The trouble with Cecil

Cecil C P Lawson’s five volumes of A History of the Uniforms of the British Army: it’s where I started, back as a kid in the local reference library, hunched over the vast wooden table before the high, glass fronted shelves on a summer afternoon, carefully studying each page of each volume. So I’m quite fond of the reactionary old buffer.

And yet … Nowadays, when I look at the murky, scratchy drawings of the later volumes, I’m painfully aware of the imperfections in Lawson’s work. But it’s not just the haziness of some of the specifics; sometimes there are odd, unaccountable errors of detail too.

A few previous posts on this blog have looked at the cavalry-influenced styles adopted by some light company officers of volunteers and militia. In a bid to find models for these among the regular regiments, I’ve recently been trawling period images, with near zero success. But I did come across one. In William Loftie’s album of eyewitness images appears an officer of the 21st Foot or Royal North British Fuziliers in 1801. [Left below. Click to enlarge.] Given the wings and Tarleton (as opposed to a fur cap), this must be an officer of the light company. His jacket bears two rows of closely spaced buttons, extending well towards the shoulders – a good match for that of the Berkeley Volunteers shown here, and a confirmation that such styling was not confined to the auxiliary forces.

At some point Lawson was commissioned by Anne S K Brown to copy the Loftie watercolours for her own collection, now at Brown University; some of these “copies” were reproduced and described by René Chartrand in 1993-4 in Military Illustrated. Versions also appear in Lawson’s Volume V. Now Loftie’s Fuzilier clearly has at least thirteen buttons showing in each row above his sash, but in the Brown copy Lawson has reduced these to the regulation ten, reverting the jacket to a bog standard officer’s pattern. (If this were so, the buttons would be in twos, this regiment wearing them paired on their regulation coats.)

Look closer and there are other discrepancies: Loftie shows the collar, cuffs and facings edged with a narrow white cord or feathering, but Lawson has changed this to a broad gold lace. The Tarleton has all gilt furniture, but Lawson seems to give it a silver band, and Chartrand describes it thus. Lawson also heightens the shape of the pointed cuffs and adds fringes to the wings. In Loftie the breeches are properly white, but the gloves are buff; Lawson shows buff breeches and white gloves. Why? I’ve no idea.

Similar glitches affect other figures in the album. For example, Loftie shows the light company officer’s cap of the 38th with a green band around the base, a silver cord and tassels, and a two-part silver plate with a crown over some sort of rayed star. Lawson’s copy for Brown adds a silver band around the top edge, while his version in Volume V of A History of the Uniforms changes cord and tassels to green and omits the plate. (The confusion passes through to the Fostens’ Thin Red Line, where the same cap – “after Loftie” – has a green cord, silver bands top and bottom and a plate with no star.)

Details, details, I hear you say. There are more important things in life to get upset about, and so there are, and no doubt uniformology is not an exact science. But how inexact can we afford to be?

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