Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Wreck of the Centaur, 1784 and 1796

Today's post is in collaboration with British Tars: 1740-1790, and takes a closer look at the painting "Portraits Painted from Life, Representing Capt Englefield with Eleven of his Crew, 1784". The background for this painting is explained in this post at British Tars; in summary, it concerns the loss of the British ship Centaur in a massive hurricane in 1782.

The original painting was done in 1784, but is currently lost. Almost all of the original prints date to 1796, with the only exception being a sketch of the original gallery space in which it hung.
West Wall, The Great Room, Somerset House,
the main space of the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, 1784,
Edward Francis Burney, 1784, British Museum.
Since the surviving prints date from the 1790s I'll be taking a look at the print and the clothing the sailors are wearing, with the added caution that the prints are based on a painting done in the 1780s, so using the prints as a resource for sailor's clothing in the 1790s is a questionable endeavor. But that's one of the most exciting things about using artistic resources for studying costume: peeling away the layers of intervening interpretation to better understand the artist's intention and what's being portrayed.

Here's a detail of a sketch of the original painting, as it hung in an exhibition hall in 1784. Click to enlarge:

Below is a print made of the now-lost painting in 1784. The engraving notes that "the size of the picture is 12 feet by 8 feet 5 inches" - quite sizable.
Portraits of the Officers and Men who were preserv'd from the
Wreck of the Centaur
Etching. T. Gaugain, London, 1784.
British Museum
Finally, here is a colored aquatint from 1796, which shows little variation from either the 1784 sketch or the 1784 engraving:
Portraits of the Officers and Men who were preserv'd from
the Wreck of the Centaur
Hand-colored aquatint. T. Philips, London, 1796.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
As the 1796 print has few substantial variations in the common sailors' clothing from the earlier prints, it is unlikely that the sailor's clothing was updated to reflect any changes in the perception of the engraver of sailor's clothing.

The sailors' clothing looks quite similar to the styles from the early 1790s that I am more familiar with: short hair, baggy white trousers, and shirts with narrow-banded cuffs. The standing sailor wears his blue jacket with a shirt underneath and no waistcoat, while another man wears a white shirt with no waistcoat, letting us see his finely-pleated shoulders. A blue neck-cloth flutters at the neck of a man in the background of the 1796 aquatint. In both editions the sailor mounted on the bow of the boat has a red jacket with a broad turned-down collar and large blue neck-cloth loosely tied around his neck.

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