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Highs and lows: an unusual officer’s jacket

As a National Trust member I’m generally approving, though (as they say) with reservations. I’m not sure about some of the narratives the NT spins to brand its stately homes, especially the way those narratives can sit light to the sources of the wealth and power that built the estates – slavery and land clearances for a start. But then again, the NT does have some real treasures in its custody.

On a visit to Eyam Hall in Derbyshire last summer, I stumbled across an unexpected gem: wrapped in clear plastic and lying in a drawer was the rather beautiful jacket of Captain Peter Wright of the Eyam company of the South Battalion of High Peak Volunteers. This battalion – like its Northern counterpart – was an 1805 amalgamation of disparate, far flung, rural companies raised two years earlier, so the jacket has to date to 1805-08. At first glance it looked predictable enough: scarlet with the yellow facings of Derbyshire, no lace, small gilt buttons (crown over script “HPV”), white edging and one gilt epaulette for a captain. But even without permission to move or unwrap the jacket, I could see that it was, unusually, single breasted, with no lapels. Accompanying it was a rather stagey tricorne hat which, contrary to the optimistic labelling of the exhibit, clearly had zero to do with the jacket. [Click images below for enlarged slides.]

I took some fairly useless snaps with my phone and trotted off to have a word with a member of staff. The volunteer attendant I buttonholed seemed sceptical about my revelation concerning the impostor hat, and, overall, politely indifferent. Later, I wrote to request a proper viewing, quoting my NT membership number, but never had a reply, just as I’ve never had a reply from Powis Castle about the yeomanry standards they have in storage. Well, people are busy and resources are tight, I suppose. But a bit of a low peak, all the same.

Fortunately, I find that in 2014 John Alleston documented the jacket in the Bulletin of the Military Historical Society. His pukka photos show two buttons at the rear waist, with four on each slash pocket flap, white edging on flaps and skirts, and white turnbacks without any ornaments at the points. The epaulette bears a bullion crown over script “HPV”, while the crescent, though this isn’t stated, looks to be edged with yellow cloth. (The crown on this epaulette is confusing, crowns being also the later mark of a lieutenant colonel’s two epaulettes, but here the crown is a part of a battalion distinction with the initials beneath, repeating the design of the buttons.)

Even allowing for the inclination of volunteer corps to dress their other ranks in superior grades of clothing, this doesn’t seem to be a private’s jacket, and there are no light company indications. It must surely be an undress garment, worn as an alternative to the officer’s coat? Or were the battalion’s officers universally in jackets for dress? Whatever the case, it’s a fine little item. By the way, don’t go looking for it among the nearly one million items on the National Trust Collections site; it isn’t there.

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An unremembered loss

As it’s Remembrance Sunday, here’s an image from the Anne S K Brown collection that rather startled me while browsing. This unsigned watercolour is attributed to Robert Dighton junior, and certainly has the look of his style. The collection’s cataloguer has tagged it as a staff officer in undress uniform circa 1805, which may or may not be right; at any rate, we no longer know who he was.

Dighton junior is better known for the light cavalry officers whose dandyism he details with almost homoerotic enthusiasm, but here the elegant white pantaloons terminate in an artificial leg whose inelegant form insults its living partner. Military images of the period avoid showing dismemberment; the dead and dying tend to fall gracefully and unbloodied, often in classical positions. Dighton’s matter-of-fact portrait is unusual. One wonders how an officer missing half a leg managed to continue in service, unless in an invalid battalion, but the alternative, I suppose, would have been the misery of half-pay.

It would be better if the world had found a way to enjoy the dandyism and avoid the dismemberment, but so far it hasn’t, and that’s a fact. In the final analysis, there’s nothing good about war.


More light company style

Some posts back – here’s a link – I dug out my vintage sketch of the multi-buttoned jacket of Captain John Brown of the Sheffield Local Militia post 1808, at one time (still??) in the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, and compared that little known item with the Royal Collection’s much more familiar Dighton painting of a light infantry officer of the South Gloucestershire Militia circa 1804. Here’s something similar, just because I like it – the light infantry style jacket of Captain John Cornock of the Berkeley Volunteers of Gloucestershire, post 1803. The zig zag wings are styled like the militia jacket, but this garment is double breasted, with two rows of buttons only, so a tad short of the full “cavalry” effect.

The jacket is on show in the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum at Gloucester Docks, where I snapped it recently – well worth a visit, with a good smattering of stuff from other Napoleonic period auxiliary units of the county. Curiously, the jacket is currently on show buttoned in reverse, while on the Museum’s website it’s been shown buttoned correctly, and with a triangle of the inside facing colour thrown open on the lapel. (At present, getting up images on the Museum’s site seems problematic, but that may just be me.)

The jacket has white cord trim throughout. The braid and fringe on the wings looks silverish now, but I’m assuming it’s gold, given the gilt buttons, which show “ByV” in intertwined script. The cuffs are split at the rear, and it’s interesting to see how the lower edges of the sloping false pockets are lined up with the turnbacks, which are in the facing colour, with a tiny loop of cord at the point. The pictures should make things clear – click to enlarge – but please excuse the reflections from the display case. A great item.

A complementary full tailed coat in orthodox style with buttons in pairs, also Cornock’s, is also held by the Museum, but is not on display. The two garments were documented way back in JSAHR Vol XXXIX.