Hales — Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour (Walton)

Robert Hales

Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime’s Passion

London: Robert Hales, 2013, 400 pp., £85 [note 1] ISBN 978-0-9926315-0-5

Hales Armour BookThis gorgeous collector’s volume of arms and armour covering most of Asia is a stunning book. It includes numerous Turkish, Persian and Arabic examples and ones from Africa, India, Tibet, China, Malaysia and Thailand (though note that it includes no Japanese pieces). This is a large-format book that should grace the bookshelves any serious collector or scholar of non-western arms and armour. It is 12×10 inches in size and weighs over 5lbs., which testifies to the gorgeous production value and glossy clayed paper throughout. Every page has multiple clear images of two or three pieces, many displayed on a solid black background which highlights the artistry in each item. It could be taken as a “coffee table” book, but that descriptor would do a disservice to this volume: while it is the kind of book one can leaf though with great delight for a few idle moments (well, hours), the profusion of close-up detail on weapons – and particularly exquisite works of art in both blade and plate and hilt – can turn a lingering eye into a discerning eye. For many types of items in the book, rather than a single representative example (though there are a few of those), there are often numerous examples that offer comparative possibilities rarely found in books on arms and armour.

The book does not pretend to be an exhaustive survey of all types of arms and armour across its geographical bounds, though in the end it does surprisingly well at doing so. The volume consists of many hundreds of items that have come through Robert Hales’ hands though the years, most from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but with a few remarkable pieces from as early as the 12th century. He was a dealer in oriental arms in armour in London from the 1970s to the 2000s and if one thinks of this as the crème-de-la-crème of his shop and catalogues you can imagine how impressive that can be. The book is divided into four sections of decreasing size—daggers, swords, firearms, and armour, though the last section also includes items that strictly should have been in earlier sections—and then a small selection of ‘archival’ (i.e., lesser quality) photos of a few more items Hales had sold. Each subsection is then mostly grouped by type of weapon, though sometimes a stray example may appear pages away and Hales really only makes implicit connections between types or even examples within a type. There are also a few contextualizing historic photos and a few of Hales himself included throughout. To be clear: there are no ‘munitions grade’ soldiers’ weapons here; these are weapons with gold and jade and rubies and watered steel that would in most cases be showcase items in most museums.

The textual content of the book is relatively small, which is why this book does not pretend to be necessarily comprehensive nor explicitly instructive on the types of weaponry or armour in a particular region or on their history and evolution of over time. In fact, in terms of consolidated text, there is only a 2-page preface and a 3-page introduction to the very most general types and his four divisions, as well as a 6-page glossary of non-English terms for various pieces and a 1-page bibliography added at the end. The information is predominantly concentrated in the catalogue-like description of each and every of the nearly 1,000 individual items (which sometimes retain the flair of an auction catalogue: ‘an exquisite piece’, ‘spectacular piece de resistance’). The entries range from 25-word terse physical descriptions up to 150-word explorations that sporadically might include a reference or note another similar example in a museum collection (or the collection to whom Hales sold the item). So this is not a typical scholarly history book, but of course it does not claim to be.

The study of oriental arms and armour, particularly outside Japanese topics, is still a largely under-studied area in the West. It is not un-studied, mind you, but finding books that provide satisfying general surveys of the field is quite the opposite than it is for western arms and armour, where a general survey seems to be published every year or so. Beyond museum guides that are often little more than thick pamphlets, the standard reference work for non-western arms and armour still remain George Cameron Stone, A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armour in All Countries and in All Times from 1934 (with many reprints), and there have been only a small number of books purporting to be comprehensive published.[2] Most studies are focused (somewhat like this book) on a specific collection,[3] on one type of weapon,[4] or about a single region.[5] Even A Bibliography of Arms and Armour in Islam by K.A.C. Creswell (London, 1956) lists far more micro-studies than synthetic surveys. As a result, Hares’ book is a welcome edition for any library intending to understand the breadth and depth of offensive and defensive technology humanity has dreamt up from the Congo to Korea and from the Ottoman Empire to the Philippines.

