A barrel of guns yields a barrel of history and satisfaction

For Jim Ellis, a volunteer at the Brandywine River Museum, it was a lot like a dream come true.

Just more than three years ago he was asked whether he wanted to clean some old weapons that N.C. Wyeth had used as models in many of his paintings and illustrations.

“I was asked by the N.C. Wyeth curator Christine Podmanizky if I'd be interested in cleaning the collection. Well for a volunteer, that's like nirvana,” said the 65-year-old retired art teacher who has had a long time interest in weaponry and militaria.

Ellis is emphatic that he cleans the weapons, not restores them. Restoration, he said, implies disassembling the weapons and getting them ready for use.

And while cleaning the pieces, about five dozen or so muskets, pistols and edged weapons, Ellis was able to find various arsenal and makers' marks.

“With those, you can go research and find out when the gun was made, where it was made and, sometimes if individual parts are stamped, you can actually learn who made the various parts of the weapon,” Ellis said.

One of the pieces in the collection may have some greater historic significance beyond being in N.C. Wyeth's collection.

“We found one musket that is called a Charleville Musket. What's unique about that is that those were the muskets that were brought by Lafayette to Washington at Valley Forge. And we think we have one of those muskets.” he said.

Ellis cautioned that the research is continuing, but that's the preliminary finding.

Not all of the pieces were used in Wyeth's work, but many were, according to Ellis.

“We find something almost every time we start to clean a gun,” Ellis said. “We go back through and look at everything that's been done, especially in the Catalogue raisonné and we've been able to pick out several where the weapons themselves were used as models”.

Ellis said the bulk of the collection came from a purchase by N.C. himself. Wyeth began the collection by buying “a barrel of weapons” in Philadelphia. That term is how N.C. described it in one of his ledgers.

Ellis told the story of how Wyeth and his then young daughter Carolyn drove into the city and bought the barrel of guns. The illustrator laid the weapons out in the back seat of his car, covered them with a blanket and then had Carolyn sit on the blanket.

“Then he realized he was going the wrong way on a one-way street and he was scared to death the police would pull him over, flip the blanket and find, literally, an arsenal in the back seat,” Ellis said. “But he made it home safely.”

He's not certain, but Ellis believes the incident happened shortly before WWI.

Ellis said his task is tedious, carefully swabbing the piece with various solutions to remove rust and dirt just an inch at a time. And only after finding the identifying numbers can research begin on the pieces.

“It's tedious, but interesting because one swipe of a cotton swab can bring an arsenal mark that allows you to find the story of the weapon,” he said.

Many of the weapons in the collection are british, especially from the Birmingham Arsenal, especially on some of the shotguns.

The exhibition is called "N.C. Wyeth's Collection of Firearms and Edged Weapons," is on display in the third floor gallery of the Brandywine River Museum. It will remain until the annual antiques' show Memorial Day weekend.

The pieces are usually on display at the N.C. Wyeth studio which is open for tours through the museum.

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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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