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Historic Weapons, Lawrence Collection

Lawrence collection: Gun, Iranian; Battle Axe, Indian; Sword &Scabbard, Turkish

Gun, Iranian. Probably early 19th century. Damascnened steel, wood, possibly tinted steel, bone, 48 x 3 15/16 in. Bequest of Colonel Timothy Bigelow Lawrence, 1869. Deposited at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, 1942.

Battle Axe, Indian. Steel, gold inlay, 22 13/16 x 5 5/16 in.Bequest of Colonel Timothy Bigelow Lawrence, 1869.Deposited at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, 1942.

Sword and Scabbard, Turkish. 18th - 19th century. Steel, gilt-brass or bronze inlay, silver or copper alloy, horn, leather, 31 7/8 x 3 15/16 in. Bequest of Colonel Timothy Bigelow Lawrence, 1869. Deposited at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, 1942.


When the Great Fire of 1872 burned down the Boston Athenæum’s warehouse on Pearl Street with the large Lawrence collection of arms and armor in it, twenty-eight items from the collection fortunately escaped destruction because they were not on the premises. The Lawrence collection had been given to the Athenæum in 1869 by Colonel Timothy Bigelow Lawrence (1826-1869).[1] Consul General to Italy at the end of his life, T. B. Lawrence was the son of Abbott Lawrence (1792-1855), who with his brother Amos had ushered in the glory days of textile manufacture in New England; he later served in Congress and as ambassador to Great Britain. Among the Lawrence family were several Athenæum Trustees and many Proprietors, and T. B. Lawrence was one of the latter. Lacking space for the arms and armor, however, the Athenæum was forced to place the collection in storage downtown. The bequest had come with the express condition that it be housed in an appropriate space and exhibited to the public, and it was followed by the generous offer from Mrs. Lawrence of twenty-five thousand dollars toward the erection of such a building. The movement to found the Museum of Fine Arts had already begun in the 1860s, and the combined Lawrence donations apparently gave a critical momentum to that effort, with the Massachusetts Legislature passing the act of the Museum’s incorporation in 1870. During construction of its building in Copley Square, the new Museum’s first exhibition was mounted in 1872 in the backroom of a jeweler in downtown Boston, and it included twenty-eight pieces of oriental armor selected from the Lawrence collection.[2] Because they were in this exhibition – and not in the Athenæum’s Pearl Street warehouse – they escaped the conflagration in November that destroyed the rest of the vast Lawrence collection. The twenty-eight pieces were subsequently placed in the Athenæum building in 1873, 1874, and 1875, when the Museum’s exhibitions occupied the third floor at 10 ½ Beacon Street. Illustrated above are three examples from that fortunate group.

The catalogue of the Lawrence collection apparently burned in the fire as well and the exact contents of the collection have never been known, except for the value of fifteen thousand dollars recorded in Lawrence’s probate inventory.[3] A contemporary account made after its destruction praised the collection “as perfect for its size as any now known, either in England or upon the continent,” and described—but without itemizing—a wide variety of weapons from both the West and the East.[4]  In the nineteenth century, collecting arms and armor was a popular pursuit among the wealthy and the privileged in Europe and America. Lawrence seems to have collected with wild abandon on his many European sojourns, and formed, most likely, an encyclopedic assortment of weapons from various cultures and dates. In 1855, Mrs. Lawrence vividly described a week’s worth of rapid-fire purchases made by her husband in London:

a headsman’s sword which has been used many times & is very old; the sword of a Malay Pirate adorned with bunches of human hair!; an exquisite silver gilt Damoscene [sic.] sword; a Russian Bayonet picked up at the Battle of the Alma; & a powder flask taken from the dead body of a Cossack.

A gun mounted in silver such as are only carried by the chiefs in Indian battles, axes, cross-bows, guns, daggers & swords innumerable & the most awful savage-looking weapons from the East strew the house in every direction.[5]

The great collection was anticipated to grace the halls of the new Museum in Boston in a grand manner, but it “dissolved into fiery vapor” in November 1872. Upon hearing of the loss, Mrs. Lawrence reportedly uttered, “There is no armor against fate.”[6]

Luckily, the collection was insured. Soon the Athenæum resolved to devote the insurance money to “the formation of a new Lawrence Collection of works of art,” to be housed in the Museum’s new building in Copley Square.[7] The Athenæum was eager to please Mrs. Lawrence as well as anxious to keep the Athenæum’s contribution to the new Museum highly visible. As the opening of the Museum in Copley Square approached, the Athenæum’s Fine Arts Committee discussed “the desirability of giving as great importance as possible to the Lawrence Collection.”[8]  Apparently pleased, Mrs. Lawrence gave to the Athenæum, in addition, a large assortment of carved oak paneling, then purported to be English and Flemish work of the sixteenth century, that she herself had purchased in London after her husband’s death. In 1876 the pieces were installed in the “Lawrence Room” of the new Museum, where the new Lawrence collection still being formed by the Athenæum was to be housed.[9]

Dark and vaguely “baronial,” the Lawrence Room in Copley Square was a popular spot for visitors in the Museum’s early years. Soon after the Museum’s move to Huntington Avenue in 1909, however, much of the oak paneling of the Lawrence Room was pronounced to be “modern” or fake. The room remained in the Museum until 1930, when the Athenæum, still the legal owner, was asked to take back the room’s panels and fittings. The Athenæum quietly sold them to an antiques dealer without ever physically moving the pieces back to Beacon Street.

The twenty-eight surviving pieces of Islamic and Indian weapons were returned without fanfare to the Athenæum in 1942 and, lacking purpose on Beacon Street, were immediately placed on long-term deposit at the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where they have lain in storage. They are the remainder of a lost collection that did much, as the Athenæum had hoped, to bring into existence a new museum in Boston. The key to the storeroom on Pearl Street, where much of the original Lawrence collection perished in 1872, still remains in the Athenæum’s collection.


Hina Hirayama, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 350-352. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] On T. B. Lawrence, see Abbott Lawrence, T. Bigelow Lawrence (Printed for private distribution, 1869).

[2] The first exhibition of the Museum was held in “a room lent by the jewelers Messrs. Bigelow, Kennard, and Co., in the rear of their store in West Street.” Walter Muir Whitehill, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: A Centennial History (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), 19. Catalogue of the Collection of Ancient and Modern Works of Art Given or Loaned to the Trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts, at Boston (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1872), 39. The preface is dated June 16, 1872; the fire began on November 9, 1872.

[3] Lawrence’s probate inventory describes the collection as “Ancient Armor & Ancient & Modern Arms, & Articles of Curiosity bequeathed to the Proprietors of the Boston Athenæum.” Suffolk County Probate Records, Docket Book vol. 306, p. 183.

[4] Augustus Thorndike Perkins, Losses to Literature and the Fine Arts by the Great Fire in Boston (Boston: Press of David Clapp & Son, 1873), 7-9.

[5] Helen Hartman Gemmill, The Bread Box Papers: A Biography of Elizabeth Chapman Lawrence (Bryn Mawr, PA: Dorrance & Co.; Doylestown, PA: The Bucks County Historical Society, 1983), 104.

[6] Perkins, 10; Thomas Gold Appleton, Boston Museum of the Fine Arts. A Companion to the Catalogue (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1877), 72.

[7] Trustees Records, 16 December 1872.

[8] Fine Arts Committee Records, 18 October 1875.

[9] In the early catalogues of the MFA, the oak paneling was described as having been “purchased in London at Mr. Wright’s, in Wardour Street, in 1871, by Mrs. T. B. Lawrence.”