Hales is blurbed on the dust jacket by both Don LaRocca of the Metropolitan Museum (New York) and Thom Richardson of the Royal Armouries (Leeds), which tells me that Hales volume has safely crossed the occasionally no man’s land-like dividing line between arms and armour dealers and museum curators. Of course, it’s not that museums don’t frequently rely on auction catalogues for pieces and research, but here both curators agreed to specifically note how indispensible this book will be for curators, dealers and collectors. The book will also be to a certain extent useful to scholars, though mainly as a collection of primary sources that one could use to build one’s own arguments, as he does not really offer his own. I for one am now deeply intrigued by the mechanical marvels turned out by Indian weapons makers – see for example a hollow Indian kard dagger that holds another hollow kard that holds yet another(!) kard (no. 30) or a double-flintlock katar (no. 128). Hales’ descriptions of each item are thorough, yet not complete as, for example, a museum catalogue might be. He offers dates by century or half century, but no measurements; materials can often be inferred though they are not always specified. Most descriptions are as brief as two dozen or perhaps as long as 100 words, but usually restrict themselves to physically fairly obvious details.

There are some sections, however, were the reader can see Hales’ almost making an argument and interpreting his pieces, as for example sections on John Swanne (pp. 126-130), a 17th-century English sea captain who received a magnificent orchid-handled kris (no. 310) from the King of Andragera (now Indragiri, Sumatra, Malaysia) potentate in 1638 (or, confusingly, 1640); on kris hilts (pp. 140-47); and on Burmese dha (carved ivory dagger handles; pp. 148-158, with some references on p. 153). In the first example, the story of Swanne precedes the catalogue entry for his astounding kris and is presented slightly backwards and without references, so it seems a little intrusive until you figure out what is going on. In the last example, a more detailed description of the natural and supernatural allegorical imagery of dha is offered (leaning on acknowledged help and text from Noel Singer, a curator at the British Museum) that helps the reader unfamiliar with Burmese or Buddhist culture understand the intricately carved symbolism in these pieces. In some of these micro-studies, I could imagine that Hales could do the arms and armour community a service by writing up a more developed, comparative or longitudinal study of his observations that particular type of weapon for, say, the Journal of the Arms & Armour Society or Arms and Armour. But even with the information here, students of arms and armor can learn quite a lot about stylistic and typological traits of various groups of weapons, even if Hales does not spell them out for the reader.

Though reviews are typically ended with a kvetching paragraph, I find nothing fundamentally objectionable or lacking in this lovely book. It never purports to be a scholarly research monograph, so one cannot fault it for insufficient referencing or lack of comparative examples in established museum. Rather, Hales is quite candid in his preface that this is a compilation of items of his passion and his trade that have passed through his hands over four decades and the fact that he has brought them together and published them does all arms and armour scholars a great service.

Steven A. Walton

Michigan Technological University <sawalton@mtu.edu>


[1] There is also a limited-edition (only 50 copies) leather-bound deluxe edition for a mere £595.

[2] H. Russell Robinson, Oriental Armour (London, 1967) and the catalogue from the Wallace Collection, Guy Francis Laking, Oriental Arms and Armour (London, 1964). There are also a small number of other catalogues from specific collections, but little else systematic. By way of example, I note the rather imprecise yet indicative statistic that WorldCat® lists only about 15 books under the subject heading “Arms and Armor, Oriental” (most of which are exhibition catalogues) as compared to nearly 4,000 for the subject “Arms and Armor” (which admittedly covers both western and eastern topics, though far more heavily the former).

[3] David Alexander, The Arts of War: Arms and Armour of the 7th to 19th centuries, Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art catalogue vol. 21 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[4] For example, Edward Frey, The Kris: Mystic Weapon of the Malay World (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986) or Vanna Ghiringhelli, Mauro Magliani, and Barbara Piovan Kris Hilts: Masterpieces of South-East Asian Art (Milan: 5 Continents, 2011).

[5] Most effectively, recently, Donald J. LaRocca, Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2006) and less accessibly, Alain Jacob, Les armes blanches du monde islamique: armes de poing, épées, sabres, poignards, couteaux (Paris: J. Grancher, 1985) or Syed Zafar Haider, Islamic Arms and Armour of Muslim India (Lahore: Bahadur Publishers, 1991).

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