I’m reading Jane Kamensky’s “A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley,” and just 56 pages in, I’m annoyed.
Writing about Copley’s success at painting military officers during the 7 Years War, currently at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, though not online, Kamensky says of the 1755 portrait of Joshua Winslow:
“Hanging in his quarters at Fort Lawrence, Winslow’s portrait in uniform would have served as a subtle reminder of his valuable connections. Copley’s three-quarter-length portrait lavishes attention on the young officer’s silver lace and pulsing red coat, a uniform more elaborate than the one he likely wore. The painter seemingly delights in the play of light upon shining surfaces, from the buff-colored sateen pulled taut across Winslow’s ample waist to the golden braid and tassel dangling from his silver-hilted sword.” (pp 56-57; emphasis added.)I missed that bit about sateen last night when I read this aloud to Drunk Tailor, so let’s roll back to the part that first set me off: the young officer’s silver lace and pulsing red coat, a uniform more elaborate than the one he likely wore.
Here’s the 1760-65 uniform of the 1st Royal Lancashire Militia as worn by Captain Thomas Plumbe. “The oldest, most complete, British army uniform in the world, similar to the pattern worn at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and in the Wars of American Independence.”
Granted, Plumbe’s uniform is later than Winslow’s portrait, and Plumbe was a Captain and Winslow a Lieutenant, but the difference between them is rather less than, say, a private and a captain. Why does Kamensky assume that Winslow’s uniform is not the one he wore? Is it the lace? Winslow held a commission, and served as paymaster and commissary, roles Kamensky describes as “relatively modest.” Yes, Lieutenant isn’t Colonel; it’s the baby of officers, but it’s still commissioned officer and reasonably responsible (and, one might imagine, relatively remunerative if one was hooked into the Boston mercantile network). And uniforms were ornamented with tape, in gold, silver, or wool– see below, in Morier’s painting of two privates. (I further wonder whether it’s reasonable to describe a portrait of 50″ x 40″ as subtle, but perhaps it was placed in an enormous room.)From Winslow, Kamensky moves to Brattle. “As his personal, military, and commercial fortunes rose in tandem, Brattle commissioned Copley to portray him in a fanciful uniform nearly identical to the one in Joshua Winslow.” (p 58 emphasis added) Fanciful? Fancy to our eyes, yes. Fanciful, no. Brattle was eventually a Major-General, so the uniform portrayed here, when he was likely a captain (same rank as Plumbe), seems pretty reasonable. If we were considering replicating a Massachusetts officer’s uniform ca 1755, we would consider Brattle and Winslow’s biographies and ranks, compare the two portraits of two men, probably both captains at this time, and, cross-referenced with Plumbe’s amazingly extant uniform and the 1751 warrant, begin to form an opinion that we would be making a coat in scarlet superfine broadcloth faced with buff, with buff small clothes, gold tape, and domed buttons. (Sateen is a weave structure, and wool sateen was not used in military uniforms.)
But that’s now how Kamensky is approaching this, of course, and why would she? She’s a historian, not a curator, material culture person, or a reenactor. Why does she assert that the uniforms worn by Winslow and Brattle are fanciful, and “more elaborate” than what they wore– without a footnote to back that assertion? And why does she then describe Major George Scott’s portrait “as the meticulously rendered uniform of his parent regiment, The Fortieth Foot” in contrast to “the fanciful, half-imagined costumes of Winslow and Brattle”? (p 58)The sitters’ biographies are footnoted, but nothing appears in the notes about the uniforms. Kamensky makes a great leap to the “fanciful,” which I find curious, considering that most male portraits are rendered carefully if flatteringly, and many female portraits are made for the male gaze, and are more likely to be “fanciful” or “fancy dress.” We are fortunate to have the David Morier image of a grenadier of the 40th to compare with the slightly later Scott portrait; I like the grenadier’s belly box, which appears on the left of Scott’s portrait and is described by Kamensky as “”tricked out for foul-weather fighting.” (p 59) Did I miss something? Were belly boxes and cartridge boxes once flap-free? I stumble over “tricked out,” too, which seemed to betray a particular lack of interest in understanding what Copley was portraying.
I find myself wondering how it is that historians and art historians can write so confidently about images without understanding the material depicted. It’s as if they are all context and no content, while many reenactors/costumers favor content over context. In any case, having encountered these speed bumps in the book, I’ll certainly be reading it with a dose of skepticism when portraits are dissected.Edited to add: Drunk Tailor reminded me after I posted this that the NMAH possesses an actual officer’s waistcoat from the 1750s. Here’s the General History note in the online exhibit: “In 1755, the officers of the Virginia Regiment received orders from Washington to provide themselves with a “Suit of Regimentals” of good blue cloth. The coat was to be faced and cuffed in scarlet and trimmed with silver; they were to wear blue wool breeches and a scarlet wool waistcoat with silver lace.”
Scarlet wool waistcoat with silver lace. Sure does resonate with those portraits of Winslow and Brattle, and makes me all the more uncomfortable Kamensky’s assertions of “fanciful” depictions.