Malcolm Appleby MBE

malcolm_appleby_dragonfly2Malcolm Appleby MBE is an extraordinary gun engraver, says Matt Kidd. Not only is he one of the very best in the business, but what he does is also truly unique.

(Photography: Philippa Swann)

Have you ever marvelled at a perfectly engraved traditional game scene of curling pheasants, flighting teal or sniping woodcock? Have you ever run your fingertips over a fine acanthus scroll pattern that weaves and flows around the action like frost on a window pane? Have you ever wondered how such intricate and perfectly proportioned detail is achieved by hand on such an unforgiving surface? I know I have.

But when I first came across a photograph of one of Malcolm Appleby's unrivalled works of art, I actually stopped in my tracks, for I knew that I was looking at something different, something truly special. I had to find out more.

malcolm_appleby_crocodile2Forget everything you have ever seen – a gun engraved by Malcolm (69) is as unique as it is beguiling. With an apparent disregard for centuries of tradition, his most recent range of guns – known as his beast range – have taken on the aesthetics, the drama, the look and feel of prehistoric reptiles, predatory fish and insects, as well as mythical creatures. You may be sceptical of such unusual pairings, but I can assure you, these are some of the most impressive examples of engraver's art to be found anywhere on earth.

And yet, he is equally well known for his fine jewellery, medals and silversmithing. In fact, he relishes any opportunity to add his artistic touch to almost any metal surface, from stainless steel to solid gold and sterling silver. With a client list that includes museums and members of the Royal Family, he really is a jeweller to connoisseurs. But it was a photograph of one of his unique sporting guns, a privately commissioned sidelock side-by-side, that truly grabbed my attention. With feathers, scales and talons in incredible three-dimensional detail, there was no doubt that this was the famous Phoenix gun I had heard so much about. In an industry that has changed little in over a century, this gun is about as avant-garde as it gets.

So how has Malcolm forged such a distinctive style in a world so steeped in tradition? His journey has been an interesting one. “It all began in Soho in the early 1960s,” he explains. “London gunmaker John Wilkes was a good family friend and I'd sometimes visit him at his gunroom in Soho. One afternoon, he showed me a Wilkes 1930s 8 bore sidelock ejector made for the Horne brothers and it blew me away. It had the most incredibly intricate fine scroll engraving and totally fascinated me. So when I turned 15, I left school to pursue a career in design.”

malcolm_appleby_detailHaving joined a nearby art school, Malcolm began drawing his own gun designs, not scroll patterns, but of Greek methodology. A few years later, aged 17, he presented his designs to a number of gunmakers. “Nobody was interested!” he says. “So I went back to Wilkes where young John and Tom gave my drawings their full attention. Their response, however, was not what I wanted to hear: “Oh, you want to be an engraver do you?” they said.” Knowing the limited freedom an engraver has to follow their own brief, but believing that if he declined, he might never get into the trade at all, Malcolm reluctantly agreed to try his hand at the craft. He has never put down the tools since.

A short while after, John Wilkes suggested to Malcolm that he should try to secure an engraving apprenticeship with James Purdey & Sons under the management of Harry Lawrence. “He gave me an interview but again turned me down, suggesting that at 17 I was too old to begin in the trade!” says Malcolm with a chuckle. “They did already have Ken Hunt, mind you, who was coming on very well and would go on to become a fabulous engraver.” So, Malcolm carried on studying at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London, as the only full-time engraver, working solidly on his own curriculum, constantly toing and froing from Wilkes' workshop.

At the cost of a thrupenny bit train ride from art school in Holborn to the workshop in Soho, he refined his trade by refurbishing knuckle pins, screws and other gun parts. “It was the done thing in those days,” he explains. “If a job needed doing, I was there. Within six months I had engraved my first gun, a lovely Wilkes boxlock ejector. The whole six months of solid work earned me £13, (£300 in today's money) which wasnt bad. The best engravers were charging £30 per gun.”

malcolm_appleby_dragonflygunWith his craft rapidly progressing, Malcolm finally landed a place at the Royal College of Art where he was able to diversify and put to use a huge range of artistic skills in creating medals and jewellery. He quickly completed some impressive work for some equally impressive clients, including the Prince of Wales coronet for his investiture, with further examples being found at 10 Downing Street and many major museums across the country.

One stand-out commission, however, was to commemorate the moon landing in 1969. He was given the task of creating a model of the moon from a steel ball that would then be electro-formed into 24 carat gold orbs, with a diamond positioned on the spot where Apollo 11 landed and the astronauts took their first steps. The final result is astonishing, especially considering the designer's brief. After handing Malcolm the newly collected pictures and maps of Earth's natural satellite, he was told: “Do it like Picasso, you've got four days!”

