The revolutionary influence of Ken Hunt
By Douglas Tate
Exhibition guns are the new gold standard. One rarely can pick up a top-tier gunmaker’s catalog or glossy firearms magazine without finding deeply engraved guns or those inlaid with precious metals. The received wisdom is that we came to this state of affairs by slow evolution. The name Kenneth Charles Hunt might not resonate with owners of repeating shotguns, but he is said by some to have single-handedly created our current taste for lavish firearms in what might be called the “Hunt Revolution.”
“He is an icon and a legend . . . the first ‘name’ engraver . . . who completely changed the landscape.” So said English auctioneer Gavin Gardiner of Ken Hunt, who has been referred to as the godfather of gun engraving and who retired in 2011. Yet today, outside of professional engravers’ chat rooms, Hunt’s name has been fading. His massive oeuvre of 2,666 guns engraved during a 60-odd-year career has become so ingested by subsequent engraving generations that it no longer seems astounding.
Hunt was born on August 24, 1935, and grew up in Paddington at a time when that West London borough also housed the Purdey factory. During the Second World War he was evacuated to Bedfordshire, where he was boarded in a large country manor filled with decorative arts. Years later he would tell a journalist that it was during this period that he unconsciously acquired a taste for art. At 15 Hunt knew that he wanted a future in commercial art, but in those austere times no studios offered opportunities. His school’s career adviser found him an engraving apprenticeship with Purdey’s.
According to Richard Beaumont, writing in Purdey’s: The Guns and the Family, Hunt was taken on as an apprentice on December 4, 1950, and sent to Harry Kell’s insalubrious Soho engraving workshop to learn his trade. “It was during his apprenticeship with Kell that Ken Hunt grew to know two of the last and best Victorian engravers who worked alongside him,” wrote Christopher Austyn in Gun Engraving. “They were Jim Jones, who had originally worked for the Sumner workshop, and Bill Smith, and both were, by then, in their 70s. In keeping with the tradition of piecework, each man had specialized in a particular form of engraving since his apprenticeship; Jim Jones had engraved small scrolls and flowers since the age of 13, and Bill Smith concentrated solely upon large scrollwork. Harry Kell had, by this time, come to concentrate almost entirely upon carving and inlays.”
In a phone conversation Hunt said of the experience: “When I apprenticed with Harry Kell in the ’50s, there was a team of perhaps six, eight or nine engravers. A gun would come in on Monday and be collected Wednesday. This was only possible by using a ‘chain’ system, with one of us doing small scroll, another carving the detonating [fences], while another man did the lettering. That was Kell. The engraving was done in a commercial way: quickly at a price. I would complete one gun a week. I was given 58 hours to do each one.
“Later things changed, but we were in limbo between the old jobbing type of engraving and the new art engraving. Purdey’s would drop off a gun engraved by Barré [a French engraver] and say, ‘Can you copy that?’ And Kell would say, ‘Yes.’”
Barré’s importance to the development of Hunt is significant and Kell’s even more so. Christopher Austyn, writing in Gun Engraving, called Kell “ . . . the critical link between the standard forms of engraving of the nineteenth century and today’s artistry . . . ” Austyn consequently dubbed Kell “The Great Connector.”
In 1963 Ken Hunt struck out on his own, working from a room on the top floor of his home on St. George’s Hill, in London’s stockbroker belt. He and his wife, Sheila, had a son, Marcus, in 1961 and a daughter, Alison, in 1964. Both became engravers and were inspired and trained by their father. Marcus continues engraving to this day.
When asked how he became an engraver, Marcus said, “Paul Roberts, who at the time owned Rigby’s, kept saying I should become my father’s apprentice so, with a month to go before I was to go into the army, I told Dad I’d changed my mind and asked if I could become his apprentice. Well, he cursed and fussed a bit, saying he wasn’t set up and didn’t have any tools, etcetera, but secretly I think he was pleased I’d chosen his trade.”
Unusually for a Brit, Ken Hunt also fell under the aegis of Teutonic engraving. A chance encounter with a magazine article titled “Sporting Gun Decoration,” in a 1948 issue of Country Life, featured photos of a Ferlach firearm carved in high relief and provided a catalyst with Mitteleuropean engraving. The article can be seen on Hunt’s Instagram page with the comment: “Here is an article I have had for years, battered, but the inspiration to all the carving, etc.”
In a Shooting Sportsman article titled “A Lineage of Masters: Part II” (Sept/Oct ’95), Michael McIntosh quoted Hunt as saying, “Something you learn very quickly is that the way the tools are shaped and sharpened dictates the kind of work you can do with them. Germanic and Austrian engraving looks the way it does in part because of the tools; they’re thicker and good for carving, but you can’t do fine scrollwork with them.”
That said, Hunt was never limited by traditional techniques and tools, as he always was looking for new methods to apply to engraving. Take acid etching, for example. “None of the engravers in London etched away backgrounds for open carving,” he said. “They cut it. Kell used to sit with a little hand-vise and spend hours taking down background with an ordinary graving tool . . . . Well, that was bloody hard work, donkey work, and you had to do it before you could even start your engraving.
