THE DEVELOPMENT OF FENCING MEDALS

Fencing medals have been awarded since the 18th century when fencing masters began presenting engraved silver medal prizes to the winners of annual tournaments at schools where they taught. This practice continued into the second half of the 19th century, as shown by a Scottish silver oval pendant inscribed Messrs Foucart’s Fencing Class, 1st Prize, Master W Taylor, Glasgow Academy, Session 1856-7 [Fig. 1].

Fig. 1

Then in the last quarter of the 19th century the French revival of the cast medal as an art form led to the design of prominent figures on medals. In Britain the first fencer to be recognised in this way was the Frenchman Baptiste Bertrand (1811-1898), who founded his own salle d’armes in 1852 and went on to establish a dynasty of three generations of fencing masters. In 1889 he appeared on a 72 mm diameter bronze medal by a French artist working in London, Edouard Lanteri [Fig. 2].

Fig. 2

Another rare medal of a fencer, designed by Sir George Frampton (1860-1928), was cast in 1896 to commemorate Henry Arthur Colmore-Dunn [Fig. 3]. A member of the London Fencing Club, Colmore-Dunn (1859-1896) was a barrister and author of the popular pocket manual, Fencing, which was first published in 1889 and continued in print until 1931. He died of typhoid on a ship bound for South Africa aged just 37.

Fig. 3

The production of fine art medals was stimulated by the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. What made precisely depicted scenes possible was the reducing machine, which allowed sculptors to model on a large scale while still achieving the effect of fine detail when their work was reduced. The first artist to take full advantage of the new technology was Jules-Clément Chaplain (1839-1909), an exceptional portraitist who brought animation and realism to his compositions. His design for an Olympic medal (silver for first place and bronze for second, nothing for third – only in 1904 did gold, silver and bronze medals start to be awarded) shows a portrait of Zeus with a globe supporting a metaphorical figure of the goddess of victory (Nike) holding a laurel branch [Fig. 4], while the reverse shows the Acropolis inscribed Olympic Games Athens 1896. When the English epee team were runners-up at the Interim Olympics in Athens 10 years later, they received the same medal with the year changed.

Fig. 4

As the artistic hub of Europe, Paris had enveloped Art Nouveau from its beginning in the early 1890s. Providing a natural link between painting and sculpture, medallists played an important part in the new movement. The spread of Art Nouveau culture resulted in a surge of interest in medallic sculpture, created by such artists as Frédéric Vernon (1858-1912), whose design of a foilist in the early 1890s, left hand on hip holding a mask [Fig. 5], became the first fencing art medal to become widely available. Vernon also designed the winged goddess medal awarded to the athletes filling the first three places at each event in the 1900 Olympics.

Fig. 5

These Games were a minor adjunct to the Paris Exposition Universelle. Many athletes didn’t even know that the events they competed in were part of the Olympics. But all participants received a plaquette as a souvenir of both the Games and the Expo [Fig. 6] designed by Louis-Oscar Roty (1846-1911), who revived the tradition of working in a rectangular format. In entering the epee tournament, Charles Newton-Robinson, founder of the Epee Club, and Josiah Bowden, British vice-consul in Paris, became the first two British fencers to take part in an Olympic Games; also fencing for GB in the masters’ foil event was Eugène Plisson.

Fig. 6

Two years later the fencing equipment suppliers Souzy & de Lacam commissioned the Russian-born artist Félix Rasumny (1869-1940) to design another early fencing medal – an epeeist holding weapon and mask, with two smaller figures of fencers in the background [Fig. 7]. It was offered in five versions: bronze, silvered bronze, gilded bronze, silver and gold, the last costing 100 times more than the first.

Fig. 7

In May 1904 the first official British epee team took part in the Coupe Internationale in Paris. To commemorate the meeting, the French team, Les Armes de France, presented all participants with a silver gilt plaquette by Jules Desbois (1851-1935) showing the naked figure of victory holding the symbols of triumph – palm branches and a laurel wreath – with assorted weapons at her feet [Fig. 8]. Later that year the British epee team that came second in Ostend received one of the best known Art Nouveau designs, Orpheus at the Gates of Hell [Fig. 9] by Lucien Coudray (1864-1932).


Fig. 8 | Fig. 9

At the London Olympic Games of 1908, the commemorative medal by the Australian-born sculptor Sir Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931) showed Nike standing on a globe, holding a palm branch and a horn, the reverse showing a triumphant winner driving a chariot [Fig. 10]. Mackennal went on to design the Coronation medal for King George V and produced the king’s head design for all George V coinage.

Fig. 10

The popularity of art medals as prizes quickly grew and Souzy’s 1908 catalogue was able to illustrate six different fencing scenes, each available in five sizes and five treatments. One of the most attractive was a rectangular plaquette by Coudray showing two young foilists in a woodland setting, while a group of five fencing masters in the background discuss their technique [Fig. 11].

