Sir James Mann

James Gow Mann was born on the 23rd of September 1897 in London. His father was Alexander Mann, a Scottish landscape painter, who contributed to James’s keen eye for a work of art, his sharpness in observation and his understanding of historical styles.

He was educated at Winchester School and it was then that he first developed an interest in arms and armour. He delayed going to University, joining the army instead, and during the First World War he served as an officer in the Royal Artillery seeing service on the Italian/Austrian front. Whilst serving on the Italian front he spent his leaves visiting cities which had museums and collections of arms and armour. He enjoyed army life and after the war became an avid reader of World War I books and he loved to tell tales of the campaigns in Flanders and at Vittorio Veneto. His war time experiences gave him an understanding of the art of war as well as helped him develop a sense of command.

After the war he studied at Oxford, attending New College. His thesis, The evolution of defensive armour in England, France and Italy during the first half of the 14th Century, was supervised by Charles ffoulkes, the then curator of the Tower Armouries. A copy of his thesis can be found in the Royal Armouries Archives. ffoulkes introduced Mann to Viscount Dillon (ffoulkes’ predecessor) and to the Baron de Cosson. Mann’s relationship with the Baron de Cosson was one of the most influential of his life. De Cosson and Mann would frequently meet and discuss earlier collectors and collections of arms and armour, one specific collection being the votive armours at Madonna della Grazie. When the Baron died, his family asked Mann to arrange for the publication of de Cosson’s Dictionary of Arms and Armour and they offered Mann his choice of any books in the Baron’s library. Unfortunately, the Dictionary of Arms and Armour was never published, but the index can be found in the Royal Armouries library. Many of the books in the Royal Armouries Archives bear de Cosson’s bookplate, obtained via James Mann’s personal library.

After leaving New College his first posts were in the field of wider fine arts. He accepted an appointment in 1922 in the Art Department of the Ashmolean Museum with the art historian Charles Francis Bell. One of his first tasks was calendaring prints left by Francis Douce, the early 19th century antiquary. Douce’s collection was rich in prints of medieval life and customs. This certainly appealed to Mann’s growing fascination of arms and armour.

In 1924 he moved to London to a post as an assistant to Mr S J Camp in the Wallace Collection, again in the field of fine arts. He produced a sculpture catalogue, which was acclaimed as a remarkable first achievement. He worked at the Wallace Collection for six years and during this time he published some of the work which established his reputation as a historian of armour. In 1929 he worked on and edited the first translation of the catalogue of the historic Trapp armoury at Churburg, his first published contribution to the study of arms and armour. In 1930 he published the first detailed description of the votive armours in the church of the Madonna della Grazie, which had been brought to his attention by Baron de Cosson. de Cosson suggested to Mann that the votive figures warranted a closer inspection and Mann discovered a rare group of 15th century Gothic armours. The armours were stood in niches around the walls, and thought to be made of wax, clad in carta pasta or ‘papier-mâché’ armour. The armours were in fact genuine, covered with dust and rust. Mann spent a series of summer holidays taking the figures down and cleaning the armour. His results appeared as a series of articles in Archaeologia. His findings increased the total of surviving suits of Gothic armour by a third.

Mann was finding his post at the Wallace Collection increasingly frustrating as the arms and armour collection was under the care of S J Camp. In 1931 it was suggested that he apply for the Keepership of the Art Department of the Ashmolean Museum, to succeed C F Bell. He declined as he felt his interests were in centred in London. He was appointed to the post of Deputy Director of the newly established Courtauld Institute of Art and he became a Reader in the History of Art at London University. Mann’s work at the Courtauld consisted largely of lecturing although he did find time to arrange part of an exhibition at the Royal Academy. He gave a series of lectures on armour connected with his findings in the church of Madonna della Grazie, but was unable to concentrate on his main interest of armour.

In 1936 an opportunity finally presented itself. S J Camp was leaving his post at the Wallace Collection and Mann was offered the post of Keeper of the Wallace Collection on a five year contract. Then in 1938 Charles ffoulkes retired as Master of the Armouries. Mann immediately requested permission from the Trustees of the Wallace Collection to apply for the post. The post was part time and virtually unpaid. He was to hold the post in conjunction with his work at the Wallace Collection. He got the necessary approval and was subsequently appointed.

