The mysterious Purdey engraver Aristide Barré
by Douglas Tate
Mention James Purdey, and many sportsmen think of Lord Ripon with a brace of hammer ejectors on the Glorious 12th or George Bird Evans hunting ruffed grouse with his Beesley-actioned sidelock and Old Hemlock setters, or high pheasants with a Woodward-style over/under. What we seldom think of are those guns made for presentation to royalty or show guns built for display at international expositions. Yet Purdey also made those—and many consider them the best “best” guns the firm ever produced. The early breechloaders in particular are spectacular, but the man who engraved them has, until now, remained a mystery.
Photographs by Andrew Orr/Holt’s Auctioneers
Starting in the 1870s James Purdey the Younger commissioned Aristide Barré, a Frenchman exiled in London, to decorate a small number of very special firearms. According to official Purdey historian David Maynard, “Barré is the only engraver mentioned in the Purdey dimension books until recent times,” yet you would search in vain for his name in “the definitive history” in any other book on Purdey.
The British gun trade is littered with mysteries, but Barré has long presented a more enduring enigma. In correspondence with another gun researcher in Britain, I was told that the name “Barré” does not exist in the census returns from the late 1800s anywhere in Great Britain.
Yet in a letter received by a Shooting Sportsman reader’s father regarding a pair of Purdeys he purchased in 1957, the firm’s then managing director, Harry Lawrence, confirmed: “The carving was done by a French man named Monsieur Dubarri . . . .” Curiously, the letter was appended with a handwritten note from Lawrence that read: “PS: The engraver’s name should read Monsieur du Barri.”
Armed with beaucoup spellings of “Barré” and the information that the name did not appear in census returns, I set out to discover as much as I could about the engraver and his œuvre. But first I solicited the help of Parisian gun expert Djamel Talha. This is what we found.
Magloire Aristide Barré was born October 23, 1840, to a wheelwright in Trappes, a rustic village just west of Paris. He was brought up in relative isolation, his family unsophisticated, his life unpromising and his future uncertain. Barré’s childhood would have been etched by privations and class conflict, and when in September 1871 Trappes was occupied by 1,400 invading Prussians, Barré could not have been happy. But how he came to be chief of police during the Paris Commune no one knows.
The Paris Commune was a revolutionary socialist movement that briefly ruled the City of Light in the spring of 1871 following the defeat of Napoleon III and the collapse of the French Second Empire. The French Army suppressed the Commune during “La Semaine Sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) beginning May 21, 1871. Barré fled but was tried and convicted in absentia and sentenced to five years for “usurpation of functions.”
Three and a half thousand men, women and children fled to London in the aftermath of the Commune’s collapse. Many traveled to Belgium and took the Ostend-Dover ferry to England. Most clustered around Soho, where they established a mutual-aid society in Rupert Street. Like émigrés before and since, they lived hungry lives subject to police surveillance. Barré was more fortunate than most; he had skills and connections. In October he received a letter from the daughter of Karl Marx who clearly was sympathetic to the communard’s plight:
My father asks me to tell you that an engraver is wanted, and that if you apply as soon as possible, you will obtain employment.
You should go to R. Harper and Son, 16 Red Lion Street, Clerkenwell, and say you have been sent by Mr. Oswald of 39 Gloucester Crescent.
I am, Sir, Yours very truly,
It was around this time that Barré began to engrave for Purdey. One early example appears in the book The Royal Gunroom at Sandringham, by David Baker. It is toplever bar-in-wood hammergun No. 9,563. According to Baker: “What sets it apart is firstly the stock that, even by Purdey standards, is exceptional, and secondly, the distinctive, high-relief, carved decoration. All the metalwork fitted to the stock, from the forend catch to the toe and heel plates, is decorated with a design of trailing flowers and fruit. Every fragment of the metalwork is so treated; not even a panel for the maker’s name remains on the lockplate. Today, we regret that such work is unsigned, but this was the contemporary fashion. All that is recorded in the maker’s registers is that the work was done by ‘Barre.’”
On the opposite page of the book is another example, Serial No. 12,177, and this time Baker offers: “The decoration, while of the same style, differs in subject matter. Here we have a riot of mythical beasts entwined with foliage and, on the top strap, an urn and mask. One minor detail: the maker’s name appears on the action flats, as if there could be any doubt!”
In an earlier era French artists such as Bérain, Simonin and Demarteau had produced pattern books featuring plates illustrating ornamentation intended for the metalwork of firearms. But with the exception of his inclusion of grotesques, Barré makes no reference to them in his work. His ornamentation appears broadly lifted from the decorative vocabulary of his era using similar motifs to those seen on contemporary silverware.
Both of the Baron Keane guns attributed to Barré in the Sandringham book were bequeathed to King Edward VII in 1901 by the third Baron Keane. Strangely, there is another gun, No. 11,769, in the book that looks suspiciously like Barré’s work, though Baker makes no mention of the engraver. However, George Juer at Purdey’s was able to confirm that the dimension books say of gun No. 11,769: “All work finely chased by Barré.” The engraving on this gun, which was made as a present for Prince Albert Victor, may have provided the inspiration for Purdey’s “Extra Finish” pattern, available to this day.
It is possible that Barré came to Purdey’s attention through Lord Keane, who was savvy enough to see the engraver’s potential in the production of a tour de force. In 1878 Purdey submitted a brace of Barré-engraved 20-bores—Serial Nos. 10,140 and 10,141—to the Paris Exhibition that are virtually identical to the first Sandringham gun.
The 1878 Exposition Universelle (World Exhibition) was a declaration that France had put the Prussian occupation and the debacle of the Commune behind it and that the country once again was capable of assuming its role as a civilizing cultural force. Writing in the book Paris herself again in 1878-9, journalist George Sala makes special note of a glass case containing sporting guns and rifles made by Purdey’s: “The extra Purdey exhibit consists of four guns, elaborately chased in the champ-leve style, two of which have been embellished by the talented artist Aristido Barri, who was arrested at Vienna as a Communist, but was subsequently released, and is now occupied in executing a champ-leve for the Emperor of Austria.”
Barré would go on to engrave a modern hammerless ejector presentation Purdey for the Shah of Persia and a hammer pigeon gun for King Alfonso XIII of Spain. Barré died on May 21, 1915, in the presence of his son (also named Aristide). In certain circles of gun experts, collectors and craftsmen, Barré’s name continues to resonate. English engraver Ken Hunt has said that when he first started working with Harry Kell, Purdey’s would ask if a gun could be engraved in the Barré style and Kell would answer, “Yes.” Over time some of these Kell-engraved Purdeys have come to light, with the difference being that Barré’s “mythical beasts” have been replaced with gamebirds. Hunt, too, has engraved Purdeys in a style not dissimilar to Barré’s.
Craft always has been art’s poor relation, but because an untenable struggle made painting and sculpting impossible in his home country, Aristide Barré carved out a niche in London as the engraver of some of the finest British guns ever made. He was a late example of a French artist who developed patterns specifically for gun engraving and an early example of a British “name” engraver. As historian David Maynard has suggested, Barré was the “first” amongst Purdey engravers.
The images reproduced here are by gracious permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who allowed us to photograph her guns. Thanks to Andrew Orr of Holt’s Auctioneers for taking the photographs. Special thanks also to Djamel Talha, George Juer and Ron Holden for their assistance in researching this article.