Fig. 11

Another popular design, offered as a medal or plaquette, showing a fencer flexing a foil, with two smaller figures saluting in the background [Fig. 12], was executed by the sculptor Adolphe Rivet (1855-1925), who produced busts and statues as well as medals.

Fig. 12

An artist deeply involved in the fencing world at this time was Ernesta Robert-Merignac, daughter of the fencing master and author Georges Robert and wife of Emile Merignac, who wrote a major treatise on the history of fencing. Robert-Merignac became a medal engraver at the Mint in 1903 and received the sculpture prize at the 1911 Salon des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs. Specialising in rectangular plaquettes, she produced a number of charming fencing scenes. One, entitled Le Salut Des Armes, shows two foilists performing the Grand Salute with an Angelo-style 18th c. fencer holding a tricorn hat on the reverse [Figs 13 & 14]. Another, entitled La Lecon D’Armes, depicts a master and pupil [Fig. 15].

Fig. 13 | Fig. 14
Fig. 15

Fencing medals were not the exclusive preserve of French sculptors. The prolific Belgian medallist Godefroid Devreese (1861-1941), whose portrait of Albert I of Belgium appeared on the 50 centimes coin of 1912, designed a handsome plaquette showing a 16th century swordsman on one side [Fig. 16] and an early 20th century epeeist on the other [Fig. 17]. In the early years of the 20th century, the Swiss medallist Henri Huguenin (1879-1920) produced a profile of a bearded epeeist [Fig. 18] and a design of two epeeists in action, the defender making a vigorous parry of seconde [Fig. 19].


Fig. 16 | Fig. 17
Fig. 17 | Fig. 18

An attractive Art Nouveau medal commissioned by the Epee Club was produced by the Birmingham silversmiths Elkington & Co. It shows the winged figure of Victory holding a laurel wreath over a pair of crossed epees [Fig. 20]. This design is presented at Epee Club events to this day.

Fig. 20

In the 1920s the French medallist Edouard Fraisse (1880-1945) produced a medal showing two of his countryman’s most successful foilists – double Olympic champion Luicen Gaudin parrying three-times Olympic silver medallist Philippe Cattiau [Fig. 21].

Fig. 21

In 1925 the first medal to show a woman fencer was made by the Birmingham silversmith William Dingley [Fig. 22] to honour Britain’s Olympic silver medallist of 1924, Gladys Davis.

Fig. 22

Three years later Lord Desborough (1855-1945), President of the AFA 1911-26, presented the London Fencing Club with a challenge trophy – an 18-inch high silver statuette by the sculptor and armourer Felix Joubert of the club’s foil coach, Jean-Baptiste Mimiague, to mark his 10 years’ service,. Each year the winner received a 60 mm diameter silver medal [Fig. 23], also made by Joubert.

Fig. 23

But Art Nouveau could not capture the driving sense of modernity in post-war Europe, when simple angular and geometric motifs, implying strength and vigour, started to be used on medals. The greatest influential force for stylistic change was the 1925 Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, from which the name Art Deco derives. Edouard Chassaing (1895-1974), who was awarded two gold medals at the Expo, designed a striking fencing medal of muscular naked bodies, the obverse showing two male epeeists [Fig. 24] and the reverse a female epeeist [Fig. 25]. Another notable Art Deco medallist was Francois André Clemencin (1878-1950) whose unusual bronze plaquette shows two epeeists at close quarters [Fig.26].


Fig. 24 | Fig. 25
Fig. 26

In the late 1920s the AFA introduced a 50 mm diameter medal for championships and honours that was to be the standard fencing award for more than 40 years. It showed the Tudor rose surrounded by laurels with crossed epees inscribed Amateur Fencing Association [Fig. 27], the reverse showing a crossed foil and sabre. But after the second world war the spread of regional competitions created a need for many more awards, leading the AFA to introduce another design in a cheaper metal and only 45 mm in diameter showing two sabreurs in action [Fig. 28], which gradually replaced the earlier medal.


Fig. 27 | Fig. 28

A photograph of British foil champion Emrys Lloyd (left) and Jean Buhan fencing at the 1948 Olympic Games was used by the French medallist Georges Contaux (1891-1984) as the basis for his medal of the two of them in action [Fig. 29].Contaux was a prolific medal maker, producing nearly 900 sports medals over a period of 50 years.

Fig. 29

In the mid-1950s Edouard Fraisse joined forces with another French engraver, Henri Demey (1888-1966), to produce a number of sport-themed medals under the name Fraisse Demey. They designed the first medal to show electric fencing [Fig. 30]. By then the golden age of the fencing art medal was drawing to a close.

