Photograph of Harold Arthur Lee-Dillon. © Royal Armouries

Harold Arthur Lee-Dillon

Harold Arthur Lee was born on the 24th of January 1844. He was educated at a private school at Eltham in Kent and at Bonn University. He passed the army examination in 1862, joined the Rifle Brigade and was promoted to lieutenant in 1866. He served in India and Canada during the Fenian troubles of 1868-1871. He left the regular army in 1874, but was promoted to captain in the Oxfordshire Light Infantry. He retired with the rank of major 1891. In 1892 he succeeded his father as Viscount Dillon.

On leaving the army Dillon became interested in modern military subjects such as equipment and dress, this eventually led him to the history of arms and armour and medieval costume. These were the days before photographs and digital images so Dillon traced hundreds of illuminated manuscripts and illustrated works and made a series of brass rubbings. When he would enter a gallery he would focus on only those paintings with military themes. He concentrated on sword hilts, armour and horse trappings, and skilfully copied them.

His first works were published shortly after he left the army. These articles related to his home, Ditchley in Oxfordshire and described flint tools excavated from the area and objects from the collections in the house. He published many articles on the subjects of arms and army and military history which appeared in academic journals such as the Archaeological Journal and Archaeologia as well as journals of popular and military general interest such as Antiquary and Colburne’s United Service Magazine. He would also write on the subjects of arms and armour in pictures, on monuments and in Shakespeare, on tournaments, military equipment, soldier’s arms, equipment and life. His first major undertaking was a revised edition of F W Fairholt’s two volume Costume in England, published in 1885. Three years later he published a paper on the sections of the great 1547 Inventory of the possessions of Henry VIII. In his writings Dillon focused on fact, and specifically in arms and armour he was interested in the defensive and offensive characters rather than the armour as a work of art.

Many of his articles appeared under his own name, but he would sometimes use the pseudonym ‘Armadillo.’ The animal was so closely linked with Lord Dillon that the designer of a commemorative medal produced for the National Portrait Gallery used an image of an armadillo for the reverse of a medal bearing the portrait of Lord Dillon.

Before Dillon’s appointment as curator of the Armouries the responsibility for the collection fell to a series of War Office storekeepers, the majority of which considered it ‘job done’ if they could hand over a checked inventory to their successors. Although Dillon was associated with the Armouries from 1892 serving as the consultant scientific expert, he was not officially appointed curator of the Armoury in the Tower of London until 1895. He was tasked with producing an up-to-date catalogue of the collection. As curator he was able to reduce historic inaccuracies that had built up over 25 or so years. In 1827 Samuel Meyrick had brought expert knowledge to the collection, but it had then fallen into the hands of the War Office storekeepers and unfortunately most his work was lost. Labels were misplaced, and suits wrongly mounted and erroneous traditions were established for public amusement.

His research led him through the State Papers, especially those of the Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. He discovered interesting and valuable details about the making and issue of arms and armour. Dillon dismantled nearly every piece of armour in the collection to see how it was worn and the reason for certain constructional details. Most of the pieces were those of Henry VIII. Dillon even tried them on himself to see how the rivets and the joints of the harness worked. He discovered that many of the suits had been wrongly assembled. This enabled Dillon to rectify countless inaccuracies. He also examined the internal mechanisms of the crossbow, pistol and gunlocks.

In 1910 Dillon’s Illustrated Guide to the Armouries was published, this is a summary catalogue of the arms and armour as he had arranged and exhibited them, and the various manuscript inventories of the collection. Dillon carried out a complete reorganisation of the collection in preparation for the new catalogue, and made a detailed examination of all the major pieces as well as identifying a number of those with important historical associations, and corrected inaccuracies. The catalogue was more in the format of a guided tour rather than a systematic catalogue.

Dillon considered his task to be one of preserving and studying a closed collection rather than expanding it and spreading knowledge of it outside the Tower. He believed that if one were in charge of a government collection one should not be a collector. He owned only two pieces of European armour, a breastplate and a peculiar type of morion helmet. Once he purchased a 15th century dagger at a fair price and was able to sell it on at quite a profit, and he donated the profits to War Charities. He believed that books were meant to be of practical use, not just ornamental. His two significant acquisitions were a pistol of Prince Charles, purchased in 1898 and a part visor of King Henry VII found in St James’ Palace in 1906.

One of his most valuable contributions was the Armourer’s Album which appeared for sale in Paris and by Dillon’s efforts was purchased and preserved in the Victoria & Albert Museum. In the album there are a number of watercolour drawings of suits of armour of the Elizabethan period that were made at Greenwich, many of which were in the Tower, together with the names of the owners. This proved invaluable for establishing provenance and for identifying pieces in the Tower, Windsor and other private collections.

Lord Dillon contemplated retiring in 1909, but finally retired from his post of Curator in 1912, and handed the Armouries over to Charles ffoulkes. Dillon left the Armouries on its way to becoming a modern museum. A catalogue had been completed, a programme of inspections of loans had been established, and regular inventory checks were carried out. Armour and weapons were displayed according to the techniques of the day, with labels and a guidebook describing the displays.

He received an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law from the University of Oxford and the Order of Companion of Honour by the King in 1921.

Dillon served as a trustee to the British Museum, secretary to the Royal Commission on Westminster Abbey, President of the Royal Archaeological Institute of the Wallace Collection, Trustee and Chairman of the Board of the National Portrait Gallery, Honorary Member of the Armourers and Brasiers’ Company of London, Fellow of the British Academy and Antiquary of the Royal Academy.

Harold Arthur Lee Dillon died 18 December 1932.

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Gifts included: 15 rifles, 3 muskets, 12 cavalry swords, 20 army pistols, 2 carbines, 2 telegraph instruments, a model steam locomotive and tender, 4 volumes of John James Audubon’s Birds of America and 1 barrel of whiskey for the Emperor and much more!