There are three naval uniforms in a case in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich that were of special interest to me as I considered the style of the piece I would make. That is, once I had realised the importance of the navy in British warfare, particularly toward the end of the century preceding the Regency, under Nelson (see: https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/nelson-leader)
nb. there is a fabulous painting by Turner (The Battle of Trafalgar from 1805) displayed in its own separate room on the ground floor of the museum, with a fascinating soundtrack about this period. Please see: https://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/we-recommend/attractions/turners-battle-trafalgar-gallery
Originally I'd expected I would make an army uniform inspired by those worn by a British regiment at the start of the nineteenth century. Then I met three naval re-enactors as I showed my work in progress at an open day at The Regency Town House and we got chatting.
They converted me, the importance of the sea began to seem undeniable and the National Maritime Museum appeared the obvious place to continue my investigation.
In the image below you can see the three uniforms: a lieutenants dress and waist coat from about 1748; a captain's full dress coat from 1774; an admiral's full dress coat from late 18th, early 19th Century. They stand with instruments of their profession and rank and seem so apparently sure of themselves. The admiral's dress coat I would come to think of as especially interesting, not simply because of the date of it but also because my research would finally isolate an admiral of special interest to me personally, as I will detail shortly.
I went also to see similar examples which the museum holds in store at a separate site nearby. I’m not allowed to publish any of the photos I took at the storage unit but I can include these links to the garments I saw, including (the last one) to the outfit which after months of internal debate I would settle upon as the primary inspiration for the particular style of the outfit I would make:
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As I began I found that Wikipedia helpfully lists the naval ranks as they were at the time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Navy_ranks,_rates,_and_uniforms_of_the_18th_and_19th_centuries
Life in the navy, certainly at the end of the eighteenth century, was no picnic: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/life_at_sea_01.shtml
And this article is interesting: http://allempires.com/article/index.php?q=english_navy_1649-1815
It is mentioned in one of the collection of letters held by The Regency Town House, Brighton (see: http://www.rth.org.uk/collections/bevan/death) that the young son (aged maybe 12-13) of one of the families writing is at sea and in fact dies there. This had struck me whilst reading through them, so I was interested to know more about the practise of sending young boys to sea. There's information about this on the walls at The National Maritime Museum. Or please see: https://www.cnrs-scrn.org/northern_mariner/vol14/tnm_14_4_11-24.pdf
Working toward creating my own jacket I started out by sketching one of the jackets I'd seen in the museum store, though it wouldn't be the jacket I finally settled on in order to shape the piece I made.
I then began early experiments (above) making gold naval trim, which seemed clumsy at best.
Thankfully in the end (below) I discovered that a combination of gold and navy tissue paper, navy blue paper tablecloth (kindly donated by Duni) and masses of gold Madeira embroidery thread plus various styles of stitches would give me the look I wanted.
For more images please scroll right
For more images please scroll right
Looking for the anchor symbol is the key to recognising a naval button so it seems - produced here using quilling paper, card, Japanese mizuhiki paper chord, gold paint and varnish.
Button credit Gilly Burton
I turned to mizuhiki chord and over stitching to make the button hooks.
The buttons on the waistcoat were made of white quilling paper with gold edging, simply coiled.
Please click on each image to enlarge
I debated long and hard about whether to produce breeches or to just show a frockcoat and waistcoat combination. In the end I found a mannequin with a slimmer body shape than the one I had begun using and this one had thighs which couldn't be left bare so that made the decision for me.
I'd seen breeches at Worthing Museum of the sort I then saw at the National Maritime Museum store, during the first museum visit I made for this project as part of The Hidden Wardrobe research. In order to get the appearance right I turned again to a paper tablecloth this time folding, cutting and stitching, then gathering, pinning and fitting. I had to extend the thighs of the mannequin slightly, down to the knee which I did by making a paper pocket and stuffing it with screwed up cut-offs.
How the breeches began
Right at the end of the making process I did look at examples of actual patterns of frockcoats but by then they served only to prove the decisions I had had to take according to the logic of dividing such a garment up such that in segments it fits a male mannequin. It was nice to see that this was the way it is indeed done by costumiers and manufacturers. As a rule however I don't look at patterns rather at finished items, making them then by eye.
This piece is a work of fine art rather than an item of clothing, as are all the pieces I make. I am not a fashion designer or a costumier. I do not make pieces to be worn and am not interested in making a direct copy of a garment for the sake of it. My medium is not fabric it is paper and my aim is to interpret, incorporate, collage and sculpt. Thus the decoration of this uniform would not be merely gold trim and buttons with anchors on them, rather it would be words, impressions and images that would represent real experiences and the feelings of two real sailors.
My research did not present any direct connection between The Regency Town House and the navy beyond the young boy who died at sea, whom I've mentioned above. Following the example of one of the volunteer researchers who works at the house however (as well as hearing a radio 4 reading of a book about mud larking along the edge of the river Thames) my research methods and sources did change and expand during the making of this piece; or perhaps they came full circle. Because I found my way back to my own heritage and I ended up searching for real sailors from the Regency era who were called Smart.
I was looking for a personal ancestral link, I was looking for a Smart sailor; and I started to find documents accordingly, I found the wills of sailors, for example: Peter Smart (also my father's name) from 1794...
And of William Snowhill Alias William Smart from 1818.
Then I found this page from the records kept by a Captain Robert Smart and it was Robert whom I was able best to follow up on.
