, on a plaque clasped over the scrolling lower body of a finely engraved male grotesque half-figure, and the lock-plates each inscribed A MAESTRICH over a foliated putto mask engraved at the rear. The stocks formed entirely of ivory, the greater part of each from a single piece and carved in relief. Each decorated with carved acanthus leaf mouldings about the rear ramrod-pipe and with an elaborate demon mask in relief behind the barrel tang. Each stock inlaid with a collar formed of ebony double lines and pellets just ahead of its pommel. The pommels formed of separate pieces of ivory each carved in the round with a mustachioed warrior’s head with inlaid ebony eyes, the helmet enriched with entwined serpents devouring their own tails and modelled after the decorative type termed alla Antica Romana (in the antique Roman fashion) popularised in Italian parade armour of the mid-16th century. The stocks mounted with iron trigger-guards fluted to match the breech sections of the barrels, engraved trigger-plates en suite with the locks, and a pair of moulded baluster-shaped ramrod-pipes, the latter retaining their original iron-capped ivory ramrods. Each stock additionally inset opposite its lock with an engraved flat iron side-plate after the Paris fashion, formed as a pair of scrolls suspending at their junction a grotesque mask oval and the rearward branch extending to a pair of monsters’ head terminals.

Size: Length 48 cm / 18.9 in, Height 17.5 cm / 6.9 in, Depth 5.3 cm / 2 in