Q&A: TOBIAS CAPWELL
The resident curator of arms and armour at the Wallace Collection on jousting, the expressive power of armour, and the gallery’s impressive exhibition of Henry Moore’s Helmet Head sculptures
Interview: Emily Jupp
Images: The Henry Moore Foundation & the Wallace Collection
How did your interest in armour begin?
My origin story is the fascination of a four-year-old child that got out of control. Four-year-old me got taken to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by my grandmother—and the Met has one of the world’s greatest collections of arms and armour. It was beautifully lit by the skylights and it drove me wild. I wanted to be a knight long before I wanted to be a curator of a museum.
So, what made you give up on being a knight?
I didn’t. I am a knight—in all but title. I was one of the armoured horsemen in the burial of Richard III [and also designed the functioning armour for the event], I’m a founding member of the modern competitive jousting community and have been for 25 years. To understand armour, you really need to experience it from the inside. If I know what it’s like to ride with armour and get hit in the face with lances, I am better prepared when I talk to our visitors; I can make the art in the collections about real people and real lives rather than objects sitting in glass boxes.
How did that start?
The first time I wore armour was when I was 16 in the Mardi Gras ball at my high school in Seattle. I rented it from a costume shop. It was made from aluminium and it was as good as anything I’d ever seen at that point. It was eight sizes too big, but I wore it anyway and I made extra chainmail to go with it. Later, I started fighting in armour. I’d been riding horses since I was 11 and my first proper joust was in the summer of 1993. I would have been 20. I was in front of 5,000 people and I was unhorsed in the first course. It was a double unhorsing. The thing about a double unhorsing is you don’t know it’s a double unhorsing; you’re lying on the ground thinking, I’ve just had my ass handed to me. Then there’s this beautiful moment where, as you stand up, you see the other guy get up off the floor at the opposite end of the field, and you realise you have not disgraced yourself, your opponent was unhorsed as well. It’s a tie basically—it’s a wonderful jubilant moment.
Sadiq Khan’s £2.5m fund to support anti-knife crime initiatives in London includes investment in physical initiatives for young people. Do you think jousting or something similar could offer a good outlet for young people?
As an arms and armour person, I can’t help noticing there’s an unhealthy trend towards blaming the tool—we hear more young people are killed today by knives, as though the knives are floating in the air or something. But with edged weapons, swords, knives, up close and personal, a gesture that would otherwise be a punch can become a killing blow with the addition of a knife. All young people have violence, but there is such a thing as a healthy violence, where you can hurt each other in a non-threatening way. If you set up boxing clubs across London, your knife crime problems would go away.
I have fought hundreds of people in full armour with axes and they are the closest friends that I have. When someone is able to hit me in the face at a closing speed of 40 miles per hour, I have nothing but respect for them. Violence needs to have a culture of honesty and respect and needs to be mitigated by a cultural framework, which is what a traditional boxing club would have, and what jousting has. But if you don’t have good role models and the support of your community, the violence is still there—but it comes out in blind rage.
Henry Moore: The Helmet Heads brings together all of Henry Moore’s helmet sculptures together for the first time, displayed alongside the Wallace Collection armour that inspired them. What was it like working with a 20th century artist for the first time in your career?
I am a medieval and renaissance historian. I am used to trying to make everything I can out of three tiny fragments: a bit of a manuscript that mostly got burnt in the 18th century, an arm broken off a sculpture that didn’t survive, a rusty piece of iron oxide that used to be a helmet. I can’t talk to the armourers that were there, I can’t watch videos on YouTube. But with Moore, I can watch his BBC archive, his interviews, his writing. It is like drinking from a firehose, but really mind-expanding. I never would have thought as a medieval historian that I would have anything to contribute to 20th century art. I always knew armour was art and was aware of its expressive power, but to have a great 20th century artist coming at this from a totally different direction, where I know what he is seeing and feeling, is wonderful.
Henry Moore was a frequent visitor to the Wallace Collection. Was it the armour that attracted him?
Whenever Henry Moore came to the Wallace, he came for the armour. The Wallace Collection is 44 per cent arms and armour. That’s why he came. He could see naturally and implicitly that armour was not just equipment for fighting, but an artform—and not just a decorative artform but an extremely expressive one.
How significant is armour as a theme for Moore?
Armour was closely intertwined with all of Moore’s other major themes, including upright-standing, internal-external forms, reclining figures and the mother and child. Armour is the theme that Moore returned to throughout his career and it is related to all these other themes, including the mother and child, which you may not think is obvious but when you see his helmet works, it is. Even his giant sculptures, conventionally associated with biomorphic shapes and the mother-child, are related to the helmet motif. The mother is a protective force enveloping the child—as you will see throughout the show, that relates deeply to the protective form of the helmet.
From 1950 up to the time he died in the 1980s—the golden age of his career—he was making helmets. When you see them gathered together here, you feel his presence. For me, it’s a demonstration that a person truly does survive through their work.
Do you have a favourite work in the exhibition?
I am partial to Helmet Head No 1, No 2 and No 5, because those are the ones that are most helmet-like! As they progress in time, they evolve, but that is what good ideas should do. In Helmet Head No 3, you see an organic transmutation, a hard shell with an organic creature inside but in No 4, the shell becomes plant-like and the internal shape becomes hard and mechanical. Then he returns to this distilled helmet form in No 5.
How has Moore’s family reacted to seeing the exhibition?
His daughter Mary came last week and said Helmet Head No 6 looks like an apple that’s had a slice taken out, so you can see the core and see what’s inside. It returns to that theme of generation and regeneration. The theme of armour has its dark side, but it has something optimistic and deeply positive about it as well, and as an art lover you have to hold those things in your mind. Human beings aren’t all good or bad, they are somewhere in the middle—that’s part of the human experience and that’s what Moore is getting at here.