Words by Malaika Byng – a London-based editor, writer and creative consultant who focuses on design, art, craft, architecture and ecology. Previously editor of Crafts magazine, she now writes for titles including the FInancial Times, Kinfolk, Wallpaper*.
Engraving is part of the DNA of a Purdey gun, with every shotgun or rifle that leaves the workshop bearing some form of inscription. Each artisan has their own distinct style, visible even in the most traditional of designs. “It’s like looking at handwriting,” says Purdey master craftsman Thomas Nicholls, who orchestrates bespoke commissions. “You can name the person behind the work.”
Nicholls often finds himself matchmaking clients and artisans. “Some people will know exactly which engraver they want to use, but for others, I will choose an engraver in our workshop, across the UK or beyond, based on the client’s references, the types of engraving required and the signature style that would suit it best.”
For large scroll engraving, game scene inscriptions and gold work, for example, he often turns to father and son duo Simon and Philip Coggan in Wales. Meanwhile, for extremely fine scrollwork with a continental flair, Nicholls taps Stefano Pedretti in Italy, who uses a technique called ‘bulino’, involving thousands of tiny dot indentations that make up the final picture.
Since the 1870s, Purdey guns have been known for their rose-and-scroll design, a curvaceous botanical motif attributed to one of the brand’s longest standing engravers, James Lucas, and often referred to as the ‘Purdey rose’. It is still the brand’s most frequently requested style and is included in the price of a Purdey gun. Sometimes, clients will request a bespoke twist.
When designs get personal
Large scroll and game scene inscriptions became popular in the late-nineteenth century, when a taste for carved, chiselled and pictorial work began to rise. In the early 20th century, Harry Kell developed this genre further for Purdey, and later his apprentice Ken Hunt pioneered even more elaborate scenes, often with gold inlays. Both craftsmen continue to influence Purdey designs.
Such ornate work can take up to six months to complete, increasing a gun’s future collectability. Today, you can even choose to immortalise your favourite shooting dog, your house or your husband or wife on the body of the action and lock plates. Or, find inspiration in Purdey’s archives, taking cues from designs inspired by the arms and armour in museum collections, for example.
“A Purdey gun is one of the most bespoke objects you can buy today and this is most visible in the engraving,” says Nicholls, a second generation Purdey craftsman who apprenticed as a gun finisher with his father aged 20 in 1999. “It turns a cold, metal and wood object into something highly personal and collectible.” Engraving serves a practical function too, with the delicate designs softening the face of the metal, reducing reflections that might turn the game.
The artistic process
The process begins with the client’s brief – often involving very specific references – before Nicholls selects the engraver, who will draw a sketch, sometimes with many iterations before the final design is agreed. “A gun is not a blank canvas – the space on the metal is limited and there are holes, so it’s a challenging process,” Nicholls explains. He is currently working on one of his most ambitious commissions to date for a Sidelock shotgun, involving elaborate carvings of animals, such as rhinoceroses, and gold and platinum inlays. “It’ll take three or four months of design work and at least eight months to complete the engraving.”
For Paul Chung, who has been engraving for Purdey since he apprenticed with the brand aged 18 in 1990, part of the magic of the craft is taking a client’s brief and bringing it to life. “It’s especially exciting when they allow you some artistic freedom,” he says. Chung is one of the most versatile engravers in the UK, with a wide array of techniques in his arsenal. “I enjoy the fact that I’m always learning as I work,” he adds. Chung often finds inspiration in daily life, taking cues from architectural details on buildings around London, as well as wallpapers and bank notes.
As Chung and Nicholls note, with a bit of vision from both the client and the engraver, almost anything could find its way on to a Purdey gun.