Photograph of Sir Guy Francis Laking. © Royal Armouries

Sir Guy Francis Laking

Guy Francis Laking was born on the 21st October 1875. His father, Sir Francis Laking, was a prominent London physician appointed to the Royal Household and was friendly with the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). Laking had always been a keen collector and would study a subject with great enthusiasm. He was interested in armour from an early age, as illustrated by his essay written at the age of 10 entitled ‘The Sword of Joan of Arc.’

Laking was educated at Westminster School, but he left school at the age of 16 following an unapproved absence. Laking’s father wanted to show his horse at an agricultural show in Islington. Laking wanted to attend the Westminster show and his father approved, but Westminster School did not. Laking left for a week, rode the horse and returned to school, as a result the school and Laking parted company. By this time though he was a regular at Christies. In 1891 he met the Baron de Cosson (considered the foremost expert on arms and armour in his generation). This acquaintance was influential in his career.

After leaving school he had difficulty choosing between a career in art or architecture. He attended the School of Architectural Drawing with the aspirations of becoming an artist, but soon joined Christies as an Art Advisor. He was interested in Japanese art and that led to Japanese armour and finally to armour in general. He became well known for his knowledge of arms and armour, medieval and Renaissance works of art, French furniture and Sevres porcelain.

His first work at Christies was a sale catalogue of the Zschille Collection, which sold in January 1897. He then compiled catalogues for the Gurney, Spiller, Breadalbane, Kennedy and North collections of arms and armour. The Kennedy Collection was formed largely as a result Laking’s input and contained exceptionally fine swords and firearms. In his catalogues for Christies Laking’s descriptions contained a combination of scholarship and enthusiasm, which was a departure from the uninspired commentary of other conventional catalogues.

He became Keeper of the King’s Armoury at Windsor in 1902 (a post created for him by Edward VII); Inspector of the Armoury at the Wallace Collection and in 1911 Keeper of the London Museum, where he was tasked with acquiring, cataloguing and arranging the collection. These were not just honorary posts, each post came with the task of producing detailed catalogues. He published catalogues of the Wallace collection of Arms and Armour at Hertford House (1900, 1901, 1909, 1910) and The Armoury of Windsor Castle: European Section (1904) as well as the furniture collection and Sevres porcelain collection at Windsor. In the Wallace Collection the treasures of Hertford House were disorganised and he was tasked with putting them in order. He would work at Christie’s all day and nearly all night at Hertford House.

Laking was also considered a ‘man about the town’ by his contemporaries, far from an old-fashioned antiquary. He was not just a hard working serious scholar, but a popular member of London society. He lived in style in a fashionable area in London in a house named Meyrick Lodge after Samuel Meyrick, the founder of English armour studies.

He was extravagant in his spending, nevertheless he was able to build up a superb private collection of armour, swords and firearms. His collection was sold at Christies in March 1920, there were 299 lots of European arms and armour. However, he had not one complete armour, and only one black and white half armour. The most remarkable feature of his collection was a series of 5 Italian 15th century Barbutes.

He was a Vice President of the Meyrick Society (founded by collectors and historians of arms and armour.) He presented the Society with a loving cup on December 5, 1913. It was carried into the room where the members were assembled by his son’s governess dressed in full armour with sword and mace as Joan of Arc. Laking’s son dressed as a page accompanied her.

Laking died in November 1919, at the early age of 44 of a heart attack. It was thought that the heart attack was brought on from the hard work he put into the preparations for the reopening of the London Museum, in its new home at Lancaster House. On his deathbed he asked for his latest acquisition to be brought in so he could have a last look.

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