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Harry Kell - Dickson's Master Gun Engraver

January 2021
Harry Kell - Dickson's Master Gun Engraver

It's very rare that we get to shine the spotlight on the craftsmen behind the building of a Dickson gun, simply because their work was unsigned and not recorded in the workshop ledgers. The same can be said for the engravers but one bold style stands out and is easily identified as the work of Harry Kell.  

We present this beautiful classic Kell engraved boxlock gun for sale to help us tell the story.

Many names spring to mind when one thinks of the most famous, important or influential engravers to have worked in the British gun trade over the years, but one name which should always be near the top of that list, if not the top, is Henry ‘Harry’ Kell. 

During the 19th century John Dickson and Son, took the bold decision to send their best guns and rifles from Edinburgh down to the Sumner engraving workshop in Soho, London. The Sumners (four generations of engravers, all named Jack) specialised in engraving fine rose and scroll and bold scroll in the style that Dickson preferred and it is likely that all Round-Actions and best guns and rifles up to the First World War were done by the Sumner workshop. Boss & Co. also used the Sumners exclusively and so there is a distinct similarity between Dickson guns and Boss guns in their fine rose and scroll style in this period. After the First World War, Jack returned from military service to work exclusively for Boss & Co. and so the relationship ended with Dickson's at that point. We do know that during this time if a customer wanted something quite bold, Dickson's was sending this work to Sanders and Kell, also operating in Soho, London.        

Like the many other trades based in Soho, the engravers were conveniently placed for the great gunmakers in London's West End - Wilkes, Churchill, Evans, Rigby and Watson Brothers, in addition to more obvious makers such as Purdey, Holland & Holland and Woodward who were all less than a 15 minute walk away.  The odd one out being Dickson's, whose guns and rifles would be packed up and carried just over the road from Princes Street to Waverley Station in Edinburgh and make the 400 mile journey by train to arrive at Kings Cross London and then being collected from the station and delivered to the craftsmen in Soho.

Henry 'Harry' Albert Kell

Harry Kell was born Henry Albert Kell in 1880. His father was already an established engraver, Henry John Kell (1860 – 1929) and also known as Harry. Henry had learnt his trade under the engraver Thomas Sanders of Thomas Sanders & Son, which he joined in around 1875. Thomas Sanders employed a small team of engravers doing work for much of the London trade and established his engraving workshops, which were based in Soho at 13 Dean Street, in 1862, moving to 6 Greek Street in 1866 and just before the outbreak of the First World War, he moved to 142 Wardour Street where he remained until the business changed its name in 1919.

Harry Kell was apprenticed to his father around 1894 and soon picked up the style from the Sanders workshop which consisted principally of a somewhat larger and more ornate execution of motifs. Whilst Harry Kell went on to become a master of all forms of gun engraving, this approach is quite different from Jack Sumner, who specialised in smaller scrollwork only.

In 1919 Henry Kell, who was already a partner in the Sanders business, took it over and named it Henry Kell & Son. Henry kept the business at 142 Wardour Street for a few years until moving it to 38a Broad Street in 1921. Harry took over the company when his father died in 1929 and the business remained there until 1937 when it was moved to 45 Broadwick Street (Broad Street renamed) where it saw out the Second World War. Harry changed the name of the business in 1952 to Henry Kell and remained at 45 Broadwick Street until 1957 when failing eye sight and health forced him to move into the Purdey factory, he died a year later in 1958. 

For three quarters of a century the name Harry Kell, both father and son, was associated with the very best gun making. Purdey's was an important customer of Kell's and it was through Purdey's that Ken Hunt - today's master - met his teacher. Ken was apprenticed to Harry and was taken on by Purdey’s in 1950.Whilst much of his work is unsigned and only occasional mention of it is made in gunmaker's records, his style and that of his workshop is unmistakeable. It consists of the fine and meticulous execution of bouquets and scrolls and his birds and big-game animals, whilst sometimes appearing to be naive in their portrayal, are perfectly cut. It is a great testament to his skill and to the 'English style' of gun engraving, with its emphasis upon creating engraving that will last and that many of the guns engraved by him remain crisp and clean in appearance today, having seen many thousands of hours of use.

Among many of his masterpieces, possibly the most famous work Harry Kell did was three miniature guns that were presented to King George V on his silver jubilee and of course the pair of Purdey guns he engraved for Queen Mary’s Doll House.

Kell Engraved Dickson's

Its difficult to put a an exact figure on the number of Kell engraved Dickson's but they are few and far between. There is occasional mention of 'special engraving' in the Dickson ledgers and this was always awarded to Harry to complete. We do know that the majority of Harry Kell's work lies between the Dickson gun number range of 6600 -> 7400 which is the years 1916 to 1938 and this is therefore likely to be in the region of 35 guns. The last two pairs of Round-Actions engraved by Kell were the commemorative guns to celebrate Dickson's 100 years of being in business at 63 Princes Street, where he adorned the sides of the actions with the panoramic view of Edinburgh, taken from the 19th century Dickson paper gun case label.   

This gun dates from 1921 and is an excellent example of Kell's perfectly cut large scroll and ornate motifs with his trademark scallop shell pattern on the detonators of the action.

It is only one of two Kell engraved boxlock guns we have ever seen.