Nestled in London’s leafy Manchester Square, the Wallace Collection is home not only to a diverse array of fine art and furniture, but also a globally significant assemblage of arms and armour spanning the Bronze Age to the 19th century. Thanks to this latter aspect of its holdings, the museum boasts a long association with the film industry – most notably when Laurence Olivier recruited its then-director (and leading authority on armour) Sir James Mann as a historical consultant for his 1955 screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
As the eponymous king, Olivier wore armour based on examples from the Wallace Collection – though, perhaps counterintuitively, his suit was rendered in rubber, something that can’t have been comfortable when shooting the film’s climatic Battle of Bosworth scene in sunny Spain. The rubber armour also spectacularly failed as protective garb, when Olivier suffered a real-life arrow wound to his leg on the first day of filming (in small consolation to the injured star, it must have at least lent verisimilitude to the limp that he affected for the role).
Now the Wallace Collection has once again lent the expertise of its curators to a Richard III-related film: The Lost King, Pathé’s fictionalised retelling of the search for the medieval monarch’s grave and its ultimate rediscovery under a Leicester car park in 2012 (see CA 272 and 277 for our reports on the excavation and subsequent identification of Richard’s remains). At time of writing, the film’s UK release was scheduled for this month, and it stars Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley, the amateur historian who spearheaded the search; Steve Coogan as her husband; and Harry Lloyd as Richard III. Like Olivier, the latter actor appears on screen in armour based on pieces from the Wallace Collection – though this time carefully replicated in metal. The design was guided by extensive research by Wallace Collection curator Dr Tobias Capwell, who was also a historical consultant on the film and who made the suit’s mail collar and skirt himself. The metal plates, which were custom-fitted to Lloyd’s body, were crafted by armourer Fred Ryall, and the doublet worn underneath and the heraldic surcoat completing the ensemble were made by historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila.
Arms and the man
This striking assemblage is now on display at the Wallace Collection, as part of a temporary exhibition (see ‘Further information’ below) that ties in with the new film and encourages visitors to explore the museum’s armour collections more closely. On entering The Lost King: imagining Richard III, visitors are immediately confronted by the replica armour, its gleaming metal and colourful cloth leaping out against a dark background in a room otherwise devoid of objects. On surrounding walls, information panels and paintings place Richard III in his historical context, as well as explaining how the film’s armour was designed and made, and discussing previous film portrayals of the king. The Wallace Collection’s smaller version of Delaroche’s 1831 painting The Princes in the Tower – depicting Richard’s nephews, whom he was long blamed for murdering during his ascent to the throne – is used to poignant effect to trace the evolution of his infamous reputation and more-recent rehabilitation.
While the boards are illuminating, there is however one stark gap in their coverage: the University of Leicester archaeologists who excavated the site where Richard III’s grave was found. Like the film that the exhibition is linked to, this is very much Philippa Langley’s story, and while huge credit must be paid to her drive and determination in launching and steering the project (for which she received an MBE), it is a shame to see the excavators omitted in descriptions of ‘her discovery of the grave’. When I spoke to Harry Lloyd at the press preview of the exhibition, however, he said that the excavation had fed into his interpretation of the king: ‘I used everything. I remember seeing the headlines at the time of the discovery… coming from an English Literature background, I knew Shakespeare’s version of Richard, but finding his grave opened up a new conversation, showed that new thinking is important.’
From the room containing the replica armour, visitors are then encouraged to explore an object trail in the nearby European Armour gallery, hunting for five key objects that are accompanied by new caption cards explaining their relevance to Richard III and the period in which he lived. This space is full of fascinating pieces, highlighting the richness of the museum’s collections, and while the trail objects did take a bit of searching for, once you ‘get your eye in’, the larger, whiter cards beside them are easy enough to spot – and the fact that they are not more prominently signposted does encourage you to browse the many interesting artefacts around them.
The end of the trail culminates in a finale that is impossible to overlook: an awe-inspiring suit of late 15th-century German field armour, assembled astride an equally well-clad horse to resemble a mounted knight posed with dramatically raised sword. It was this suit that was replicated in rubber for the Olivier incarnation of Richard III, and it makes a striking conclusion to an exhibition that demonstrates quite how far perceptions of the last Plantagenet king have changed in recent times – as well as being a potent reminder of how armour could be as visually arresting on the battlefield as it was essential for its wearer’s survival.
As Tobias Capwell said at the exhibition launch: ‘In the medieval period, power had to be seen, felt, and physically exerted. Armour was a physical embodiment of a king’s divine right to rule. When Richard III’s skeleton was excavated, the location of wounds that could be seen showed that his armour had really been doing its job. Armour looked amazing, it was a real work of art, but it was also technology designed for fighting.’ Walking through the Wallace Collection’s displays, you are left in no doubt of this combination of aesthetic appeal and remarkable precision of design.
Further information The Lost King: imagining Richard III runs at the Wallace Collection until 8 January 2023. Entry to this exhibition, and to the museum’s main collections, is free. See www.wallacecollection.org/art/exhibitions-displays/the-lost-king-imagining-richard-iii for more details.