Fig. 30

Electric Foil Development

Electrification had the same revolutionary effect on foil technique in the last quarter of the 20th century as the mask had in the first quarter of the 19th. But in 1955, when electric foil was tried for the first time at a world championships, there was little indication of the changes to come. Charles de Beaumont said at the time, “The electric foil worked on the whole very well and did what was required of it – to register hits exactly and impartially. This device at last eliminated the imperfections of the judges, which have been the worst feature of international foil fencing for generations.”

There had been many unsuccessful attempts to ‘eliminate the imperfections of the judges’, starting in the 19th century. Towards the end of his life, the French magician and fencer Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) invented a metallic jacket connected by wires to a battery so that when the metal point of a foil touched the jacket a bell rang. He gave the rights to this invention to the fencing master Augustin Cabot, who registered a patent in 1895. Another electric scoring apparatus had been developed in Belgium in 1885, and in 1896 the English surgeon Muirhead Little invented a similar device involving an electric wire connecting a jacket woven with copper thread to a wall-mounted recorder [Fig. 1]. But, although they were successfully demonstrated, the sight of two fencers moving up and down the piste on wires like a couple of captive beetles caused such hilarity among spectators that the systems lost all credibility.

By 1931 a satisfactory electrical system had been developed for epee – it was introduced at the world championships for the first time in 1933 – but the problem of distinguishing between valid and non-valid hits proved more difficult to solve. Electric jackets were successfully demonstrated at the 1935 world championships in Lausanne, but the foils used were heavy and cumbersome. Two years later the FIE initiated the first men’s foil international electric tournament in Brussels, using an apparatus developed by the Italian engineer Sergio Carmina. Just before the war, a former Hungarian army sabre champion, Bela de Tuscan, demonstrated an ingenious battery-operated system and demonstrated it with his wife Joanna on stage in London. A wire led from a battery inside a transparent bell guard and along a channel cut into the foil blade with the tip of each blade slightly recessed. The fencers wore jackets with the target area covered with a thin layer of metallic cloth. When the blade hit the cloth, a light came on inside the guard to indicate who had scored a hit, but not if the hit was off-target. Another display involved connecting a miniature light bulb to the end of their foils so that, on a darkened stage, they could trace fencing moves [Fig. 2]. But the second world war brought all development to a standstill.

After the war, research started again. By the time of the world championships in 1950, electric foil was sufficiently well advanced for an experimental pool to be run: it was won by René Paul [Fig.3 ]. Finally, in 1954 the FIE gave approval for a full trial of electric foil at the 1955 world championships. Britain’s first national coach, Roger Crosnier, was not an enthusiast. “In its present state, the electric foil does not favour technique, but is to the advantage of the unorthodox and forceful fencer”, he wrote in The Sword (Spring 1955). “An American foilist .. summed up the position rather conclusively. He said, ‘It brings fencers like D’Oriola, Rommel and co down to our level. We’ve a chance of beating them now.’ He has, in fact, formulated the opinion of most foilists, which is that the electric foil will bring fencing technique down to a common lower level. Surely, this in itself should condemn the weapon.”

The blades were about 65 g heavier than non-electric ones and the resulting lack of balance caused many foilists to give up the weapon in disgust. But the best fencers adjusted, as demonstrated by the Frenchman Christian D’Oriola, who won the gold medal at both the non-electric 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and the electric 1956 Melbourne Games. At these latter Games the main problem was with the foil point, which caused a white non-valid light to come on whenever there was the slightest fluctuation in current; the white light registered four times more frequently than the coloured lights for a good hit. Nevertheless, Gillian Sheen [Fig. 4] overcame all obstacles to win Britain’s first, and so far only, fencing Olympic gold medal. In those early days, it was felt that referees would be so pressurised that they would not be able to work for more than 15 minutes at a time.

In 1957 the FIE formally adopted the electric foil, but at that year’s world championships the apparatus caused considerable problems. Charles de Beaumont noted, “ … a non-valid hit would be shown as a valid hit on both competitors and valid hits were registered on the mask so often that after a time exasperated contestants started to wear ladies’ bathing caps
under their masks to stop their sweaty hair forming electrical contact to the jacket. The new French apparatus was most unsatisfactory and is far less reliable than the British or Italian models.” Allan Jay [Fig. 5] performed a remarkable feat of endurance at these championships, fencing through eight days of foil and epee events during which he had 85 bouts and reached both individual finals, coming third at foil and sixth at epee.

