Angelo's Fencing Academy

"I shall conquer this" Watercolor of Henry Angelo's Fencing Academy, by Rowlandson, 1787. The
famous fencer the Chevalier St. George's portrait, foils, and fencing shoes are displayed on the right wall.

Angelo Arrives 1755

In Georgian England, learning to fence was an indispensable part of a gentleman's education. Englishmen seem to have learned the art in Paris until 1755, when foil fencer Dominico Angelo Malevolti Tremamondo (1716-1802), known as Angelo, came to London in the company of the celebrated beauty, actress Peg Woffington. He stayed to found a dynasty of fencing masters. Born in Leghorn, Italy, Angelo was already a riding instructor when, during a brief stay in Paris, he added fencing to his abilities with lessons from the renowned Monsieur Teillagory.

In London, Angelo won several public matches against well known English and Irish social fencers. Angelo impressed sporting gentlemen with his defeat of brawny Irish duelist Keyes in a match, held in the favorite public venue of a London tavern. Angelo parried Keyes' powerful onslaughts with small, skillful, and seemingly effortless motions; while Keyes wore himself out with rushes and powerful slashes. The match ended with Angelo scoring a number of unanswered hits on his exhausted opponent wining himself a reputation as a fine fencer.

These victories helped Angelo to quickly gain access to key clients at court and then in the royal family. His patrons included the Earl of Pembroke and the Duke of Devonshire. By 1758, Angelo had been appointed fencing master to the then Prince of Wales (soon to be George III) and his brother the Duke of York. The following year two younger brothers, the Dukes of Gloucester and Cumberland, also started fencing lessons. In a letter dated 5th May 1776, Angelo wrote,

"Their Royal Highnesses (Gloucester and Cumberland) having signified to me that a Treatise of Fencing; with engravings (L'Ecole des Armes), would contribute much to their amusement, I instantly applied myself to the undertaking. I engaged that gentleman (James Gwynn) to draw all the positions of fencing, for the model of which I myself had the patience to stand, and afterwards got executed by the first artists. As the Princes had given occasion to my treatise. I thought it my duty to ask their permission to dedicate it to them, which they granted in the most flattering manner. Some time after this I was informed by the Duke of Queensbury that his Majesty would be very glad to see the original designs. I ordered them to be arranged with all possible expedition, and every one to be adorned with an elegant border, and the book to be bound in the most superb manner. The king was so good as to examine it, and conversed with me some time on the subject of the book with considerable knowledge. In the year 1771, I had the honor to be appointed fencing master to their Royal Highnesses, the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and Prince Frederick."

In 1763, Angelo published L'Ecole des Armes Avec l'explication génèrale des principales attitudes et positions concernant l'Escrime illustrated with forty-seven copper-plates by famous English artists Gwynn and Ryland, Hall, Chamber and Grignion. Angelo himself, as he noted in his letter, posed as one of the combatants in the plates and his friend and patron Henry Herbert, the 10th Earl of Pembroke (1734-1794), often posed as his opponent. The special presentation copy of the original drawings was later acquired by Lord Farnham. In 1961, it was sold at Sotheby's to Paul Mellon, and is now in the Yale Center for British Art. The Royal Library at Windsor has a proof set of Angelo's plates commissioned in 1765 for inclusion in Diderot's encyclopedia. Hand-coloured, mounted and bound in red morocco with a cusped yellow leather border, the plates are prefaced by a manuscript dedication by Angelo to the Prince of Wales.

Angelo opened his school in Soho. He and his descendants became a fixture in the training of generations of wealthy English youth in fencing and horsemanship. Fencing was as much "a school of deportment" as of self-defense. "I have seen old Angelo at Oxford bring his foil to the salute, and bowing profoundly to some undergraduate wild from the woods, pronounce with magisterial emphasis, "This, sir, is an academy of politeness as well as of arms!"." Commented one contemporary. Angelo's establishment became one of the fashionable gathering places of the aristocratic British gentlemen. As well as teaching and practice, it offered exhibitions by top international fencers such as Le Brun, Saint-Georges, d'Eon, Léger, and Fabien. In 1770, the salle d'armes was at Carlisle House, overlooking Soho-square; then was moved to Opera House-buildings in Haymarket, next to Old Bond-street.

Henry Angelo

Henry Angelo
by Mather Brown
oil on canvas, circa 1790
On display at the National Portrait Gallery

After training his son Henry Angelo the elder (1760-1839), Angelo sent him to Paris for his final polish at the hands of Motet at the Académie d'Armes de Paris. Henry became head of his father's fencing academy around 1785. Henry helped to establish his friend the boxer Gentleman Jackson in his famous boxing club next door to the Fencing Academy on Bond Street. He turned the running of the business over to his son his son Henry in 1817. Henry the elder authored Reminiscences (1830) and Angelo's Pic-nic (1834).

The Prince of Wales and Fencing

A Gillray engraving shows the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Fitzberhert witnessing a match at Carlton House in 1787 between the two most famous fencers of their time, the enigmatic transvestite Chevaliere D'Eon (1728-1810) and the part West Indian Chevalier de Saint George (1745-1799). By all accounts, Chevaliere D'Eon out fenced his formidable opponent, hitting him seven times without being touched himself. This outcome is all the more extraordinary considering that D'Eon was 58 and St. George some 17 years younger and considered to be the finest swordsman in Europe. Henry Angelo said of St. George, "No man ever united so much suppleness with so much strength ... his attacks were a perpetual series of hits and his parade was so close that it was in vain to attempt to touch him". Nevertheless, D'Eon won the victory. Henry later recalled, "the Prince of Wales was much gratified at the performance, and smiled at the violent noises of St. George during his attacks, which resembled more the roaring of a bull than sounds emanating from a human being!" The Morning Herald of 9th April 1787 reported in sycophantic style that "the Prince did Monsieur St. George the hon our to thrust with him in carte and tierce, and astonished every beholder with his amazing grace; whenever his Highness put himself on his guard, his attitudes were highly elegant and easy."

In 1789, another fencing exhibition, this time between the master Joseph Roland and the Chevalier de St. George, took place before the Prince of Wales at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Afterwards the Prince asked for a set of foils, masks and gloves, for which Roland was handsomely rewarded. These objects are no longer in the Royal Collection and all efforts to trace them have failed. In 1806, the Prince of Wales acquired 13 drawings of the Art of Fencing from the London dealer Colnaghi for £4 17s 6d. Earlier in style than Angelo's illustrations, they do not correspond with any known series of fencing prints.

Henry Angelo the younger

by W.H. Nightingale
pencil, 1839

Henry Charles Angelo the younger (1780-1852), grandson of the original Angelo, held the position of fencing master and superintendent of sword exercises in the army. He moved the Academy to St. James's Street (1830-1896).

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