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Powder flask

  • Place of origin:

    Germany (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1620 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Walnut inlaid with engraved antler and engraved silver and copper mounts

  • Museum number:

    2200-1855

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 7, The Sheikha Amna Bint Mohammed Al Thani Gallery, case CA19

This powder flask was used to carry gunpowder. A measured quantity of powder was drawn off by using the spring-loaded pivoting cap on the nozzle.

Firearms became more and more sophisticated during the 16th-century but still required a number of accessories to load and operate them. The main charge, placed in the barrel with the shot, was carried in the powder flask. Smaller priming flasks contained fine-grain powder for priming the pans of wheel-lock firearms. Flasks were attached to a bandolier, a type of sling worn over the shoulder or around the waist, from which hung the various accessories required for a weapon including spanners for the mechanism, measured charges, powder flasks and priming flasks.

Arms and armour are rarely associated with art. However, they were influenced by the same design sources as other art forms including architecture, sculpture, goldsmiths' work, stained glass and ceramics. These sources had to be adapted to awkwardly shaped devices required to perform complicated technical functions. Armour and weapons were collected as works of art as much as military tools.

Like the pistols and guns that accompanied them, decorated flasks were costly items. Inlaid firearms and flasks reflected the owners' status and were kept as much for display as for use. Daggers, firearms, gunpowder flasks and stirrups worn with the most expensive clothing projected an image of the fashionable warrior. The most finely crafted items were worn as working jewellery.

Physical description

Walnut inlaid with engraved antler, with mounts of engraved silver and copper

Place of Origin

Germany (made)

Date

ca. 1620 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Walnut inlaid with engraved antler and engraved silver and copper mounts

Dimensions

Height: 16.1 cm, Width: 7.5 cm, Depth: 3.0 cm

Object history note

This priming flask was used for carrying very fine gunpowder that was placed, in a measured dose, in the priming pan of a firearm. When the gun was fired the priming powder would ignite sending sparks through a small channel into the base of the gun-barrel that would ignite the main charge of gunpowder causing the gun to fire.

Firearms were not just expensive to buy. Maintaining them also came at a price and a range of accessories was required to operate and maintain them, including spanners for the mechanism, measured charges, powder flasks and priming flasks. These too were often painstakingly decorated to match the gun. Some were fitted with suspension loops for attaching to a bandolier, a type of sling worn over the shoulder or around the waist, similar to a sword belt. They have distinctive fronts and backs, the former often highly decorated, the latter plain to rest against the body. Powder flasks and cartridge boxes at their finest are exquisite items of jewellery, designed as much to enhance personal appearance as to feed destruction.

This example is decorated with a musketeer standing with his gun over his left shoulder, a bandolier with cartridges suspended from it slung across his body, and a gun-rest held in his hands. He also wears a rapier on his left hip and a large powder flask behind his right hip. This is from a series of illustratiuons from The Exercise of Armes by Jacob de Gheyn II (1607) in which military drills are shown in vivid detail.

Historical context note

Firearms became more and more sophisticated from the 16th-century and required a number of accessories to load and operate them. The main charge, placed in the barrel with the shot, was carried in the powder flask. Smaller priming flasks contained fine-grain powder for priming the pans of firearms. The flask would have been part of a set including other accessories required for a weapon including spanners for the mechanism, measured charges.

Like the pistols and guns that accompanied them, decorated flasks were costly items. Inlaid firearms and flasks reflected the owners' status and were kept as much for display as for use. Daggers, firearms, gunpowder flasks and stirrups worn with the most expensive clothing projected an image of the fashionable man-at-arms. The most finely crafted items were worn as jewellery.

Inlaid walnut was expensive. The epitome of luxury was to own wooden furniture inlaid with antler or bone. In 1567 a student at the Middle Temple, John Petre, paid 30s for "a desk of walnutt tree overwrought with white wood, by the Quenes joiner". An inventory of Ingatestone Hall, north-east of London, in 1600 not only places the walnut bed with inlaid head, fluted posts and gilt knobs, in one of the grandest rooms, the Corner Chamber, but also describes it as hung with crimson, white and gold cloth with silk fringes. Under aristocratic patronage this technique produced items of breathtaking beauty. The fashion for bone and horn inlays took hold above all in German principalities but in England, France and the Netherlands, where ivory was used as well, this delicate work was also in vogue. Its aesthetic can be compared with decorative half-timbering in buildings of the period.

Some of the most beautiful items decorated this way were also the most deadly: firearms, crossbows, and powder flasks. Inlaid firearms and flasks reflected their owners' status and were probably kept as much for display as for use. Some have probably never been fired, only admired.

Descriptive line

Walnut powder flask inlaid with engraved staghorn, with engraved silver and copper mounts, Germany, ca. 1620

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Patterson, Angus, Fashion and Armour in Renaissance Europe: Proud Lookes and Brave Attire, V&A Publishing, London, 2009, ISBN 9781851775811, p. 77 ill.

Materials

Walnut; Staghorn; Silver; Copper

Techniques

Engraving (incising); Inlay (process)

Subjects depicted

Soldiers

Categories

Arms & Armour; Metalwork; Fashion; Tools & Equipment; Death; Accessories; Firearms

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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