“John Amber, who was the editor of Gun Digest and who’d had some guns engraved at Kell’s, sent over a couple of issues in 1953, and in one was a recipe for acid etching. I decided to try it.” After much experimentation Hunt came up with a technique that can take down backgrounds quickly. “I think the acid-etch lends a fluidity to backgrounds,” he said, “a certain spontaneity you can’t get just by cutting.”
Fellow superstar engraver Phil Coggan is quick to recognize Hunt’s avant-garde approach: “Ken always went out on a limb. He pioneered many techniques, including acid etching and multi-colored gold. He is the engraver’s engraver!”
Indeed, Hunt’s work in gold is another thing for which the craftsman became known. One commissi
on would prove epiphanic. In 1970 Malcolm Lyell at Holland & Holland commissioned 12-bore Serial No. 36962. According to Michael McIntosh and Jan Roosenburg in The Best of Holland & Holland: “This gun is known as the Art of the Embellisher and Engraver, circa 1971, and is part of the Products of Excellence series. It has an underwater scene with river otters and a perch on t
he sidelock, a little winter wren on the fore-end, rabbits on the fences, and mice chewing away at the wheat on the barrels. Ken Hunt did the superb gold inlay on this gun.”
Deliberately avoiding the traditional method of dovetailing gold beneath the surface of gun metal, in part because of the expense of gold, Hunt experimented with damascening, a technique he previously had seen only on visits to the Wallace Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum. These elaborate arms-and-armor collections would provide Hunt with inspiration and nurture a fascination for decorated weapons. “I wanted to emulate these and make ornate guns that would be in such places in the distant future,” Hunt said.
Damascening involves first engraving the design lightly with a stylus-like tool on a gun’s steel surface. Gold then is laid within the rough edges raised by the engraving. The burr is worked down to hold the inlay, forming a delicate and intricate pattern against the contrasting background steel. Less gold is required for a given area, and it is unlikely to shake loose, but in Hunt’s case damascening also provided a distinctive, novel technique that became a signature feature of his work. Hunt began mixing his own gold. “I alloy my own golds to acquire subtle colors,” he said. “I feel as though I’m painting scenes in golds. My heart and soul goes into each gun. They are my babies.”
I asked world-class engravers Paul and Alan Brown about Hunt’s significance and if he had influenced them, and they wrote: “In our early days, Ken certainly played a part in inspiring us to create more elaborate engraving. In particular his gold-inlay work was in a class of its own . . . and even today, very few engravers can match his best work. Ken led the way for many years in this country and no doubt was responsible for creating a demand for ‘art engraving.’ No other engraver could produce the variety and quality required for these ‘special’ guns . . . . Our development was partly due to the demand for collectible guns that he created. I think it is safe to say that all up-and-coming engravers in the UK have been influenced by his prolific output over the years.”
Of course, as might be expected with such prolific output, some work became formulaic. During the oil boom many Texans ordered Purdey quail guns with 26-inch barrels, ventilated ribs, Miller single triggers and full pistol grips dolled up with Hunt gold inserts on both locks. Hunt’s small gold inlays—bread & butter work—done quickly and to a price were, to some extent, pedestrian, but also provided thousands of hours of unprecedented experience and were an element in the story of his success.
Gun auctioneer Gavin Gardiner recognizes that not every Hunt-engraved gun can be a masterpiece. “Of course, an awful lot of it might be repetition . . . as the most popular style for his work was gold-relief gamebirds and game scenes on Purdey guns—the stuff that appealed to the American taste and usually his stock-in-trade work. It is a shame that there are not more of his deep-carved scroll guns out there, because that is the stuff I think he really was best at . . . .”
Ex-Purdey stocker David Trevallion knows Hunt better than most. “Ken is one of my oldest friends,” Trevallion said. “We met way back in 1953 when we were both apprentices—Ken at Harry Kell’s, in Soho, and me with Purdey’s out at Irongate Wharf. We spent a lot of time together before I left for America, in 1964, and had some very good times. These good times have continued when we’ve visited each other in England or America in the years since. One thing I would say about Ken is that although he has never made a gun and his modesty means he would not say it himself, his contribution to the survival of the English ‘best’ gun has been immense. His skill, artistry and creativity made such guns desirable during the dark days of the ’60s and ’70s, bringing in vital orders and helping keep the trade going until better times returned. I’m lucky to have known such a great craftsman and good friend.”
Ken Hunt is a cultural treasure—a modernist pioneer whose talent is recognized beyond the world of fine guns. But I am going to let Holland & Holland Managing Director Daryl Greatrex have the final embellishment. “Ken was a pioneer of modern-day gun engraving and made big leaps in turning the craft into a true art form. His style pushed the boundaries of gun engraving, and his work featured on some of Holland & Holland’s Products of Excellence and other fine sporting guns. His work was—and still is—much sought after, and he paved the way for engravers to make a real name for themselves. He will be remembered as one of the highest-regarded British engravers whose work inspired a whole generation of craftsmen and women.”