This is his Obituary:
"14 September 1874 - We have to record the death of Admiral Sir Robert Smart, K.C.B., K.H., which occurred at his seat, Rothbury-house, Chiswick, on the 10th inst. The deceased was the third son of the late Mr. John Smart, of Trewhitt house, Northumberland, and was born in 1796. He entered the Navy in 1810, on board the Adamant, 50, flagship of Rear-Admiral Otway, on the Leith station, and, after serving in the Plover, Rifleman, and Pique, assisted in the Glasgow at the bombardment of Algiers. In 1820, while serving in the Glasgow in the Mediterranean, he was nominated Acting-Lieut. of the Scout, 18, and was soon afterwards confirmed into the same ship. In 1827, while attached to the Cambrian, 48, he fought at the battle of Navarino. In 1828 he was promoted to Commander and in 1832 was appointed to the Satellite, and in her made prize of two slavers, one of them laden with 577 negroes. He was posted in 1837; commanded the Impregnable, 104, and Howe, 120, in the Mediterranean from 1841 to 1843; and the Collingwood, 80, in the Pacific from 1844 until 1848. From 1849 until the close of 1852, he commanded the Indefatigable, 50, in the Mediterranean. He was next for a short time Captain-Superintendent at Woolwich,and was Superintendent of Pembroke Dockyard from 1854 until advanced to Flag rank in 1857. He commanded the Channel Squadron from January, 1861, till April, 1863,and was Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean from the latter date until April, 1860. Sir Robert had been in receipt of a Flag officers good-service pension since January, 1869. An Admiral's good-service pension is placed at the disposal of the First Lord of the Admiralty by his death."
Please see these sites for his biography
And here for a full article detailing his lineage beginning in 1397
Because he would make Admiral and indeed be made a Sir details of his life can be found on Wikipedia:
Also there is listed the ranks he made and his awards:
11 September 1820 lieutenant - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lieutenant
21 April 1828 Commander
10 January 1837 Captain
9 July 1857 Rear-Admiral
3 December 1863 Vice-Admiral
15 January 1869 Admiral
1 April 1870 Retired Admiral
Coincidentally he was awarded two of the awards whose medals were inspiring the design of the Ball gown simultaneously to my researching this piece.
Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Guelphic_Order
Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Bath
So it was that my naval frockcoat and uniform became attributed to Sir Robert Smart and yet nothing I'd found by that stage had inspired me as regards how to directly reproduce his thoughts, experiences, life onto the piece.
I'd begun my work with paper textiles wanting to display people's inner thoughts and impressions on their outer garments, how was I to understand fully the experiences of any sailor from that time, let alone a particular one called Robert?
In the end it was a contact I'd made at the National Maritime Museum who directed my thinking. They told me of a diary, held in their library, written by one Thomas Maisie during a voyage he was part of, on a boat captained by Sir Robert Smart! It's true the diary wasn't written by Robert himself but this, I surmised, was as close as I could realistically get to understanding his experiences, by reading of life aboard a ship under his command. Another research visit with many photos taken and I had my material, the more intimate thoughts and jottings of a real sailor. Didn't I?
I was thrown off course briefly when I first saw the text; left momentarily wondering at what I had found. Certainly I hadn't been completely sure what to expect. In the end I was handed a hard backed book, 175 pages long, full of descriptions of (for the most part) the weather!
I’d thought I was looking for references to Robert Smart, something that would give me an insight into his particular thoughts or what he was like as a captain at least. But here were repetitive daily descriptions of its being fine or squally.
It was on the drive home that day however that I realised my mistake, in doubting it's appropriateness as regards what I'd been hoping for. For, in fact and of course, the weather must have been every sailors primary preoccupation, whatever their rank, it would have dictated their responses to the day, it would have coloured their experience on board.
Quickly then I realised I’d been given a document that in great detail laid out for me not only the environmental atmosphere but the likely emotional atmosphere of all of those on board. Sunny days would surely have brightened their mood and the opposite must have been equally true. Emotional weather was what I held in my hands and could copy onto the surface of the frockcoat I was envisaging Robert have worn.
It wasn't until I was dozens of pages in that I started to come across beautiful tiny illustrations, of ships and of land (horizons). I’d imagined that the type of concertina sketchbook I use today was a modern invention but into his diary in 1833 Massie had stuck long strips of paper then folded them out and in again to draw the length of the edges of the countries they visited. He’d coloured the gentle hills of each new horizon in pale inks, shading his various impressions of these changes to the flat calm of the otherwise ocean only edges of his sight line. This then, somehow, would be the decoration edging Robert's breeches and the tiny, gorgeous, well observed ships he'd skilfully drawn likewise in shades of red, brown and black ink would be the miniature that would draw an observer's eye to the surface of my piece.
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I photocopied my photos of the text from the book and used coloured Saral transfer paper from Great Art to reproduce the text on his back.
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Then similarly onto his breeches, waistcoat and the lining of his frock coat I traced, transferred or copied.
And when the piece was finished I was thrilled with the kinship between the look of the sketching and writing on the surface of Roberts' clothes and the appearance of tattoos on the skin. After all there is a well established link between tattoos and sailors. Please see:
I kept looking back at the original and particular uniform I'd been most inspired by of course (every individual frockcoat is otherwise slightly different), please see: https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/71341.html
to see the epaulettes my figure therefore needed. The image on the right above shows the right shoulder of one of those three on public view at the National Maritime museum that I mentioned at the start of this post.
Mine would be made from layers of card, the wire coils made of gold mizuhiki (Japanese rice paper) chords.
The exhibition of The Regency Wardrobe collection has been postponed due to Coronavirus as soon as the collection has been shown more images (with titles dimensions etc) of all the pieces will be made visible on stephaniesmart.net
This project is being supported by:
Arts Council England, The Textile Society and Great Art