Egg Bombs and Fire Dragons: The Bizarre Art of War

By Christian House

I f necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps war is its father. The tech and spec of the battlefield has long fostered fanciful ideas. And, as illustrated in the prints, watercolours, plans and diagrams found within the Cottesloe Military Library, there is a particular strangeness to the aesthetics of combat. Symmetry and order, yes, but also the ability to think outside of the powder keg.

The Cottesloe volumes, dating up to 1800, deliver an array of strange inventions, peculiar manoeuvres, baroque insignia, florid uniforms, elaborate and improbable weapons and, of course, the ghastly effects of conflict. We take a quick march through this unregimented gallery to find images that confuse and amuse, puzzle and repulse.

Exploding Cats

War is unsavoury, but the tactic of using exploding cats suggested by 16th-century artillery master Franz Helm, was particularly tasteless. Charlotte Miller, Sotheby’s books specialist, explains: “It’s quite simple really, you attach an exploding device to a cat, then you get it to go into an enemy’s position, and off goes the bomb. Because – er – it’s always easy to get cats to go to in a particular direction and make sure they get there before the device explodes.”

Far-fetched Fireworks

A French survey of “machines militaires” – by the 17th century author and artist Jean Appier – presents a giant stink bomb out of an explosive basket of eggs, while a Polish artillery manual provides a fire-breathing steampunk-style pyrotechnic dragon that can be assembled like an Ikea table. “Turns out that there were a lot of exploding dragons in early works on chemistry, alchemy and pyrotechnics,” notes Charlotte Miller. “Even Sir Isaac Newton owned a book on firework dragons.”

Dandy Archers & Slinky Chinoiserie

The Cottesloe volumes cover a period before camouflage, when uniforms were like football strips, they emphasised one’s allegiance. You were less likely to fall to ‘friendly fire’ but more likely to be spotted by the enemy. The catwalk of models on view in these books displays dandyish English archers – complete with yellow belts and purple sashes – to Chinese helmets in the form of tigers’ heads.

Hogarth’s Pikemen & Hexham’s Principles

William Hogarth’s engraving of pikemen – pole-wielding infantry – has a gloriously camp swagger. The 18th century satirist’s figures advance, reverse, shoulder and charge like a chorus line finishing off a summer season.

There is more posturing in Henry Hexham’s Principles of the Art Militarie. Hexham was the Andy McNab of the Stuart period, an English soldier who fought in the Low Countries and was a keen observer of military tactics. In his greatest work he provides a musket masterclass: a company of characters with rosy cheeks and whiskers play out an elaborate sequence – “taking forth their match” and “blowing off their coale” – before testing their trigger fingers.

Fortified Snowflakes

Military engineering allows for some beautiful forms. The fortification designs of Antonio Lupicini are like monumental snowflakes. Appropriately, Lupicini was a hydraulic engineer for the Medici. More Italian elegance is delivered by another Medici staffer, Giovanni Battista Belluzi, who created a fortress of estuaries, watery tendrils that echo the woodcuts of Edvard Munch.

What Goes Up

There are numerous illustrations of cannons in the Cottesloe Library, but turn to The Compleat Cannoniere from 1652 if you want to see where the fit the “Cornish Ring” or drill the touchhole. Firing is only the half of it, however: a playful geometry lesson on the trajectory of cannonballs is provided in a Spanish artillery tract.

The Final Cut

In his Compleat Discourse of Wounds from 1678, John Browne leaves us in no doubt as to what happens when those cannon balls hit home.

He shows us dismantled heads, skin flapping like window shutters and corkscrews to release blood from the skull. However, one of the more palatable prints shows an Adonis with an array of “excrements of wounds”. Putrefaction and pus get the classical treatment.

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