Believe it or not, the whole process took place in the comfort of his parent's semi-detached house in Kent. And, when his father yelled up from the living room to notify him that the astronauts were coming in to land, Malcolm responded with: “They can't land yet, I haven't finished the Sea of Tranquility...” Incredibly, though, he managed to finish the piece in time and it was greatly admired by the recipients. Once completed, an orb was presented to each of the three astronauts and another to the U.S. President Richard Nixon.

malcolm_appleby_sideBut, Malcolm wasn't settled in London and decided to up-sticks later that year, hitchhiking his way across the Scottish Borders. “I really did want a life of my own, not a life controlled by a Soho gunshop,” he said. “So I moved to Scotland, which was one of the best things I ever did.”

On his travels north, he stumbled across a gunshop just north of Glasgow belonging to gunmaker David McKay Brown. In the window was a beautiful J. D. Dougall Lock Fast. “John Wilkes' grandfather used to tell stories of all the great historical gunmakers of the British trade and Dougall was one of them,” he recalls. Having spotted the collectable gun, he went inside and met shop owner and gunsmith David, who he had since developed a great working relationship with.

With a cheque for just £1,600, Malcolm bought a disused railway station in Aberdeen which he converted into his home and workshop; he was finally able to meet the great demand for his increasingly popular jewellery and other miscellaneous items. “Gun design was still my dream, though, and I wanted to prove I could be a designer,” he continues. “So I bought a gun in the white from John Wilkes to engrave in my own style, without the influence of others.” That particular gun was to become the first generation of his beast designs, entitled The Woodcock Gun. “Instead of traditional bird scenes, I covered it with sculpted woodcock feathers. You could really feel the textures and cavities as you mounted the gun. By not looking overly obtrusive, like many guns can, it was subtly beautiful, and the gun became the bird.”

James Booth of Sotheby's took the gun to Texas and, to Malcolm's surprise, it sold instantly for a very good price. But, to Malcolm's dismay, the top UK gunmakers remained uninterested in his work. “So, I decided to buy another gun to engrave in my own style, this time from David McKay Brown who I was already engraving guns for at the time,” he adds. This would become Malcolm's second gun in his beast style.

malcolm_appleby_crocodile3And it is nothing short of astounding. Having taken on the form of a crocodile with colour hardening to add camouflage to the already subtle impressions – even the underside of the top lever has beautiful markings – one could marvel at it for hours. With the fences' natural rounded shape helping to form eyes, the beast stares back at you as you take aim, the scales interlocking with your hands as they ripple around the lock, action and trigger guard, all giving the impression that you are tackling the crocodile yourself. It really is as if the gun and beast are one, a remarkable and clever combination.

Although Malcolm still couldn't secure any commissions from gunmakers, he had no trouble selling his second gun privately for about £16,000, which was rather a lot in the '80s. “As the gunmakers were reticent to use my designs, stuck in their traditional ways, I had to create my own niche clientèle in an already very niche market. And I believe I have done so with great success.”

After the first two guns were sold, Malcolm was exhibiting sporting guns at the British Crafts Centre where he was tenaciously pursued by Rosemary Wallace, author of Treasures of the 20th Century. “She had just dined with Nick Norman, Master of the Armouries at the Tower of London,” recalls Malcolm, “and he happened to tell her that there was no modern work being done on guns anymore, that it is all reproduction copy stuff. She hastily responded with: ‘Well, you've obviously not seen Malcolm Appleby's work.'”

malcolm_appleby_phoenix_gun2Norman was down in a flash, and with that came Malcolm's most renowned commission, the Raven Gun for the Royal Armouries. A once-in-a-lifetime piece that cemented his reputation in the gun world; even the very best gunmakers could no longer ignore him. 

Malcolm has now engraved around 60 scroll-patterned guns for various manufacturers, as well as pieces for hugely influential clients and museums. Even Holland & Holland began to sell Malcolm's jewellery – and that's barely scratching the surface of his achievements (no pun intended).

Given what he knows now, would he have done anything differently? “Only that I would have used new technologies sooner,” he admits candidly. “Other guns in my beast style like the Dragonfly, Pike and Phoenix took about a year each to complete. I would have loved to have done more beast guns, and much time could have been saved with the tools that are available today.”

malcolm_appleby_phoenix_gunInterestingly, a few years ago, Malcolm did buy back his original Wilkes gun that he engraved for £13 when he started out, and has even put it to good use. “It was an incredibly proud moment, getting to shoot with it,” he says. “Although I no longer shoot, that gun remains in my private collection; my love of guns will never fade,” he adds. Such a passion for one's craft is truly admirable.

At almost 70, one would naturally expect Malcolm's workflow to be slowing down as he approaches retirement, but that's not Malcolm. When I ask if he will be engraving for much longer, he laughs: “I'll continue until I drop! I currently have a four-gun commission, working with gunmaker Michael Linguard, to be cracking on with, and each will take a year. And once I've finished that, I have another 16 bore to begin. That will take me to 74. I have just started training an apprentice too, and she's just about as keen as I am. Plus, I've got my 80s to think about!”

Gladly, we haven't seen the last of one of our greatest gun engravers.

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