The rotating foil tip underwent significant changes as attempts were made to make it both reliable and effective. The first type, known as the hedgehog, had both horizontal and vertical ridges designed to ensure that it would fix. It certainly did that, but it also tore jackets to pieces. In 1958 a version with the vertical ridges removed was tried, but this was not much kinder to clothing. The Italians produced a flat-tipped model in 1961, but it still had a sharp edge. It was not until 1968 that the bevel-edged tip we know today became the standard shape, although its diameter has changed over the years. [Fig. 6]

Every fencing country has developed its own electrical equipment. As soon as electric foil was introduced, Leon Paul devised a very effective bayonet-type bodywire plug and socket, but most European countries favoured a two-pin connection and eventually in 2015 the FIE adopted this as the international standard, much to the frustration of the UK, USA and Italy which had used bayonet sockets for decades.

In 60 years the scoring apparatus has improved beyond all recognition from boxes with unreliable mechanical relays to today’s remote-controlled electronic wonders capable of automatic scoring and time-keeping.

Various non-electric methods of indicating hits have been tried over the centuries. Back in 1687 Sir William Hope in his book The Scots Fencing Master recommended covering the foil tip with sponge and dipping it in vermillion and water so that the judges could see the effect of every thrust. It took 270 years for this system to be improved upon. At the 1955 world championships the Russians demonstrated an invention that, it was claimed, could replace the costly electric foil. It consisted of a hollow spring-loaded point containing a wad of cotton wool that was impregnated with a mix of water, red dye and ammonia before each bout. When a hit was made that caused the point to be depressed, a red mark appeared, disappearing a few seconds later depending on the amount of ammonia in the mixture. But, apart from the inconvenience of having to regularly replenish the mixture, the system did not work on metal and so off-target hits on the wire mesh of the mask did not register. Like other ingenious devices for recording hits developed over the previous 250 years, it passed into oblivion.

Not long after the war, a radio-controlled system made its appearance and experiments with it continued for years, culminating in a serious appraisal by Wilkinson Sword in the early 1980s, but they were thwarted by the problem of interference. It was not until the late 1990s that a Ukrainian company, StM, introduced a system, initially for sabre, that worked reliably. It was used at the world championships for the first time in 2001 and at the Olympics in 2004, before being adapted to epee at the 2007 world championships and finally to foil at the 2008 Olympics. Since then it has been used in the final stages of all major tournaments.
Competitors wear a special conductive T-shirt next to their skin. A hit activates a transmitter attached to the fencer’s waist, which triggers a light on the mask and transmits a signal to the scoreboard in the arena. A sophisticated encoding system solves problems of interference from any other transmitter. Fig. 7 shows a bout at the 2019 Tokyo World Cup (photo by Augusto Bizzi).

The development of fencing kit

Fencing may well be a sport with a relatively strict dress code nowadays (although we’re at Leon Paul always trying to bring colours back in the game), but in the past, fencing fashion has (almost) seen it all: open-toed sandals and heeled shoes for the gentlemen, skirts and corsets belts for the ladies… read on to discover the convoluted story of fencing kit, brought to you by our expert in fencing history Malcolm Fare (who has also published the history of epee, foil and sabre fencing here on this blog).

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The History of Sabre Fencing

After the history of foil fencing (here you go for part 1 and part 2) and the development of epee it is now time for the third part of our series by expert Malcolm Fare. If you’ve always wondered how sabre fencing was born and who it was most popular with in the beginning (no, it was not the military!), read on.

 

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The development of foil (part 2)

Fencers! It’s time for another bit of fencing history on this blog. The second half of our two-part series about the development of foil, to be precise. Written by our usual expert in the matter: Malcolm Fare. So, let’s continue where we left off and go back to the late 19th century. 1896 was going to be a special and decisive year for modern foil fencing in more than one regard….

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THE DEVELOPMENT OF FOIL (Part 1)

Just when and where the lightweight foil emerged as a weapon in its own right remains an intriguing mystery in the history of fencing. Purpose-made practice swords with buttoned tips had been available since the rapier became a popular civilian sword in the 16th century. So how did the foil develop?

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FENCING HISTORY | FENCING IN THE 19TH CENTURY

Some idea of what it was like to be a fencer in Victorian England can be gleaned from the records of the oldest club in the country, London Thames Fencing Club, which was founded as the London Fencing Club in 1848. Paying an annual subscription of £5 (equivalent to about £480 today)…

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Fencing’s Royal Connection

In 1545, the year the Mary Rose sank so spectacularly in Portsmouth harbour, a book on archery was published complaining about the neglect of that sport in favour of fencing, which had masters to teach it in every town. The popularity of fencing in Tudor times was largely due to Henry VIII who encouraged displays of swordplay and who had, in 1540, given the London Masters of Defence a monopoly of teaching arms. Fencing became the passion of high and low. A “prize” fight, or public examination of candidates by the Masters, halted business in the City of London for the day.

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