On the eve of an outbreak of World War II Mann found himself making arrangements for the evacuation of the contents of the Armouries rather than planning for a redisplay of the collection. Plans for the evacuation of national treasures had been well under way since 1933, but the then curator of the Armouries, Charles ffoulkes felt there would be no need to evacuate the contents. However, in August 1939 the packing began. Some of the armour was stored at Hall Barn in Beaconsfield for the duration of the war, but in May 1940 four armours of Henry VIII and other fine armours were put on show in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. Later in 1940 after a series of bombing raids at the Cardiff Docks the armour was moved to Caernarvon Castle where it was joined by more items from the Tower in London.

Mann stayed in London for the duration of the War, but made long visits to Hall Barn and occasional ones to Caernarvon Castle. During the war Mann was vilified in the press for attempting to save ornamental and historical ironwork from being melted down to aid the ‘war effort.’ He tried to publicize the historical value of items such as iron railings and the trophy cannons displayed in various towns and cities. Mann gave occasional lectures on the history of firearms and arms and armour to the troops and he continued to publish. In 1940 he delivered a lecture on The Etched Decoration of Armour to the British Academy. This lecture opened an unexplored field of research by linking the art of the armourer with the early history of engraving.

In May 1944 he was appointed as Hon. Secretary to a committee that was set up to consider the problem of works of art looted by the Nazis. He visited Paris and inspected the state of the newly liberated Paris museums. He found that the Germans had kept the Musee del Armee open during the war, using the upper galleries for barracks. He found that there were a number of bullet holes in glass cases, but the contents were virtually unharmed. Throughout the war he was involved in planning for the post-war museum world. Also in 1944 he became Director of the Society of Antiquaries, in charge of the research and publications programme, and in 1949 became President.

In Spring 1945 the arms and armour started to return from their places of safety. The last delivery from Hall Barn was made at the end of June, with work on the redisplay starting in July. Four rooms of the Tower were reopened to the public 1 January 1946, with 2,500 visitors, 2,700 on the next day, and on the 12th of January it recorded 10,000 visitors.

Throughout his life Mann corresponded with other collectors and historians of arms and armour. As mentioned he had connections with the Baron de Cosson and Charles ffoulkes. He also corresponded with F H Cripps-Day as well as advised Edward Barry and R L Scott on their acquisitions. He catalogued Barry’s collections and helped Scott build up a collection which is now in the Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery. He was involved with Paul Post, a German scholar and curator of the Berlin Arsenal. Post’s position was made difficult during the 1930’s because his wife was part Jewish. Mann welcomed Post’s son to London and helped him gain admittance to a British medical school to continue his studies as he was unable to do so in Germany.

Mann’s legacy includes many administrative improvements made at the Tower of London as well as significant acquisitions. When Mann began his work with Armouries he lacked any professional staff and proper funding. When he died in 1962 he left an organisation with a full-time curatorial and conservation staff, a regular purchase grant and a library with a regular grant for book purchases and journal subscriptions. His acquisitions included the Norton Hall Collection, significant objects from the William Randolph Hearst Collection at St Donat’s Castle, and a Gothic Horse armour. He also initiated a series of exhibitions such as the Exhibition of Kings and Captains from the national collections of Austria (1949), Exhibition of armour made in the Royal Workshops at Greenwich (1951), Exhibition of arms, armour and militaria lent by H.R.H. the Duke of Brunswick and Luneburg at the Armouries of the Tower of London (1952-1953), and the Exhibition of Spanish royal armour in H.M. Tower of London (1960). This resulted in a wider enthusiasm for armour. The Norton Hall Collection belonged to the bibliophile Beriah Botfield and Mann was able to acquire the collection with a grant from the National Art Collections Fund. This was the second time that the National Art Collections Fund had helped the Armouries, the first was before the war when the Fund assisted the Armouries to acquire armour from the collection of the Earls of Pembroke. The collection’s reputation had been so enhanced that it was thought it was now comparable with those of Vienna and Madrid.

He served on the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, the National Building Record, the Historic Buildings Council for England, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, the Society of Antiquaries, the Archbishop Historic Churches Preservation Trust and was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1952. He was knighted in 1948, and was created a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order in 1957.

Mann died in 1962, just three months after the publication of his completely revised Catalogue of European Arms and Armour in the Wallace Collection.

Did you know?

Light as a feather!

A falcon’s feathers are strong but light, weighing only about 16% of the bird’s total body weight.